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Grandmaster: Wong Kar-wai’s Subversive Martial Arts Film

By on Mar 25, 2014 in Reviews | 0 comments

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Wong Kar-wai films are sumptuous. Like looking at the masterwork of a painter. I can revisit them often and find something new that captures my eye. Do his films have a plot or a storyline? Maybe. But those elements take a backseat to Kar-wai’s tone and visual palate.

In The Mood For Love is his masterpiece. It reminds me of the painting Nighthawks by Edward Hooper or Hemingway’s “A Clean and Well Lit Place”. It forgoes pace for longing. It is filled with night shots, smoking, perfectly framed shots, and infused with Nat King Cole. It is a tone poem masquerading as a film.

Grandmaster shares the visual flare of Wong Kar-wai’s previous films. It also features Kar-Wai’s muse Tony Chiu Wai Leung. Leung is appearing in his seventh Kar-wai film including In The Mood For Love. It is their least successful collaboration in part because the story it tells is so driven by plot.

When A Martial Arts Film Is Not A Martial Arts Film

The story revolves around the legendary figure of Yip Kai-man, known as Ip Man, who was teacher of the martial arts style of Wing Chun and whose international fame was sparked in part due to his pupil Bruce Lee. The Ip Man story has been told numerous times perhaps most famously by martial artist/actor Donnie Yen. Yen’s Ip Man story follows the martial arts archetype by route.

Casting an actor rather than a martial artist as Ip Man is a clear indication that Kar-wai is not really interested martial arts tropes or in staging spectacular fights. Now there are three spectacular fights in the film, but pay attention to Kar-wai’s camera work. It is far more concerned with the fluidity of movement than the impact of the blows. He spends more time on the splash of a rain drop, the flow of a garment, the light crack of a floor board, and the requisite lighting of a cigarette, then he spends following the acrobatics. It’s as if he is too distracted by gorgeous minutiae to bother to see if the punch lands.

My favorite “fight” in the film is one of these small moments. It occurs in the second half in the slums of Hong Kong when a tai-chi master offers Ip Man a cigarette. This simple scene is a beautiful example of what Kar-wai is trying to accomplish:

Will The Real Grandmaster Please Stand Up?

Leung is quite capable in the role infusing his version of Ip Man with a calm assurance. He poses a dancer’s litheness and his movements lend themselves naturally to the fluidity Kar-wai is so fascinated with. But the film is stolen by Ziyi Zhang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) who plays Gong Er the daughter of a retiring grandmaster. In a time period where women were not allowed to practice Kung Fu, she has learned her family’s “64 hands” technique. Her story becomes the center piece of the film and she is featured in two of the three spectacular fights.

The first is a private gentleman’s fight against Ip Man that Gong Er picks in an attempt to preserve the honor of her family’s legacy. It’s setup with very specific rules of engagement and shot in a tightly confined space. The action is furious. Through a combination of skill and ploy she wins, but cannot assume the mantle of grandmaster publicly because of her gender.

The second fight is against the movie’s big bad: Ma San played by Zhang Jin. The fight takes place outside in winter at a train station. The fight is by no means gentlemanly. Brutal, quick, and with in inches of the passing trains it is the epitome of the blood and honor fight that is part of the repertoire of martial arts films.

By giving Gong Er’s character both a victory over Ip Man and the marquee fight against the main antagonist, Kar-wai implies that she is the grandmaster of the film’s title and not Ip Man.

Let that sink in for a moment. There were no acknowledged female grandmasters of martial arts during the time period the film covers, much less practitioners. Even in modern China capable women are still often forced to take a secondary role. Heck only in the last year did female fighters break into the top ranks of the big money, mixed martial arts vehicle that is the UFC.

Yet Kar-wai, in a film that is supposed to focus on Bruce Lee’s legendary teacher, slips in a story about a female grandmaster. That alone is worth the price of admission.

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