There is a lot of critical weight attached to a Wong Kar-Wai picture. Like all auteurs, Wong has, over the last three decades, crafted a public persona that has put the man front and center whenever one of his films is released. For fans, his films are visually stunning and introspective, about two people suffering from a terminal case of unrequited love. For detractors, his films are slow, pretentious, but visually stunning pictures about pretty people with conflated problems. His latest picture, after his underwhelming American film My Blueberry Nights six years ago, continues his longstanding obsession with amour fou, but with over a decade since his last major masterpiece, In the Mood for Love (2000), the man’s visual style and penchant for non-linear storytelling has matured and been incorporated into several mainstream critical hits since then.
With his latest picture, The Grandmaster (2013), Wong delves back into the wuxia genre and tackles a very popular real life figure, the Chinese martial artist Yip Kai-man, or as he is known by many Ip Man. For those with a passing interest in Hong Kong cinema, the story of Ip Man has become rote due to the seemingly never-ending run of biopics about the man in recent years, the most famous being the eponymously titled Ip Man and Ip Man 2 released in 2008 and 2010 respectively and starring Hong Kong megastar Donnie Yen. With the man’s trials, tribulations, and achievements already well known to the public-at-large, Wong forgoes textbook historical accuracy and focuses his film on trying to illustrate exactly what it is to be a grandmaster.
In basic linguistic terms, a grandmaster is a teacher who has honed their craft for several decades and amassed not only a technical mastery of their art but also a particular philosophical viewpoint. Thus, the title of grandmaster takes on both a religious as well educational meaning. In Wong’s film, unlike previous adaptations of the Ip Man story, we are inundated with an ensemble cast of grandmasters, each with their own unique specialties, back stories, and personalities. They oftentimes overtake the frame and engulf Ip Man, though not in a threatening way. They operate more like a Greek Chorus, interacting with Ip Man, guiding him along on his journey, but never interfering with his fate. As is true of most Wong Kar-Wai pictures, the conflict is not centered on a protagonist having to defeat a flesh and blood character or a nefarious organization. Instead, the best online casino major conflict between Ip Man and all the other grandmasters in the picture is their own mortality.
Though The Grandmaster is set in a more fantastic universe with balletic fight choreography and pseudo-mysticism, it is still grounded in reality, specifically the early 19th century in China at the cusp of revolution as it is invaded first by the Japanese and then by the Communists. Wong’s Ip Man, played by his muse Tony Leung, must contend with wartime rationing, protecting his family, contending with gung-ho fighters, and also his own emotions. Ironically, although the earlier Ip Man films are rooted in realism and go out of their way to follow history to the letter, Donnie Yen’s Ip Man is far more one dimensional, more of a symbol than flesh and blood character, compared to Tony Leung’s laconic interpretation of the man. Though Leung is pushed to the background for a large chunk of the film’s runtime, the scenes with Leung do allow us some idea of who this man might be, a credit which must be given to Wong’s skills penning the poetic monologues which Leung beautifully reads in voiceover.
During these readings, in-between the pregnant pauses and spoken lines, is a very real man trying to make sense of everything around him and the feelings he has for a mysterious woman played by Zhang Ziyi. Seemingly replaying their relationship from 2046 (2004), Zhang and Leung dance around their feelings for one another. Like the couples in Wong’s earlier films, Leung and Zhang are from the start fated to be apart but that does not stop either of them from playing the role of tragic lovers. While watching The Grandmaster, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe all the couples in Wong’s films aren’t perhaps the same lovers reincarnated in different bodies and time periods but still forced to reenact their doomed romance.
The closest thing there is to a traditional wuxia conflict in the film is between Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) and Ma San (Zhang Jin). Set up as a battle between a vengeful daughter and her father’s wayward disciple, Wong takes a page out of the Sergio Leone and John Woo playbook by presenting the fight as a series of close ups on body parts in languid slow motion. Of course, because of Wong’s interest in non-linear storytelling, we already know who wins, but the stakes are far higher than life or death. With this match, as in every match fought in this film, what is at stake are the martial arts themselves.
A grandmaster’s defeat irrevocably means his style of fighting has run its course. This “there can be only one” mentality means that there is only a finite number of true grandmasters and as the old ways are paved over to make way for the modern world of trains and bombs the martial arts themselves have become a pale shadow of themselves. Whereas the grandmasters of an earlier time smoke, drank, and conversed in posh brothels the postwar era has reduced many to drinking cheap booze and smoking filthy cigarettes in makeshift shacks. In a decade, their skills will be used to train actors and entertainers, not warriors or philosophers.
The Grandmaster continues Wong’s obsession with mythologizing and eulogizing China during the postwar era. Neither a bold new step in the man’s oeuvre or an unimaginative retread of past projects, the film will absolutely polarize action film fans looking for kinetic brawls. However, Wong has never been about pleasing his audience and for disciples of his work, The Grandmaster will be a film watched, quoted, and pored over for decades to come.