Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Grandmaster

Two Words.  Vertical.  Horizontal.
Once Upon a Time in Forshan

Let's get one thing out of the way first.  The version I saw of Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster (aka "Yi Dai Zong Shi" aka 一代宗師)  is the Weinstein Company release, which runs 108 minutes. The original Chinese version runs 130. That's about 20 minutes of footage missing. So, I don't know whether I'm reviewing Wong Kar-wai's latest film, or a long, long trailer for it.

Normally, I wouldn't be doing much kvetching about this, but I've seen enough of the man's movies to know that The Grandmaster is something very, very different from what he's done in the past (In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express, 2046): more formal, less dialog-driven, more image-conscious and more experimental (and Wong has pushed all sorts of boundaries already in his career).  Usually, when a distribution company does this much hatchet-work on a film (Ironically, this film is "presented by Martin Scorsese," who's also had a couple films filleted by the Weinstein's), the most interesting character-driven parts get left behind as "fat," leaving the parts with the most action.  

Well, in this case Wong might have already done that for us, for in telling the life-story of Ip Man—one that's been in the process for ten years—he's hit the highlights and the high fights and other than some discussions of philosophy and technique, that's it. It's simultaneously illuminating and frustrating: frustrating because the movie plays like a bio along the lines of DeVito's (and Mamet's) Hoffa or Mann's Ali, all life-highlights and nothing to connect the dots; illuminating because it appears to be a dramatic choice, making Ip Man's life segmented between life and work and philosophy and not much else—there is no historical context other than the scripted titles telling you what is going on in the rest of the world.*
It begins with a fight in the rain between Ip (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and several combatants, staged as a brutal ballet in various speeds, escalates through the number and various tactics of the opponents, and ends with the defeat of the strongest combatant. Ip then flashes back on his life starting with his marriage to Cheung Wing-sing (the incredibly beautiful Hye-Kyo Song), and the news that the master of Northern China, Gong Yutian (Wang Quixiang) has retired and bequeaths the role of master to Ma San (Jin Zhang), with the caveat that the South should have their own master. It is decided that Ip should challenge Gong for the right, and he is put to the test by three Southern masters before the match with Gong.  

That match is anything but typical, has nothing to do with the training of the Southern masters, and Gong declares Ip his heir in Southern China. That does not sit well with Gong's daughter Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), who challenges Ip for the sake of family honor. Their meeting and subsequent fight is an amusing affair of restraint and dexterity, and the fight concludes to Gong's satisfaction. Ip can only smile and say "I want a rematch."
Gong Er's moment of triumph.  You can see it in her face.
Now, despite this country-wide grudge match, and the Sino-Japanese War, which plunges the country into a depression and, as a result, sends Ip to Hong Kong to provide for his family, the film could not be more personal, keeping its eye on Ip, while, in the meantime, Gong, who has been only secretly trained in kung fu by her father, seeks revenge against Ma San, in a totally focused, life-sacrificing mission to the death. The two are poles apart in purpose and drive and yet they are drawn together, players on opposite sides. The film is a series of fights, the important ones, punctuated by a series of beautifully photographed scenes of domesticity and meditation, broken up into chapters of title cards, as from the silent film days.
Wong's approach to this is very formal, the photography sumptuously lit, golden light betraying dark spaces and staged sometimes as formal portraits of a time and place, emotions run high, but not betrayed by the faces of the principals, the most expressive being Ip Man's wife, who disappears from the film very early on. I'd be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful film to see this year, even if the beauty comes with a certain static quality that pushes the audience away, albeit gently. And the fights are balletic brawls, filmed with depth and in tight close-ups, but at a pace that allows for position and space to be registered without sacrificing speed. In fact, it's quite invigorating to see a slow-motion concentration edited quickly as the fights are done here, as it is during the first fight in the rain. But, befitting the styles and other situations—the Gong Er/Ma San fight has its own bizarre energy-forceWong gives each confrontation a different presentation that makes each one different, and mesmerizing.
There is one odd, touching thing that brings up the ghosts of the past just as the title cards harken back to the silents, Wong brings to bear Sergio Leone as a touchstone by making sure that he gives Gong Er a borrowed theme from Once Upon a Time in America to communicate the regret she cannot express herself. It produces goose-bumps, and not just from recognizing the source of the haunting cue, but for being so solidly apt and instantly evocative (composer Ennio Morricone can do that). It's a beautiful, odd, off-kilter film. I only wish to see more of it.
Portrait of the Artist as a Portrait-Artist:
Wong Kar Wai book-ends chapters in Ip Man's story with staged sittings

* There have been three other films, heavily fictionalized, on the same subject in the time that Wong was working on this film, as well as a couple television films about him.

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