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(Credit: Jet Tone Films)

Exploring art and action through Wong Kar-wai film 'The Grandmaster'

Wong Kar-wai - 'The Grandmaster'
4.3

“My father said mastery had three stages – being, knowing, doing. I know myself. I’ve seen the world. Sadly, I can’t pass on what I know. This is a road I won’t see to the end. I hope you will.”

One of Wong Kar-wai’s most expensive and extensive productions in his history of filmography, The Grandmaster is considered the auteur’s most difficult creations. With the lead actor Tony Leung breaking his arm almost twice during filming, this film was, however, Wong’s dream collaborative project with the Chinese cinematic industry. Released in 2013, this picture was Wong’s sole project to have been nominated at the Academy Awards, forging history in the process. 

After various Ip Man films portraying a picture of the legendary Ip, Wong’s take on Bruce Lee’s mentor is refreshing and doesn’t feel like a martial arts movie as it blends within itself his characteristic lithe camera movements and poetic vision. The visual aesthetics appeal to one’s senses, and the incredibly orchestrated fight sequences, designed by the revered Yuen Woo-ping, add to the melodramatic tension in the film. 

The film begins with a magnificent battle scene amidst the pouring rain where Leung, as the bold and brilliant Ip, clad in a beige hat and long coat, takes on an army of attackers. He is reminiscent of a lone wolf who takes on a small group singlehandedly, defeating them and marking the beginning of an epic quest-like journey from the Chinese province of Guangdong to Hong Kong Kong with the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937 in its backdrop. It is here that he loses his wife and children to wartime tragedies. Ip Man is trained in the legendary Wing Chun, and when master Gong Baosen sees them fighting, he recognises his potential, viewing Ip as a worthy heir upon the former’s retirement. In the city of Foshan, a tournament starts to determine Gong’s successor. 

Gong’s equally competent daughter, Gong Er, played by the talented Ziyi Zhang, who is trained in the 64-hand technique, meets Ip and develops an attraction. It is at this juncture of a forbidden romance where the pining resembles that of In the Mood for Love. Their unconsummated romance shows their fight in a tender light where these dexterous warriors come close to touching lips while fighting relentlessly.

Gong Er is one of the most intriguing characters in the film as she brings with herself Wong’s unique take on this genre in which he interlaces yearning with action. Wong romanticises the past and constantly juxtaposes ancient loyalty and scared traditions to modern times and the subsequent betrayals. He resorts to close-ups and slow-mos to heighten the atmospheric tension. The fight sequences are fluid, and amidst the constant oscillations between the past and the present, there is a strong emphasis on honour as Leung’s solemn voiceover gives an insight into the art of Wing Chun. 

(Credit: Jet Tone Films)

The fight sequences are well-choreographed and realistic, reeking of the techniques of respective martial arts. It celebrates the myriads of such practices while positing the narrative of Ip’s journey against a larger politically charged backdrop. The film is not about violence but respect, dignity and honour. Wong’s poetic vision remains intact in the movie as he breaks the expectations of watching a heroic narrative and focuses more on building his vision by concentrating on Ip’s journey via flashbacks and voiceovers. No longer does he resort to the usual Shigeru Umebayashi for the music but shifts to a blend of Ennio Morricone, Stefano Lentini and Deborah’s Theme, which somehow loses the usual Wong charm. 

Although The Grandmaster is considered by many to be Wong’s magnum opus, I would politely beg to differ. It is highly stylised, aesthetically pleasing, and the finely orchestrated fight sequence set the film in motion. The film transcends the usual as is seen through Gong Er’s pensive determination to continue her father’s legacy and her subsequent predicament, which gains precedence to Ip Man’s achievements as well as the emphasised fight sequence on the railway platform between Gong Er and Zhang Jin’s Ma San that remains as one of the most exhilarating scenes in the film. However, the visual marvel does not seem like his best as it often loses the charisma and style characteristic of Wong’s oeuvre due to the lack of coherence and the somewhat muddled plotline.  

“Kung fu. Two words – horizontal, vertical. Make a mistake; horizontal. Stay standing and you win.” Wong focuses on the beauty of the past and the legend and historicity of kung fu while highlighting Ip Man’s journey. However, the legend’s compelling life deserves a better execution from the auteur. The visuals are captivating, the imagination sublime. The passive yearning and regret that is quintessential to Wong’s film are present here as well. The precision of the techniques in the fights, even as a rain-soaked Leung flexibly kicks his opponents, is commendable and only expected from Wong’s sensibility.

The characters are competent yet vulnerable, the director’s penchant for poetic motion and nuances are viewed in the film, making it one of the most beautiful kung fu films ever made. As Ip introspects and reflects on his life, the viewer is left slightly disappointed to note that a man of his stature deserved a far more dedicated exploration in the film, which is otherwise a deft mixture of art and action. Wong and Ip exist as philosophers in the film that abounds in the grandeur of the splendid imagery, fight sequences and the overall inspirational life of the legendary Ip who went on to train the iconic Bruce Lee. 

“They say I spread Wing Chung throughout the world. I hope that’s true. I didn’t do it to acquire renown. The martial arts should be open to all, everyone should walk the same route. It all comes down to two words: Horizontal, Vertical.”


Far Out is currently the BFI media partner for the brilliant Wong Kar-wai season taking place in London, with tickets on sale now. At Far Out, we’ll continue to bring you all the news, reviews and detailed coverage in the coming weeks.

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