So here, at last, is The Grandmaster, Wong-Kar Wai’s long-delayed, dream-like imagining of the life of Ip Man, who famously trained Bruce Lee in the martial arts. In a sense it is a martial arts film, but it’s primarily a drama dealing with that recurring Wai theme of fleeting, unfulfilled love, which formed the centre of his most widely known film to date, In the Mood For Love.
That film, like this one, starred Tony Leung, a tremendous screen presence who has worked in practically every genre over his career, including martial arts films – notably Hero, in which he co-starred with Zhang Ziyi, who plays his love interest in this film, and Wai’s own Ashes of Time. Here he plays Ip Man, who is selected by his martial arts peers to represent southern China in a bout against the north. Later, he is forced to flee the country and begins to teach martial arts in Hong Kong.
His northern counterpart is the beautiful Gong Er (Ziyi), with whom he shares a balletic and touching fight scene roughly half way through the film – touching, because although the two actors share remarkable chemistry on screen, it’s one of the few scenes in which they actually make physical contact. It’s indicative of Wai’s approach to the martial arts element of the film that this central fight scene plays out like a lovelorn dance – somehow tender, and perhaps more instructive than a thousand words could be.
Indeed, the action scenes in the film, and there are a fair few, are notable for a number of reasons. There are some intricately constructed battles in here, but Wai only periodically allows the fighting to become his focus. His camera spends a lot of time dwelling closely on the movements of his actors – on the swishes and swoops of their clothing, on the impacts of and reactions to their moves, rather than the moves themselves. Initially it feels like his style is getting in the way of Yuen Wo Ping’s choreography, but actually the blend of sharp routines and Wai’s focused direction make for a unique and uniquely shot martial arts experience, which is precisely what I wanted when I heard Wai was returning to the genre. If you’re looking for detailed, impactful fight scenes in the manner of, say, The Raid, you won’t find them here – The Grandmaster is more interested in the beauty of the dance than the violence it contains.
The film is a period piece in as much as Wai allows it to be, but the vision of China we see here is dreamlike and focused intently on the key players in the drama. Wai’s very recognisable ‘close in’ style is present and correct here, even in the fight scenes, and that style reflects the fact that the film is more interested in its smaller scale dramas and moments than it is in the wider historical context of the period. The Japanese invasion of China in the late 1930s is given a brief moment of effective prominence, but in general the historic events are pointers in Wai’s own story. To that extent we can say that the film is not, nor does it intend to be, an exhaustive account of either the history of the region, or even of the life of its main character.
As it happens, the phrase ‘main character’ does Zhang Ziyi’s performance a disservice. She becomes almost as prominent in the story as Ip Man does, and it’s a joy to watch her and Leung in these roles. They both have moments when their steely veneers are penetrated, and both convey these beautifully. The piece de resistance is a closing discussion between the two, which aches with what might have been.
Around the halfway point, The Grandmaster shifts in tone and focus, and evolves into a passionate love story, the likes of which those who have seen Wong Kar-Wai’s films will be familiar with. Aided by his sumptuous visuals and a gorgeous, moving score, Wai has constructed another convincing portrayal of love in which his protagonists barely get close to one another, let alone make declarations of their feelings.
The narrative structure is a little shaky at times, and it perhaps inhabits too many genres to be fully su ccessful in any of them, but my goodness it’s compelling. I would happily watch Leung and Ziyi on screen for hours, and am grateful to have been given another opportunity to do so.