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Hate Kung Fu, Love This Film: Wong Kar Wai's 'The Grandmaster'

by Caryn James
August 21, 2013 9:02 AM
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Some reviews need more context than others: the very idea of a kung fu movie, even an artistically made one, makes me want to scream with boredom, yet I was enthralled by The Grandmaster. Wong Kar Wai's film is technically about a real-life hero named Ip Man, one of China's great martial arts masters. But as you experience it, the film is poetic, operatic and historically sweeping, as lush and seductive as any of Wong's previous, more conspicuously ambitious works, including In the Mood.

The Grandmaster is not some obscure immersion in visual poetry, either. Its slender but lucid narrative makes the film epic in feel although not in length (since it was shown at Cannes, it has been pared down to a swift 1 hour and 48 minutes). In 1936, Ip Man (Wong's frequent, always charismatic star, Tony Leung) is a kung fu master from the South of China, chosen to take on the aging master of the North. As they maneuver, the competition between North and South in martial arts styles sounds like a civil war, foreshadowing the real war ahead.

Soon, the married Ip Man meets a woman who might be his perfect match: the Northern master's daughter, Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), herself gifted at martial arts. Eventually the story zooms ahead to the Japanese invasion of China, which shatters many of the characters' lives, and on to 1950's Hong Kong.

This is probably the point at which some variation of that hokey Moby Dick analogy might come to mind: "This is about kung fu the way Moby Dick is about a whale," but that has always been an idiotic cliche.  Moby Dick, in fact, is a lot about a whale, whole chapters of it, even though it's so much more, and The Grandmaster has plenty of martial arts scenes. But they are beautifully choreographed, more balletic than thumping-action, set to graceful music.

Two set pieces take place in the shadowy yet colorful brothel called, for good reason, The Gold Pavilion, where women have bright red lips, and men have hands and feet whose martial-arts moves are impossibly fast. (The way the frames speed up and slow down almost imperceptibly is a ballet all its own.) Another major battle takes place next to train tracks against a dramatically bare, snowy landscape. Philippe Le Sourd's cinematography sweeps you into the film's world, whether we're looking at period vistas or Leung's amazingly powerful face, full of restrained emotion.

I've read that Wong took great pains to make sure the kung fu action, in many different styles, was authentic, and ... well, fine, I'll leave that to people who care. For the rest of us: don't  think of The Grandmaster as a kung fu movie. Think of it as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets The Last Emperor. Even better, just think of it as a major work from a master filmmaker.

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