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Oct 26, 2013

Review: The Grandmaster (2013)

           Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Zhang Ziyi, Song Hye-kyo, Chang Chen, Zhao Benshan, Wang Qingxiang, Zhang Jin, Yuen Woo-ping, Xiaoshenyang, Cung Le, Shang Tielong, Lo Hoi-pang, Chin Shih-chieh, Wang Jue, Lau Ga-yung, Lau Shun, Zhou Xiaofei, Bruce Leung, Julian Cheung, Lo Mang and Berg Ng

                    Wong Kar Wai

                 Wong Kar Wai is one of the greatest filmmakers of our times and his movies have always had a big place in my heart. His attention to the smallest gestures, visual style, narrative style, exploration of love and loss have always fascinated me. He has been working on The Grandmaster for years, a passion project for him. While it is a big step up from his previous and easily his weakest film, My Blueberry Nights, The Grandmaster is among lesser Wong Kar Wai efforts for me. Which by the way is not to be taken as a negative here. This is a martial arts drama that is based on the life of Wing Chun grandmaster, Ip Man. There has been those movies based on the life of Ip Man and while they have been quite straightforward in their depiction, this movie is nothing like them. Even though in its own way, The Grandmaster can be termed as a straightforward biography as well but then that is the basic thing because what you get to see in this movie is much more philosophies and word by word combats that are something I haven't seen in Chinese martial arts films ever. I have a feeling that Mr Kar Wai wanted to make a grand epic of sorts with not just Ip Man but other grandmasters given enough plot to present a vision of that era and what those people did for the sake of martial arts. That would explain the change of title to a single "The Grandmaster" from "The Grandmasters". The first cut was said to be of 4 hours long and if you guys know about his film "2046", something similar happened here as well when he had to quickly edit out his film just in time to premiere it at a major film festival. When The Grandmaster opened the Berlin Film Festival this year, the response was anything but grand. After waiting so much for the next Wong Kar Wai film, I was a bit disappointed with the reception but as usual, I was looking forward to experience it myself and then give my own take. I got to watch this film earlier this year and it was the "Chinese Cut" so the US released "butcher cut" I avoided. Look, I have always been against Mr Weinstein for heartlessly cutting down foreign films as he have been doing for years. With this particular movie however, my beef was that the actual cut of the movie itself was flawed to be further butchered down. I mean what is left then? The Grandmaster suffers from uneven and muddled plotting but it succeeds in the visual department. So if the actual cut was not satisfactory, I don't even want to imagine what the US cut was actually like.

                 The Grandmaster begins with Ip Man's (Leung) voiceover on martial arts. Those voiceovers and texts you will get to see a lot in this film. The first of the fight sequences comes immediately after the movie starts and that too in the rain. You are immediately made sure of the kind of the movie this would be. Supreme attention to fighting details as well as ancient Chinese philosophies with characters and their morals going hand to hand with the history right then. Ip Man fights with dozen of combatants in the rain. Everything feels like an opera, the attention to details fascinates and it seems like they are dancing as they fight. The action then immediately shifts to the flashbacks of Ip Man's early life. The early training at a young age to his actual martial arts introduction by his master Chan Wah-shun. We also get to see his marriage to Cheung Wing-sing (Hye-kyo), they seem happy together with their children. The first big turning point in the movie comes with the arrival of Gong Yutian (Qingxiang) who is a martial arts master from Northern China. He announces the news of his retirement and that Ma San (Jin) is his heir in the North. He says that the South should have their own heir and due to that, many discussions and fights erupts when several masters challenge Gong but to no success. We see for the first time, Gong Er (Ziyi) who is the daughter of Gong Yuitan who tries to stop her father from continuing this as she believes they are all unworthy here. The Southern masters decide that Ip Man will represent them and so he is tested before his challenge to Gong Yuitan. The fight between Ip Man and Gong Yuitan is anything but a fight. Though it is an exchange of philosophical ideas, Ip is declared the winner by Gong himself and he returns back to Northern China. Gong Er doesn't want to let go of her family's honor that easily and she challenges Ip Man as well. That fight turns out to be quite intense, Ip loses but Gong Er knows her victory is anything but a victory. They become friends, the intimacy is easily seen. That is the second turning point in the movie where the story seems to become less about Ip Man and more about everyone else and specially about Gong Er.

