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Wong Kar-wai's kung fu biopic is an epic fail

Successful as neither an action film nor a love story, The Grandmaster substitutes style for saying something.

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Truth be told, I was skeptical going in to The Grandmaster, Wong Kar-wai's long-gestating biopic about famed martial arts teacher Ip Man (1893-1972). The movie had been described as a kung fu picture and a historical epic—genres that Wong, for all his filmmaking genius, didn't seem particularly suited to. As demonstrated by such touchstones as Chungking Express (1994) and In the Mood for Love (2000), the Hong Kong director's greatness lies in his ability to capture moments and sensations that most filmmakers overlook. His movies proceed through the accumulation of details that are emotionally rich but difficult to describe, giving his work the quality of extended reminiscences or daydreams. Wong achieves this effect through a unique improvisatory process, in which he begins each film with only a rough idea of its story, writes and shoots as many scenes as he can during production, then assembles the narrative in editing. "He shoots enough for about 20 movies," Tony Leung, his frequent leading man, jokingly told the audience at the preview screening of Grandmaster I attended. "No one knows what the movie will look like until it's finished."

This method seems at odds with the nature of most historical epics, which rest upon a concrete set of facts, and with martial arts movies, which proceed through fluid, straight-ahead action. Indeed, I was underwhelmed by most of the action sequences in The Grandmaster, as Wong edits them just like his scenes of introspective drama. They feel rhythmless, bogged down with close-ups of feet and pretentious slow-motion shots. Wong treats the various kung fu poses like fetish objects, evoking a sense of fluid motion only rarely. This is especially disappointing seeing as the great Yuen Woo-ping (whose credits include Drunken Master, Once Upon a Time in China, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) served as the movie's action coordinator. Much of his contribution seems to have been lost in the shuffle.

I don't find The Grandmaster very satisfying as a historical epic either, but that seems like an unfair criticism. Though several major historic events factor into the narrative—like the Sino-Japanese War and China shutting its border with Hong Kong in the early 50s—they serve mainly as background to the more intimate stories of Ip (Leung) and fellow martial artists Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) and Ma San (Zhang Jin). In brief, the movie centers on Ip's rise as a martial arts master between the mid-1920s, when he first achieves prominence in the southern Chinese city of Foshan, and the early 1950s, when he sets up his own martial arts school in Hong Kong, where he moves after World War II. No matter what's going on in the world around him, Ip stays cool, focused above all else on mastering his art.

The film makes it clear that Ip's self-effacing discipline is what allows him to prosper, using the stories of Gong Er and Ma San as counterpoints. Gong, the daughter of a northern Chinese grandmaster, is obsessed from the start with preserving the honor of her family's legacy. After her father challenges Ip to a fight and loses—thus paving the way for Ip's ascendancy in kung fu—Gong Er demands to fight Ip herself. Their duel is one of the movie's most sensuous passages, hinting at feelings of romantic attraction through Yuen's sensuous fight choreography. Gong Er admits to having feelings for Ip close to the end of The Grandmaster, but her confession comes too late. By then, she has lived for more than ten years in quiet resignation after taking vengeance on Ma San, her father's hotheaded disciple. Ma had broken her father's trust by collaborating with the Japanese during their occupation of China; when the grandmaster disowned him for this, Ma killed him in cold blood. Ma San's desire for personal power proves just as detrimental as Gong Er's obsession with honor, and in the end the two cancel each other out.

It wasn't until I watched The Grandmaster for a third time that I was able to make sense of the plot—on the first two viewings, I struggled just to find my bearings. This may be because the movie flirts with being a history lesson and an unrequited love story, but doesn't really follow through with either. It's full of red herrings, so to speak, leading the viewer to expect something epic when it's really focused on the internal desires of a few people. While I find this narrative structure fascinating in theory, I'm not sure if Wong pulls it off. Maybe it's because he didn't shoot the movie according to any organizing design that none of the scenes, barring the martial arts fights, feels more significant than any other. Everything is sumptuous and suggestive, minor and major details alike. When I finally figured out what was going on, I found much of the stylization superfluous.

The Grandmaster is opening in the U.S. in a 108-minute version, which is roughly 20 minutes shorter than the one released in China earlier this year. (The latter is currently available on region-free BluRay; I found a copy on eBay for about $10.) Wong claims to have made certain changes to the film—most notably, deleting much of Gong Er's subplot and adding intertitles that identify historical people and events—to streamline the history for American viewers, who may be less familiar with it. If anything, these changes only render The Grandmaster more confusing, since they make the movie more closely resemble the sort of period epic it clearly doesn't want to be.

Some critics have complained that the U.S. cut of The Grandmaster represents a travesty of Wong's original vision. I prefer the Chinese version myself, but I experience the same frustrations with both. I think it comes down to the fact that I don't consider Ip Man to be a very interesting character—and I'm not sure if Wong does either. Ip's main goal in life is to master kung fu, which he does. He may lose his children and family fortune during World War II, but neither of these things seems to bother him much. (Also, his relationship with his wife is so perfunctory that on my first two viewings I didn't notice when she left or reentered the story.) When Ip becomes a grandmaster in exile at the movie's conclusion, I feel a sense of neither triumph nor pathos.

In many of his films Wong has dealt with characters who are introspective, shy, or repressed, so I can understand his attraction to Ip as a subject. But where Wong's earlier films create a beautiful tension between their characters' outward reservations and internal passions, the visual beauty of The Grandmaster feels disconnected from its characters' emotional inertia. For the first time in his career, Wong's most striking qualities as a filmmaker—his elliptical storytelling, his knack for imbuing tiny moments with great significance—register as a smoke screen for having little to say.

Related Film

The Grandmaster

Director: Wong Kar-wai

Producer: Jacky Pang, Chan Ye Cheng, Megan Ellison, Ng Sze Yuen and Song Dai

Cast: Tony Chiu Wai, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Wang Qingxiang, Zhang Jin, Zhao Benshan and Song-Hye Kyo

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