Friday, December 5, 2014

'The Grandmaster' (2013) directed by Wong Kar Wai

If you go into The Grandmaster expecting wall-to-wall kung fu madness you're going to be bored to tears.  If you're into Wong Kar Wai's woozily romantic arthouse aesthetics then you're going to be happier, though the acrobatic violent beatdowns might not be your cup of tea.  A period kung fu film certainly marks a departure from Wong Kar Wai's usual oeuvre, sending him far away from pop-infused handheld neon towards candlelit, burnished golden opulence.

The titular Grandmaster is Ip Man (Tony Leung).  Famous as the man who trained Bruce Lee the film  is very loose biopic of him told through the medium of a classic Hong Kong wuxia film.  Spanning the 1930s to the early 1950s, we follow Ip Man through historical turmoil and war right up to the establishment of his school for Wing Chun and his recognition of Bruce Lee as a kid to watch.  

Jumbled in with this is the story of Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), Ip Man's sometime lover, sometime rival and out for revenge from a rival martial arts master who I think killed her Dad.  Either way she's out for revenge.  Also there's some guy with a razor blade but I'm not sure what his deal is.

Goddamn this film looks ace.
As you've probably guessed from my half-assed summary I'm not entirely sure what the plot of this film is.  It's almost wilfully confusing in how it makes constant digressions, leaps about in geography and contains long sequences where people talk in very cryptic circles. There's about half an hour of the film where Ip Man disappears completely and we head off to see what Gong Er's up to, only for him to awkwardly cut into the story right at the end.

I sensed something was up about mid-way through.  I've seen nearly all of Wong Kar Wai's films, even with his tendencies for experimental narrative you always know what's going on and who's who.  It was with little surprise that I later learned that this cut of The Grandmaster (the UK/US version) has had about half an hour excised from its original run time.  This probably explains why it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

It may be incomprehensible but at least it looks great.  As with the best of Wong Kar Wai's work there's an unusually strong rigor applied to texture.  Aesthetes will get drunk on the perfect beauty of the pitchblack wooden furniture, the way snow is kicked up by body motion, the individual raindrops trickling from Ip Man's Panama hat, even the way Ziyi Zhang's face nestles into her impossibly thick fur-collar.  

Every visual element is finely tuned to create an atmosphere of discipline and classy decadence.  The people within quickly soak up some of the grace, and the bend and creak of old wood or the huff of steam engine fill the frame with three-dimensional particulates creating a sort of architectural personality.  Even a simple conversation becomes a masterclass in style, the lens framing the actor's faces in Baroque pools of golden candlelight in a way that makes them look like living Vermeer or Caravaggio paintings.

And then everyone starts beating the crap out of each other!  With fight choreography by the Yuen Woo-Ping, violence rarely looks so coolly precise and beautiful.  Half-dance, half-fight, the opponents sinously whirl around each other, blocking, dodging and reversing each other's motions with superhuman grace and speed.  Cleverly the action direction emphasises the fighter's effects on the world around them, their blows throwing up billows of snow, splashes of rain, splintering ice and cracking wood.

Particularly astonishing is the opening salvo where Ip Man coolly dispatches tens of attackers in torrential rain.  It's elemental, directly linking his Wing Chun philosophy with the flowing water around him.  This comes a couple of minutes into the film, and for a long portion its the obvious high point.  Eventually it's topped by a simply brilliant fight/love scene between Ip Man and Gong Er.  Usually fights in martial arts are roughly analogous to dance sequences in musicals, but this is more of a sex scene as they gasp at each other's blows.  Every single bout in the film is a pleasure to watch.  There's an old school sensibility to most of these, the characters announcing their styles and moves before they clash, people touching their bloody lip in disbelief or striking one supercool pose after another.  

These fights are so cool they're almost worth the price of admission alone.  Almost.  In between I was so befuddled by what these characters were fighting for, or why certain people hated each other that it reduced them to mere aesthetic triumphs rather than emotional ones.  By the time the credits rolled all I conclusively knew about Ip Man was that he was real good at punching people and had some bizarre connection to a button.  Maybe these problems aren't present in Wong Kar Wai's original cut, maybe not.  As it stands, this particular versio of The Grandmaster is deeply attractive yet narratively stunted.


The Grandmaster is released today.

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