By: Henry J. Fromage (Four Beers) –
Nearly a decade in the making, Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai’s Kung Fu epic The Grandmaster has been the great white whale of international cinema for quite some time. With news that it’s going gangbusters (ha, I amuse myself) in the Chinese box office and that Harvey Weinstein’s acquired it and is planning the most aggressive U.S. foreign film release since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it’s hard to keep those already outsized expectations in check.
Expectations are a bitch
The Grandmaster is ostensibly about the beginnings of Hong Kong martial arts legend Ip Man (Tony Leung), who would go on to train Bruce Lee. However, it’s also about the decline of the old Chinese houses of Kung Fu, in particular the Gong clan, whose last master, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) seeks to avenge her father’s death and preserve her family’s name, while also playing the “will they or won’t they?” romance game with Ip Man.
Wong Kar Wai is a legend of world cinema for good reason. In the Mood for Love is firmly in the conversation of the best films of all time, and he’s had a consistently brilliant directorial career. While he’s been preoccupied by this film since his disappointing English debut, My Blueberry Nights, right from the start it’s obvious his skills have not atrophied.
The Grandmaster is absolutely gorgeous, full of painterly compositions, beautiful cinematography from Philippe LeSourd, and incredible martial arts choreography from legendary Yuen Woo Ping (Crouching Tiger, The Matrix). The fights in particular were apparently a labor of love for Wong and company, and it shows on screen. They’re like a mix of chess and ballet, with each movement more a work of art than war, be it in a sumptuously decorated Chinese opera house or outside slicing through droplets of rain in jaw-dropping slow motion.
There’s more to this than the fights, though, with good performances all around, from Tony Leung’s nuanced, stone-faced lead turn to Jin Zhang’s snarling villain and Chen Chang’s compelling cipher that is the awesomely monikered The Razor. However, this movie belongs to Zhang Ziyi above all. She’s an ice princess, a woman who makes hard choices with admirable resolve, and in the end a woman full of nostalgia and utterly heartbreaking unfulfilled desire and regret. Above all, though, she’s a fuckin’ badass who whips a man so hard his hair turns grey.
Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention, but it’s better that way.
This movie was formerly entitled The Grandmasters and that would make much more sense. In a larger sense, it’s about all of the Kung Fu Grandmasters of Ip Man’s time, and honestly you don’t learn a whole hell of a lot about Ip Man in this film (go watch the two Ip Mans for that, I guess). Wong himself seems equally if not more interested in Ziji’s Gong Er character, and don’t get me started on The Razor.
Too late, let’s talk about The Razor. Apparently in the U.S. cut his part may disappear almost completely from the film, and that’s a shame because he is a badass (and the only guy who demonstrates the killing potential of Kung Fu). However, he’s only tenuously connected to the narrative, and his best scenes feel dropped in from another movie entirely.
And those Joe Dirt interludes… weird.
This demonstrates a larger issue with the film- it’s structure is terrible. The film just meanders about between storylines and subplots across decades at a time, and when you start to lose track of things your emotional investment in the characters evaporates.
Wong Kar Wai was clearly going for the same melodramatic yet realistic emotion that made In the Mood for Love so engrossing and hard to shake. His leads seem up to the task, but unfortunately script and pacing let them down. You have to make a real conscious effort to get back in tune with these characters after not seeing them for 30 minutes at a time. While I didn’t, I also couldn’t fault you if you find the slow-motion soap operatics of the film’s conclusion more hilarious than tear-jerking.
The Grandmaster is undoubtedly gorgeous, thrillingly choreographed, and at times genuinely affecting. I liked the film, but I can’t laud it. It’s mixed up script and too-frequent lack of focus stop it short of that.
Take a Drink: every time you start wondering if Wong Kar Wai has a foot fetish
Take a Drink: for each musical or opera performance
Take a Drink: every time the north/south Kung Fu divide is referred to
Take a Drink: for each new martial art style we see
Take a Drink: for monkeys and stray dogs
Take a Drink: every time we see liquid moving in slow motion
Do a Shot: every time someone explodes through a wall
Do a Shot: Uncle Deng! Nooooo!