DIR: Kar Wai Wong • WRI: Kar Wai Wong, Jingzhi Zou, Haofeng Xu • PRO. Kar Wai Wong, Jacky Pang Yee Wah • DOP: Phillipe Le Sourd • ED:William Chang, Benjamin Courtine, Hung Poon • CAST: Tony Leung, Ziyi Zhang, Jin Zhang
After a rapturous awards season reception earlier this year, seeing it collect over 40 awards and two Oscar nominations, Wong Kar Wai’s latest film The Grandmaster is finally getting an Irish cinema release this week – and for fans of the Hong Kong-based filmmaker’s sumptuously-paced set pieces, it will be well worth the wait to see it on the big screen.
The Grandmaster of the title is the legendary Chinese martial artist Ip Man, (Leung), the film offering a non-linear portrait of the man who would popularise the art of Wing Chun throughout the world and famously train Bruce Lee. A decade in the making, over a year of that just in the editing suite – not to mention the daily four-hour Wing Chun sessions star Tony Leung took for a year in advance of the role – The Grandmaster is an obvious passion project for Wong Kar Wai and writer-director’s trademark style flows through it like Ip Man’s philosophy manifests in his movement. The subject matter of The Grandmaster initially seems like an odd fit for someone who made his name with languorously-paced romantic drama and especial use of the disruptive step-printing technique (or ‘fast motion’ – shooting at a low frame rate so action is sped up on playback) to imbue scenes with a dreamlike haziness.
Yet nothing is lost to these idiosyncrasies. From the breathtaking opening sequence in which Ip Man beats down on a gang of combatants, as brutally and naturally elemental as the accompanying rain, to his exhilarating encounters with other martial arts masters – those with the enigmatic Gong Er (Ziyi) recall the restraint and passionate tension of the director’s most successful work in In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express – Kar Wai presents an art-house kung fu movie all his own, thematically and visually, and for the most part, it works.
However, the film’s storytelling is as erratic as a step-printed scene, jumping around time and space and utilising title cards as well as occasional first-person narration from Ip Man. This is another common trait of Kar Wai’s films, but the inconsistency unfortunately has the effect of making the film’s attempt to balance its slickly-shot fight sequences with Ip Man’s characterisation feel all the more uneven. The fascinating details of Ip Man’s life – the hardships endured due to a refusal to collaborate during wartime; his relationship with his teachers and later, his own students; – are barely told, and their hasty juxtaposition with the more visually-focused elements of the film (not just fight scenes, but also the introspective or poetic moments) feels like something of a slight. It may be worth noting though that the Weinstein Company, distributing the film in the West, has heavily cut The Grandmaster by about 20 minutes – having not seen them, how crucial they are in addressing these shortcomings is not for me to say.
Yet in its wildest moments, it is so easy to overlook these failures, when its successes are so glorious. Phillipe La Sourd’s cinematography is flooring, whether it’s capturing the eight kicks of Wing Chun or a static, tearful Gong Er in the snow. Ip Man’s kung fu is rendered with a sleek, deliberate power enhanced by the world-ending charisma of star Tony Leung, one of the most expressive yet subtle movie stars in probably all of contemporary cinema. (Rumours that the original title was Leung Fu Fighting have so far been unconfirmed.)
While it’s far from the usual kung fu romp, that might be as much its benefit as to its disadvantage. Captivating and thrilling, if narratively meandering and slapdash, The Grandmaster is a visual triumph.
The Grandmaster is released 5th December.