A solitary man in a white fedora weaves his way among dozens of nameless fighters as a silver rain cascades down around them. The slick street is illuminated by a single lamp, which casts off an ethereal glow. A blur of fists erupts and the bodies start to fall — elegantly in slow motion. We hear a comment that summarises the martial arts in two words: horizontal and vertical. Whoever remains standing, wins. The solitary man walks into the rain and fades away. Ah. Wong Kar-wai is back.
Saying Wong Kar-wai is “Okay,” or “If you’ve seen one WKW film you’ve seen them all,” runs very close to blasphemy in some parts of the film world. Suggesting he’s less than genius all the time brands you a troglodyte; a philistine incapable of understanding greatness. Make enough films and a stink bomb is inevitable, unless that’s a filmmaker’s trade of choice (hello Uwe Boll). My Blueberry Nights is distinctly off the mark, and though it made a pile of “Best of” lists, 2046’s status as an unmitigated triumph is debatable. Wong is a director known for his modern interpretation of human relations, and with his latest film he’s tackling a uniquely Hong Kong tradition outside his wheelhouse. Think Quentin Tarantino recently delving into the Civil War western or Martin Scorsese trying his hand at Edwardian romance. The potential for disaster looms large and a lot of critics are going to disagree, because, you know, Wong Kar-wai. The Grandmaster is good; better than expected given its rocky road to fruition, but it’s not great.
The oppressive existential angst and crushing romantic despair that informs almost all of Wong’s work — the couple that can’t figure out why they’re gloriously, luminously incompatible in Happy Together, the too-little-too-late romance of Fallen Angels, and the un-acted upon yearning that took Wong beyond niche circles around the world of In the Mood for Love — is in full force in The Grandmaster, a film that feels as if all of Wong’s work to this point was leading here. There are also more Mainland/Hong Kong musings, with the southern martial schools demanding recognition and the northern master realising it’s time for new blood. A hybrid of a traditional Hong Kong wuxia film and mood, The Grandmaster is less oblique than the criminally underrated Ashes of Time. But where Ashes’ elliptical nature felt carefully structured (perhaps pretentious), The Grandmaster’s feels unfinished; like a work in progress.
And that may well be the case. Nearly 10 years in the making and with countless re-edits and script changes (some of the actors were allegedly unavailable for crucial reshoots) word on the street was that Wong was holed up in a dark room frantically working on a final cut to meet the film’s Chinese release date (two days before Hong Kong’s) and opening slot at Berlin. The film also feels like a work aspiring to wholesale redefinition of wuxia cinema, kind of the way Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven deconstructed the western. The film chronicles the life of Ip Man (Tony Leung), the legendary Wing Chun master that supposedly trained Bruce Lee, from his early happy and prosperous years in Foshan with his wife Zhang Yongcheng (Korean actress Song Hye-kyo) to the foundation of his Hong Kong school in the 1950s. In between he challenges a Northeaster master, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) to marital supremacy, loses his family to the Japanese occupation of China and enters into an unrealised, simmering romance with Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), Yutian’s daughter and protector of the Gong family tradition. Elsewhere, The Razor (Chang Chen), a resistance fighter and martial master in his own right makes his way to the Fragrant Harbour, and Ma Shan (Zhang Jin) takes over the Gong school after betraying Yutian. There’s more, but that’s the important stuff.
Wong doesn’t so much juggle and connect these threads as he gives each its moment before moving on to the next. The first hour is Ip’s, and includes some truly awesome lessons at the renowned martial headquarters/brothel Golden Pavilion, as Leung turns in a jaunty portrait of the famed teacher. Then there’s an abrupt detour into wuxia feminism in Gong Er’s story, as she sacrifices marriage to fight Ma Shan for her family name. It is Er that encounters The Razor on a train and saves him from the Japanese (we never find out exactly what he’s done), but that’s the last time we see him before he engages in a street brawl and flees to Hong Kong. At one point in time the film was titled “The Grandmasters,” the plural suggesting a meeting of the three schools was inevitable. Either that or The Razor had his time drastically cut. The end result is characters that are only sketches, giving us no real insight to Ip or anyone else. The slow-burning attraction between Er and Ip never comes close to feeling as rich as Leung and Maggie Cheung’s in Love, Leung and Leslie Cheung’s in Happy, or Leung and Faye Wong’s in Chungking Express (are you sensing a pattern here?). For the amount of time and exposition Chang is given he could have been edited out completely and no one would have noticed.
However, on a martial arts level, the film is going to thrill wuxia fans and could, just maybe, convert newbies to the genre. Though at times it feels like a live action textbook, the attention to detail and the devotion to distinguishing the various disciplines from each other is astounding, and harkens back to Hong Kong’s kung fu film glory days of the 1960s and ’70s. The gorgeously choreographed fights (by Yuen Woo-ping) are photographed every bit as lushly as the rest (by Philippe Le Sourd) and totally live up to Wong’s visual standards. The opening brawl, Razor’s smack down, Gong Er’s train station showdown with Ma Shan (against what appears to be the world’s longest passenger train), the late night neon strolls, the simple act of going through a door, a hand stroking fur and burning cigarettes have rarely been loaded with as much subtext and beauty. And rarely has a film demanded a special director’s cut more.