                 The Second Sino-Japanese War in 1938 leaves Ip Man's family starved, personal tragedy strikes. His plans are interrupted so to speak. Gong Er's plot takes a turn as she chooses the path of vengeance after the murder of her father. The elders want her to marry and have children but she swears to never do that as well as teach martial arts. Some secondary players in the movie, we see glimpses of their stories as well but never truly explored. Ip Man and Gong Er have been in touch through letters, they also confront each other two times after these events for fights. During that, it is less about them fighting for some ultimate victory but to spill out what they have in their hearts and mind. The Grandmaster is less about the fights between good and evil then about the whole legacy of the art that is martial arts. Even if those sequences are given so much attention, the philosophical banters or the sweeping melancholy easily rushes through them. Of course it is flawed in its presentation as a whole but there are these important chunks that it gets very right. If anything, The Grandmaster is unlike any visual grandeur that you will get to see this year. From technical standpoint, I cannot see anything coming remotely close to its greatness. Muddle biographical exploration and loss of intricate focus never truly takes this movie entirely off the rail per say. Yes, it does affects the movie in a sense but where this movie gets it right, it gets it so right. Wong Kar Wai's lesser but not necessarily weaker movie is still something I will highly recommend to everyone. Whether you are a great fan of martial arts movies or a fan of Mr Kar Wai's work. The latter ones specially would fall in love with this, if not completely taken over by it. The Grandmaster is a very different experience, as much as it entertains, it says and teaches a lot as well. For every physical ballet fight, their is an equally engaging exchange of intellectual ideas. In its own way, Kar Wai explores the moral center of those characters. The values are given so much importance. Some of the characters (that includes everyone except Ip Man and Gong Er) are not emotionally involving but they seems fitting as part of the legacy which is what the goal of this movie and the base of Kar Wai's vision is.

                 I have only seen the first Ip Man movie and I liked Donnie Yen in it. He is quite physical and a charming person and in that sense, he is quite good. For some reason, that movie felt like a typical biographical account with not so great fight sequences that neither moves forward the very ideas for what Ip Man stood for or amaze us with their technicality in a big way. I liked the movie overall but it was a very simple account done in the most conventional setup. Here however as I mentioned, it is the opposite. Tony Leung might not be the perfect physical fit for this character but his whole persona, the chemistry he have always had with the aesthetics and working standard of Wong Kar Wai and his reliance on emotions easily makes him the best and perfect choice for this role. He has this actual grandmaster/scholar/idealistic image that suitably supports the whole idea of Ip Man as a legendary master of martial arts as well as a man of ideas and teacher of life as setting an example for people to follow. Which is how the cultural heritage and social significance can pass on. Leung during the fight sequences is still however able to stand out but gets most of the help from editing and cinematography. When it comes down to the emotional aspects, Leung gives a very good performance as you would expect from him. As a family man, as a devoted husband, as a father, as a tragic family man, as an admirer, as a teacher, as a lover, as a friend, as a leader, so many colors and shades that Leung subtly portrays. On the other hand, Zhang Ziyi gives the best performance since "2046" and probably plays her most strongest character yet. It is her character's arc that gets to you the most. It is Gong Er that we truly connect with thanks to her heroism and ability to stand up and do what she believes in. The misogynist men can only try to stop her but she wont. Her no marriage/no family/no teaching vow is not of an arrogant woman who just wants revenge. It is far deeper and tragic than what one would think on the surface. Her decision holds so much history, the flashbacks or the voiceovers truly affects that way. Zhang Ziyi looks beautiful as ever and she acts as good as she have ever been and seems in full control over her character and the necessary physical/emotional or the lack of those required. The rest of the cast and characters however aren't that well explored, no arguing there.

                 The cinematography here is breathtaking and a true work of art. So much richness there, everything is so clean and visible. The color treatment at ones supports the memories and melancholic situations and at the same time, highlights the severity of the present. The flashforwards too are given such a different feel. Whether it is the rain, the snow, the wind, the fog, the train station or some opera house, every single place is gloriously presented. The art direction has to be one of the best from this year, maybe the best. Attention to the detail is given for the sake of period details and for building up the whole atmosphere and to present a fully realized presentation of those times. Spectacular work in those department there. The choreography of fight sequences is jaw droppingly good. Kar Wai makes a good use of slow-motion, extreme close ups or even painting a wider frame at first. Some of the best use of natural and technical elements I have seen. The lighting technique too adds a lot to it. The sound effects are something you will notice a lot during those sequences. In short, Kar Wai brings the action to you. The faults arises in the editing which except for the use of flashbacks and flashforwards, never truly helps the vision filmmaker himself had or what this film might have been. But that is the least of the two major problems. The storytelling aspect of it only works in the moment and never as a whole. The writing here seems lost in finding out the focus this movie needs among the two main aspects of this grandmasters biographical account. There are some scenes that are a bit too long and they never help. The feeling of loss, melancholy and memories is what it makes us feel the best. The philosophies of life and art it presents very good. The technical details in every department is exceptional. The acting is good. The Grandmaster is a unique vision, a visceral experience at the same time a tragic realization. Flaws never significantly affects the movie but this could have been much better.

Grade: B