AKA YI DAI ZONG SHI [HONG KONG/CHINA 2013]
IN SELECTED CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 104 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
China, 1936. The country is partly divided by the Yangste river into North and South China, and the Northern Grandmaster Gong Yutian visits Foshan where resides Ip Man, a martial artist whose reputation is growing. Gong Yutain wants a new master to represent the whole country, and thinks Ip Man is the best choice. Ip Man bests Gong Yutian and becomes the Grandmaster, but his daughter Gong Er challenges the decision. The two share an attraction, but Ip Man has a family. Then the Japanese invade, and tragedy strikes….
Ever since he brought out the amazing Ashes Of Time way back in 1994, I’ve been waiting for Wong Kai Wai, the master of highly stylised, vividly textured romantic melancholy [most notably in his swooningly beautiful In The Mood For Love], to bring his sensibilities to another martial arts movie, and finally The Grandmaster is here. Wong actually began making this film in 2008 but the project was constantly delayed while Wilson Yip’s more conventional film about the same main character starring Donnie Yen – a film which was originally called Grandmaster Ip Man but was forced to change its title – his sequel, and several unrelated films about the martial arts master most famous for teaching Bruce Lee all beat it to cinema screens. Now I suppose I need to get the ‘bad’ out of the way before I get into the ‘good’ [of which there will be plenty], though even the ‘bad’ is nowhere near as awful as at first seems apparent. The version that has appeared in the UK is 26 min shorter than Wong’s original cut, and considering Miramax are the studio who have released the film in the West, it’s tempting to think of this as yet another example of Miramax honcho Harvey ‘Scissorhands’ Weinstein, a man who I consider a disgrace to the whole film industry, chopping down yet another film to dumb it down and thereby increase its box office receipts. However, it seems that Wong himself, contracted to deliver a film under two hours, put together this more streamlined, simplified cut of his film for Western audiences, and not only does it contain some footage not actually in the Chinese version, but the Chinese have actually seen two different versions of the film with some alternate footage, so I don’t think we can consider any version of The Grandmaster to be the definitive cut until Wong decides to do a ‘Final Cut’.
In the meantime the 104 min version of The Grandmaster, while it seems a little disjointed in places, is more than satisfactory. Now make no mistake this is definitely the ‘Art House’ version of the Ip Man story, though I’ve never liked the term ‘Art House’ anyway and often found it redundant – think of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which many still call an ‘Art House’ film but which became a major ‘cross-over’ success – while I believe that a big commercial ‘blockbuster’ can sometimes contain as much artistry and be made with as much care as a little so-called ‘Art House’ film. In any case, The Grandmaster may telescope the time span of the two Donnie Yen flicks into one film, and it most definitely contains some striking fight sequences, but is less interested in thrilling the viewer than in exploring the potential aesthetic beauty of people fighting and the deep emotions and philosophies of its characters. At times it’s often achingly beautiful and sad in a manner that I loved and will certainly be familiar to folk familiar with its director’s work but which may disappoint those primarily out of lots of martial arts thrills [then again, this year we’ve already had The Raid 2 for that, and very good it was too, a film which considerably bested its predecessor in my view though I know that view is not a popular one!].
The Grandmaster opens with a major street fight in pouring rain, and it immediately establishes the style of the film’s action, which is to slightly heighten the settings [here it looks like they’re virtually battling in a river] to within sight of the fantastical, while using sharp editing and all manner of camera techniques to enhance the action and help conceal the fact that star Tony Leung is no martial artist. Chopping action scenes to within an inch of their life and shaking the camera about to try to disguise the participants having little fighting skill and to try to seem ‘cool’ and ‘edgy’ is an odious disease that is on the verge of destroying action cinema in Hollywood and even elsewhere, but the fight sequences in The Grandmaster are an object lesson in how to do this kind of thing right. The camerawork is sometimes fast but is more handheld rather than actually ‘shakycam’, the edits are well chosen for maximum impact and still leave one room to enjoy some moves, and there’s excellent use of slow-motion bits to enhance certain bits. Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, whose work on this film is a match for the much praised lensing of Christopher Doyle on most of Wong’s previous films, likes to linger on things like close-up of splashing puddles in the opening fight, which may irritate some who just want to see the action, but helps the sequence so striking and artistic.
This approach is carried on throughout most of the action, which also tends to function as an expression of the participant’s emotions. This is best shown by the first confrontation between Ip Man first and Gong Er, the daughter of the man he has defeated [though not in an action fight, a good example of the way The Grandmaster likes to subvert martial arts film cliches and confound expectations]. It’s a graceful, balletic affair, full of expert wirework [good old Yuen Woo Ping still working his magic here] as the two people jump all over the place, but also somewhat lovely and even erotic, the fight virtually becoming a kind of foreplay as the characters are attracted to each other but prefer to show it in their fighting rather than use words. Then there’s what is officially my favourite fight scene of the year [sorry Gareth Evans], a showdown on a railway platform amidst snow, steam and a train rushing by. It’s not so much the skill which is what makes it so great, even though Zhang Ziyi can actually bust some moves – it’s the gorgeous use of textures and colours, creating an almost surreal environment.
I guess I’ve made The Grandmaster out to be nearly all action and it most certainly isn’t. In fact, much of it has a leisurely pace though it does jump forward unevenly at times, possibly a casualty of the re-editing of a film which originally told its story in a more non-linear fashion. Early scenes pay much interesting attention of the rituals of kung fu and its masters, and even provide some great examples of the typical ‘my style is better than your style’ arguments which are often some of the enjoyable and amusing parts of this kind of film. However, the movie soon develops a downbeat feel, certainly not becoming the rousing film some may expect from the subject matter. Sadly, the storytelling stumbles after a while –the Japanese occupation of China is rushed through and, like a few too many other events, related mostly through intertitles – while the second half is more about Gong Er, with Ip Man absent from the screen for huge sections. Zhang Ziyi is as lovely as ever as well as a strong actresses, and her part of the tale is clearly intended as an example of where dedication to martial arts can go wrong in comparison to Ip Man’s even if it’s well-intentioned. However, the structure is awkward and the pacing becomes uneven…at least in this cut, while Wong ends up relying too much on voice-overs towards the end. Still, the story becomes genuinely moving, especially the final scene between Ip Man and Gong Er which almost brought tears to this critic and certainly evoked in me some of the intense feelings I had when I first watched Leung and Maggie Chung in In The Mood For Love.
Tony Leung, who is 12 years too old for his role in the first third of the film, helps disguise his lack of fighting skill with sheer strength of personality, and yet the interesting thing is that you never feel you get to know his character that well, unlike Gong Er. He remains distant and a little inscrutable, something which was clearly intentional. The music score by Nathaniel Mechaly and Shigeru Umebayash doesn’t always work as well as it should but has some great moments which go superbly with the images and at two points plays an interesting arrangement of one the themes from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America. Rather than seeming lazy, it feels appropriate [the two films do have a similar mood] and a nice tribute from one great filmmaker to another. The Grandmaster has its flaws, chiefly to do with the storytelling, while it’s entirely possible that none of its existing versions are entirely satisfactory, but it’s full of striking scenes and moments and looks absolutely stunning with framing and use of colour that is often sublime. One of its final scenes is of a girl watching her father practice on his own in a garden while snow gently falls, then practising herself. I don’t think any other film scene has better shown the immense release and fulfilment that many get from the martial arts.