Indy Datta reviews The Grandmaster, which hits British cinemas today.
Wong Kar Wai’s first film since the misbegotten My Blueberry Nights is the latest in a slew of films and television programmes ostensibly inspired by the life of Ip Man, a martial artist and martial arts teacher primarily notable for having lived through tumultuous times (the end of the Chinese warlord era, the Sino-Japanese war, the Chinese civil war), and for teaching kung fu to the young Bruce Lee. Like the films that came before it (most notably the Donnie Yen vehicle Ip Man), The Grandmaster is not greatly beholden to biographical accuracy; where previous films have lionized Ip as a hero of Chinese nationalism, Wong takes Ip’s place in Chinese pop culture, and nostalgia for the golden age of martial arts, as a jumping off point for a rumination on a bushel of quintesessentially Wongian themes –the nostalgia of the exile, the burden of beauty, the infinite echoes of a momentary coup de foudre that can resonate through a life, and simultaneously define it and destroy it. But with kick-ass fight scenes.
This isn’t Wong’s first martial arts picture: Ashes of Time, from 1994, was a wu xia epic refracted to the point of illegibility through Wong’s always elliptical sensibility, its fight scenes (choreographed by Sammo Hung) as incomprehensible as its narrative. The Grandmaster is considerably more accessible – fight choreography this time is in the hands of Yuen Woo Ping, much of whose best-known work (at least in the West) is about storytelling more than it is about showcasing the skills of martial artists (and there’s a dose of wu xia fantasy in there as well, taking the film one step further away from any sense of blood sweat and tears realism, notwithstanding the years of martial arts training the actors endured) – and Wong stages, shoots and cuts the fights to enhance the storytelling, rather than to fight it. The film’s emotional centrepiece is a kinetic yet intensely romantic pas de deux between Ip (Tony Leung, as effortlessly great as ever) and Zhang Ziyi’s purely fictional Gong Er, the culmination of a series of fights in the Golden Pavilion a lushly appointed Foshan brothel in which Ip tests his Wing Chun style of Kung Fu against a variety of fall-guys before meeting his match in Gong Er, a moment that changes both of their lives.
The second half of the film separates the two characters, reuniting them only briefly in Hong Kong some years later – both exiled from the mainland in the communist era, he now a martial arts teacher, she a doctor hiding from her past in a cloud of opium smoke. But their reunion is not ecstatic – an era has passed and a moment with it. From here, Wong’s storytelling becomes increasingly fragmented and impressionistic, and time passes increasingly quickly. In an earlier scene, a split-second standoff between Ip and Gong Er’s father was spun out into minutes of on-screen time anticipating that instant of action; now years and decades can pass in the blink of an eye (a young Bruce Lee appears, virtually in montage, and has little to do). Any clear emotional through-line in the film is dissipated.
The version of the film that is released in the UK today is The Weinstein Company’s cut, which attempts to smooth over the narrative bumpiness with a plethora of (arguably unnecessary, certainly tonally gauche) intertitles and explanatory captions. Wong’s original Hong Kong release cut was somewhat longer, and there is a rumoured 4-hour director’s cut that may one day see the light of day. It’s fair to note that, to the extent the TWC cut is less than coherent, the blame can’t necessarily be laid at Harvey’s door –the best of Wong’s work (which The Grandmaster is not) has rarely been strong on the conventional virtues of narrative clarity.
But at its best, it’s never needed to be. In a shot inserted into The Grandmaster’s end credits, Leung breaks the fourth wall to ask the audience directly, what’s your style? It’s a sly defence from the film maker of his own credo, and the aesthetic power of his work, deriving as it does less from narrative than from the way an audience experiences the world through his image-making, from cinematography to production design to, in the case of this film, fight choreography. Like a Kung Fu master of cinema, Wong speaks through his protagonist and his star to assert that it is meaningless to draw any distinction between style and substance, because in the right hands, style is substance.