The Grandmaster(2013)

The Grandmaster(2013)

Dir: Wong Kar Wai

Tony Leung as Ip Man, the portrait of a kung fu master as a gentleman.

Tony Leung as Ip Man, the portrait of a kung fu master as a gentleman.

What a beautiful film this is, there is not a single shot that does not ravish your senses.This is a Wong Kar Wai film about Ip Man, the almost mythical kung fu master who taught Bruce Lee for some time. Films on Ip Man have become a mini cottage industry but Wong Kar Wai looks at not just Ip but the culture that he grew up in and its stalwarts.Every once in a while a kung fu film breaks out of its confines of core Asian patronage and garners a worldwide fan following. Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yamou’s The Hero became an international sensations,The Grandmaster should join that small list.

The Grandmaster has been in the making for more than 12 years and is Wong Kar Wai’s labour of love.Here he collaborates with his favourite Tony Leung and castes him, rather improbably, as a kung fu master.The film looks at his early years till he set up his martial arts school in Hong Kong.We see him as a boy enrolling at a kung fu school  in Foshan,China and become the last student of a legendary teacher. He gets his shot at fame when a famous grandmaster from north, Gong Yotian, who is retiring, comes south and wants to appoint a successor who will carry his tradition forward and integrate the north and south schools.The southerners choose Ip as their man but he must prove his mettle in front of the old master.They face off in an encounter that is all choreography and zero fighting.Ip man passes the acid test of being a man of ideas and not just skill.This is a wonderful scene which sets the tone that this will not be another action packed martial arts film.

Gong Er fights to honour her fathers name.

Gong Er fights to honour her fathers name.

The grandmasters daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi, in her last martial arts film!)has come with him and she has  her own way of looking at things.She is hot blooded with a mind of her own and a unique penchant for interpreting her fathers words to drive her individuality.She challenges Ip to a dual and this sets up another amazing scene.They fight but it might as well be lovemaking.They float up in the air and circle each other like dancers more than fierce combatants.The memory of this dual will remain with them for a long time and Wong will show it to us again, this time with their noses brushing lightly.They part with great respect for each other.

Some of these scenes are staged in opulent gilded bordello’s with elaborate opera performances. Ip’s wife loves opera and he takes her to a bordello, and when Gong comes to meet her father and see his fight with Ip she asks him in wonder “Are you really going to take your daughter to a bordello?”He replies like the wise old master that he is.The winds of change in Chinese society were blowing long before the revolution.

The film follows the story of Gong and Ip as they go their separate ways. Both  are challenged by life and face up to them in unique ways by digging into their roots of being disciplined kung fu students. Gong  symbolizes female progress in a patriarchal society  as well as  the tragedy of eternal loss of knowledge because she vows never to teach her art after her father is betrayed by his protégée. This film was originally 4 hours long and Wong sacrifices a lot of detail to distill it into its current 130 mins length.As a result some strands of the narrative suffer, but each scene is so well constructed that we are willing to just soak in the atmosphere.

The master and his students, Bruce Lee was one of them.

The master and his students, Bruce Lee was one of them.

This is undoubtedly a new kind of martial arts film, that looks closely at the “art” part of martial art, something that has its roots in Confucius’s way of ancient Chinese life. Wong is more interested in the roots of kung fu and its place in Chinese history, especially in the first half of the 20th century when China underwent an overwhelming political and social change.While Wong’s characters yearn for each other he perhaps yearns for a Chinese way of life that has been lost in the relentless pursuit of economic prosperity. Xi Fei’s great film Woman of the Scented Lake also captured this change in Chinese society by using an ambitious rural businesswoman as its lens.

The cinematography is sublime, each shot dazzles us with its perfection.The way Phillipe le Sourd photographs portraits is interesting, using very shallow focus with most of the screen dark.This builds a special intimacy with the characters and serves as a window into their noble souls.The background music is another Wong trademark and in this film too it amplifies and underscores the action with great sophistication. Shigeru Umebayashi is in good form here but he does not have the opportunities of In the Mood for Love kind of grandstanding.The Grandmaster is a film for every lover of cinema, not just for martial arts aficionados, and its a great way to discover the work of a Grandmaster of cinema who inspired the likes of Tarantino.Every artist is also a philosopher and so are Wong and Ip Man.

#The Grandmaster is currently playing in Singapore.



Categories: World Cinema

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1 reply

  1. I completely agree! While I get easily get tired of visual antics of, say, Yimou Zhang (I mean, his latest output) this film had me riveted from beginning to end. Yes, the story itself seems disjointed at times but it more than makes up for that in it’s dazzling presentation. That is not to say that the rest is disappointing – I found it moving and it’s characters intriguing but there are several strands here which could have been better developed. I hope Wong releases the 4-hour cut!

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