August 29, 2013

Review: Wong Kar-Wai and the Legacy of 'The Grandmaster'

Acclaimed Hong Kong new wave director Wong Kar-wai continues to prove his mastery of visual filmmaking. He has proven his mastery of the moving image with Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love, showing his penchant for matching character with post-modern beauty. Here, he returns to some familiar material as he takes on history and the legend of Ip Man, the famous Chinese kung fu master. The Grandmaster revisits the martial arts genre with Wong's famous art house auteurist style and reverence, exploring China's cultural identity through kung fu and modern wartime.

Unlike other Ip Man film adaptations, The Grandmaster focuses primarily on the philosophy of kung fu and the fighting style of Wing Chun. Wong uses martial arts to explore the loneliness and isolation of mastery amidst the Sino-Japanese and Chinese civil wars. Unfortunately, the film suffers from common symptoms of biopics and adapting a single well known public figure's entire life on screen. The limitations of biographies holds The Grandmaster back narratively with some heavy handed step by step exposition and uninteresting plotting. When it sheds these conventions is where Wong's style and filmmaking mesmerizes and lifts the material to more innovative directions.

Wong re-teams with his trademark leading man Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (in their seventh collaboration), who plays the titular hero, trading in Mr. Chow's fancy suits. He anchors the film with a pleasing gravitas and commanding presence. I couldn't help be captivated by Zhang Ziyi and her understated, magnetic performance as Gong Er, the unbeatable daughter of a rival Northern kung fu master and worthy opponent in her own right. Her tragic arc and dramatic turn is thrilling in its execution. The pair display a natural, energetic chemistry on screen, not limited to fighting.

This version of the film, re-edited for American audiences, runs about twenty minutes shorter than the Chinese cut and relies heavily on voice over narration and title cards to explain historical exposition and character plotting. The film's storyline is not particularly hard to follow and explaining every aspect of the film's plot feels off putting and disjointed. It takes away from the dramatic and narrative momentum of the actors advancing their scenes.

Wong's lavish framing is never more dazzling than the breathtaking hand-to-hand combat scenes with action so well filmed and fluid, it's mesmerizing. Its kinetic energy and ballet like structure and beauty offsets some of the more hollow or dull biographical aspects of the film where scenes linger almost too artfully around the chaotic surroundings of pre-war China.

The Grandmaster proves itself more a Wong Kar-wai film than a martial arts movie. It's full of Wong's trademark visual flourishes and moody, artful filmmaking. He and Leung use framing, movement, and choreography to explore Chinese themes of family, honour, duty, and legacy quite effectively. When it focuses on identity through acting and kung fu, it excels. It suffers when it sits back to explore the less enticing beat for beat journey of the legendary Ip Man. Wong crafts a visually and thematically compelling drama with a healthy dose of emotion.

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