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The Grandmaster

By Philip Martin

This article was published August 30, 2013 at 2:18 a.m.


Ip Man (Tony Leung) assumes the position in Wong Kar-wai’s sumptuous kung fu epic The Grandmaster.

While Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster is closer in tone to an art movie, an exercise in pure cinema, than it is a chopsocky extravaganza, it might be a more commercial film than Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the wuxia fantasy from 2000 that remains the highest grossing foreign language film in U.S. history. For as ostentatiously beautiful as The Grandmaster is, it seems likely to appeal to audiences who care little for kung fu and who may never have heard of the iconic figure upon whose life it is very loosely based. It feels to me like a great epic romance, something like Doctor Zhivago (a film it eerily evokes in a couple of scenes). It feels like a blockbuster.

This is despite a certain sketchiness at the film’s heart - we learn only a little about some interesting peripheral characters, and the “romance” at the heart of the film is chaste, and much of the screen time shared by the two leads is taken up by an intricately choreographed fight scene that seems less potentially violent than an almost tender ritual of seduction. Yet there is no consummation as the principals abide to their individual codes of honor. In this aching world silk whispers and steel sings, light caresses and molds and pain is reabsorbed into the body.

The film begins in the gray rain, on a dim night in Forshan, the southern Chinese city where Ip Man (Tony Leung, Wong’s favorite leading man) was born into a prosperous family. We are drawn to him immediately, wearing his snap-brim white hat in the rain, as he fends off attacks from a dozen or so attackers who - in the convention of kung fu movies - come at him in quick succession, rather than all at once, allowing him to exhibit his mad skillz. We never learn exactly why these men have been set upon him, and maybe that’s something lost in translation - the cut that will play in U.S. theaters is some 22 minutes shorter than the Chinese version - or maybe it’s just the way the man rolls. It is 1936, and he is 40,and a master of the somewhat obscure kung fu style called “wing chun” (“beautiful bird”), which is elegant in its simplicity.

He is married with two daughters, the scion of a prosperous family whose wealth has allowed him to pursue his bliss - if there are four seasons to life, he informs us, then his first 40 years have been spring. But, as they say on Game of Thrones, “Winter is coming.”

A grandmaster from the north of China, Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang), has arrived in Foshan. He is there to celebrate his retirement and anoint a worthy successor to carry forth the kung fu tradition in the south. He has already selected a successor in the north, although he regrets that his daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi, who was introduced to international audiences in Crouching Tiger), being a girl and all, can’t take up the mantle.

Ip is nominated, though he is junior to the other southern masters, and he agrees to defend the honor of his region. But before he can face the grandmaster who will judge him, he must defeat several other masters, each of whom has expertise in a particular style. If there’s one thing Wong (Chungking Express, My Blueberry Nights, In the Mood for Love) understands,it’s style, and the recurrent question “What’s your style?” could serve as this near-masterpiece’s tag line.

It’s no spoiler to say that Ip triumphs in these preliminary bouts, but the main event turns out to be not a battle of fists and feet but of philosophy. And, after Ip seems to get the better of her father, Er feels the need to seek satisfaction. All part as friends but not before Ip is infected with the kind of inchoate longings that typically afflict Wong’s heroes - he buys a winter coat for an intended trip north to visit his the Gongs. His beautiful wife looks on stoically, but the Japanese invasion forecloses any possibility of travel. And Ip will not collaborate with the occupiers, which leads him to emigrate to Hong Kong to find work. He leaves his family behind; his daughters starve to death.

While Ip is a historical figure - most famous as Bruce Lee’s first teacher, he has been the subject of several Chinese films (most notably 2008’s Ip Man, which covers roughly the same period as this film) as well as a television series - Wong seems more interested in minting myths than understanding the man, and there are times when the whole project feels dangerously flimsy. Yet Leung and Zhang are able to infuse their somewhat underwritten characters with the suggestion of inner lives. And while we might wish that some of the peripheral characters were more rounded and realized, Wong and his cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd have delivered a feast for the senses, a riot of sound and light that operates with the gracefully wobbling logic of waking dream.

The Grandmaster 88 Cast: Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Zhao Benshan, Zhang Jin, Xiao Shenyang, Wang Qingxiang Director: Wong Kar-wai Rating: PG-13, for violence, some smoking, brief drug use and language Running time: 108 minutes In Mandarin, with English subtitles

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 08/30/2013

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