The Grandmaster, which purports to follow bodies and minds in motion, suffers from emotional stillness.
A new Wong Kar-wai film is always a cause for excitement, but the director’s most recently released film, the sweeping wuxia The Grandmaster, carried with it a somewhat heightened sense of anticipation. Announced in 2008, it wouldn’t be released until 2013, and stories of intense difficulty and misfortune on the set—including the unfortunate incident of star Tony Leung breaking his arm while training in stunt choreography—raised doubts that it would ever see the light of day. When the film finally hit theaters, the response among critics was partially that of bewilderment. It seemed the story was rushed and missing important passages, and some of the characters weren’t properly developed, issues blamed on a labored shoot and pressures from an overbearing Chinese film industry. But the film was one of the first major collaborations between Hong Kong and mainland studios in recent years, and if China’s influence slowed down production, it certainly didn’t stand in the way of success – the film earned millions at the Chinese box office, making it the director’s biggest hit to date.
Because the making of The Grandmaster was already such a storied tale, the film itself didn’t stand much of a chance. Any and all incongruities or curiosities would receive extra scrutiny, evidence that the director struggled to fully illustrate his vision. But Wong’s movies have a way of wading through details that are richly stimulating but difficult to define; In the Mood for Love and Chunking Express, the two films often cited as his best, are dreamlike in their offbeat elisions and favoring of emotional logic over intellectual and even aesthetic reason. He favors an improvisational production style, shooting a surplus of scenes and piecing the story together during the editing stages, and while such an approach doesn’t exactly befit widely scoped historical epics like The Grandmaster, which hinge on narrative precision and total organization, it proves that Wong’s vision is firmly in place, even if the execution isn’t always satisfying.
The Grandmaster isn’t among the director’s best films, and there does seem to be some disconnect between his chosen genres and his sensibilities as an artist. A period biopic about Ip Man (Leung), the famed martial arts instructor whose most famous student was Bruce Lee, the film is partly influenced by the classic kung-fu films of King Hu, whose fluid action cinema is built on kinetic energy and seamless in-camera editing. But Wong edits his fight scenes like an introspective dialogue scene from one of his dramas. They lack a certain kind of movement and rhythm, often hampered by close-ups and his trademark slow-motion. Like the characters in In the Mood for Love, the characters here are statuesque, and Wong doesn’t film them as much as sculpt them, denying them the full range of movement provided by legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping.
The film doesn’t work well as a historical drama, either. Several major historic events, as well as important details from the life of Ip Man, play out in the background as Wong hones in on the intimate details of martial artists Ma San (Zhang Jin) and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), who virtually steal the show from the title character. In placing Ip on the backburner, Wong illustrates how his focus and unassuming nature are what allowed him to become a great martial artist, but it also seems an odd choice to sort of push the grandmaster out of The Grandmaster. At most, he’s posited as a counterpoint to Gong and Ma. The daughter of a famous Northern Chinese fighter, Gong is obsessed with preserving her family’s legacy, especially after her father loses a fight to Ip, which is what opens the door for his famous style to emerge. In retaliation, Gong challenges Ip to a fight, and their battle is the only one in the film that hints at the intricate human bond that forms between two master fighters engaged in combat. There’s even a hint of sensuality to it, and Gong admits to having feelings for Ip near the end of the film, but by then she’s lived ten years in isolation after defeating Ma, her father’s former student who collaborated with Japan during their occupation of China. When Gong’s father found out, Ma killed him, and his desire for power completes a sort of trifecta also formed by Gong’s honor and Ip’s determination.
That might seem easy enough to follow on paper, but onscreen, it’s a different story. The Grandmaster starts down different paths before backtracking and heading down another, creating a chaotic structure at odds with the somber and reflective mood. The U.S. version of the film clocks in at 108 minutes and excises a lot of Gong Er’s story, which, according to Wong, was meant to help American viewers better process the historic implications they might not be familiar with. However, the 120-minute Chinese cut suffers from the same issues as the American one. Both versions are wayward and distracted, an issue that seems to stem from Wong’s disinterest in the characters. The people in his films are often introspective and shy, which at least explains his initial interest in Ip as a subject. But where the director’s best work manages to illustrate the wild yet unseen space between his characters’ outer hesitations and inward desires, The Grandmaster, which purports to follow bodies and minds in motion, suffers from emotional stillness.