Faces, fists, palms, feet, arms, legs, hats, dresses, coats, shoes, closets, chairs, clocks, tables, stairs, doors, knives, water/blood droplets, puddles, smokes, snow, wind, lights, a monkey, a train, and a dog. These were the items I wrote down in my mind while watching Wong Kar-wai’s latest film “The Grandmaster”, and I must report to you that they surely look as beautiful and romantic as you can expect from Wong Kar-wai’s work. The movie also present several stylish martial arts action scenes unfolded with the sumptuous production design and the gorgeous period costumes, and it goes without saying that every frame is filled with artistic care and attention.
But… do these lovely things add up together to generate something deeper than the series of gorgeous scenes? I do not know, for I got frequently confused as many minor characters appear during its first half. There are many faces along with many kinetic bodies surrounded by lots of beautiful interior decorations, and I appreciated how they look and feel, but, please, do not ask me to tell you who is who, or explain to you how one character is connected with the other, or give you the background information you need to understand some vague aspects of the story.
The movie revolves around Ip Man(Tony Leung Chiu Wai), the legendary Chinese martial arts grandmaster, and Gong Er(Zhang Ziyi), his rival martial arts master who comes to have some feelings toward him as they have interacted with each other personally and publicly for more than 10 years. The story starts with the impressive action sequence in which Ip Man fights with a bunch of guys with bare hands or various weapons at a dark, rainy night, and this is surely a gripping moment. Every physical move and every resulting effects is artfully and dramatically captured on the screen along with the rain drops keeping falling on their heads, and this dynamic moment is intercut with Ip Man telling his simple philosophy on his martial arts, called Wing Chun, to others in a quieter place, and the level of our expectation is increased as a result.
This is an effective opening by itself, but when and where this scene exactly happens? After a long montage scene accompanied with your average Wong Kar-wai’s introspective monologue to give us Ip Man’s basic biographical information about his long years of practice and his family life, the movie goes straight to Foshan, China in 1936, and we can only vaguely assume that the opening fight sequence happens around the time when Gong Yutian(Wang Qingxiang), the aging leader of northern Chinese martial arts society, comes to Foshan and announces his retirement in front of his southern colleagues. He has already decided on his heir to lead his group, and it is apparent that Ip Man and others should decide on who can be the representative of their group matching against Gong or his apparent heir Ma San(Zhang Jin).
As everyone around him concedes that Ip Man should be their representative despite his reluctance, we get the series of confrontation scenes supervised by the action choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping(he is well-known for his participation in many notable films including “The Matrix”(1999) and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”(2000)) within the characters’ gathering place filled with ornate furnitures and well-dressed/well-manicured people. These action scenes are terrific to say the least, but they always come with a certain distant feeling as the extras increasingly look like a bunch of waxworks pensively watching on the confrontations behind the walls and windows inside this place. Considering that the place functions as a bar where these stoic tough guys test each other’s skill as a part of their greeting instead of tapping on their fists, I began to wonder whether the collateral damage on the furnitures is included in their bills when they leave.
The story becomes a little more focused after Ip Man is eventually recognized by Gong Yutian through their rather metaphysical confrontation. Gong’s daughter Gong Er challenges against Ip Man to reclaim her family honor, and that is the beginning of their restrained relationship behind their public interactions. Tony Leung Chiu Wai is a master of hidden coiled feelings as wonderfully shown in Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love”(2000) and Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution”(2007), and Zhang Ziyi is his equal match as a sad woman who has to sacrifice lots of things not only because of the moral codes in their closed world but also because of what she fiercely believes in. Like many memorably restrained movie couples, they seldom touch each other and rarely talk about their inner feelings, but we can see how much they admire and attract each other even during a brief moment when their bodies closely flit over each other in the air.
But then the movie becomes messy as the story becomes more fragmented and convoluted during the second half. It is right before the World War II, so many things happen before, during, and after the war, and the movie increasingly feels like a 2-hour version of some epic TV miniseries as the characters keeps coming in and then going out with no particular purpose. Especially in case of the character played by Chang Chen, his sideplot feels so redundant and unnecessary that I am willing to forgive Harvey Weinstein if he mainly focused on cutting Chang Chen’s scenes while preparing his shorter version for US theaters.
And the human dimension of the story is lost as it is swept to here and there in its big historical background. Although Tony Leung Chiu Wai is an engaging actor to watch, his Ip Man eventually comes to us a passive enigma who mostly stays back from what is going on around him except when he has to be on his professional mode. Zhang Ziyi is elegant and feisty, and her character is actually more compelling than Ip Man, but her story ultimately fizzles out in the end due to the scattershot plot. The movie never goes deep into Ip Man’s relationship with his devoted wife, and, to South Korean audiences’ disappointment, Korean actress Song Hye-kyo looks like as if she is more or less than one of small beautiful details of the production design.
I am not as enthusiastic about Wong Kar-wai’s films as some of you, but I watched some of his works and admired them as they grew in my mind. “Chungking Express”(1994) may be a one-time experience, but it certainly felt fresh to me when I incidentally came across it on TV at one night in 1996, though the characters sometimes looked like a bunch of narcissistic romantic idiots. Right after watching “The Grandmaster”, I finally watched “In the Mood for Love”, and I was immensely touched by its vividly intimate moments delicately observed from one fleeting bittersweet romance between two decent neighbours living in a small apartment building.
While watching that terrific romance film deserved to be mentioned with David Lean’s “Brief Encounter”(1945), I got a small idea about how “The Grandmaster” went wrong and becomes a misfire instead of a fresh perspective on its genre like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. The problem is, Wong Kar-wai’s intimate style does not fit with the story he tries to tell from the beginning. He successfully retains his distinctive style in this film as shown through his usual step-printing technique and the same clock from “In the Mood for Love”, and that works nicely for the small character moments as it did in his previous successful films, but his loose and leisurely storytelling unfortunately clashes with the big, crowded background of the story. The movie loses the control and the focus as a consequence, and we get confusion rather than delirium in many cases, and we only distantly look at the movie despite our admiration toward its technical aspects.
Anyway, we all can agree on that the movie is a beautiful film to look at, and I sort of understand why Martin Scorsese was willing to lend his name to the movie for its US distribution. Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography is superb, and the production and costume design by William Chang, who also edited the film, shows painstaking efforts as we can expect from any well-made period drama films, and the score by Nathaniel Méchaly and Shigeru Umebayashi is excellent.
It is indeed pretty to admire, but “The Grandmaster” is still one of those ‘pretty hollow’ films which momentarily mesmerize you with their beauty and then drift away from you without leaving any deep impression. Around its long closing part, the movie attempts to evoke the elegiac sense of loss with Ennio Morricone’s classic score for “Once Upon a Time in America”(1984), and it partially works thanks to its two competent lead performances, but I could not help but think that it could have been more effective and emotional if it had more focused on the story and the characters. It was a sad and mournful moment, but, folks, what I saw inside it were the characters limited by a flawed storytelling, not the characters inhibited by themselves.