Wong Kar-Wai is best known for the film “In The Mood For Love,” a lyrical 60s mood piece about two Hong Kong apartment dwellers with good hair and sharp clothes (and some other stuff about unrequited love or something). That film helped cement him as a favorite of the critical establishment, an easy selection for the list of transcendent directors to be name-dropped if you’re in the know. He was also the last person I expected to throw their hat into the ring for a feature about Ip Man, the famed wing chun expert who taught Bruce Lee and has become one of the last legendary figures in martial arts history. So far, Ip Man’s life story has been expressed by having him beat up 20 people at once, sort of the complete opposite of the common high school experience and an easy route to wish fulfilling entertainment. Wong is too passive aggressive to make a straightforward genre film though, so heading in it was not easy to predict what to expect here other than gorgeous cinematography.
It does indeed look gorgeous. It’s every bit a period piece and every shot is full of ornate, lacquered furniture, woven iconified ironwork, perfectly fluffed furs, and crisply dressed servants. The main characters, or combatants, are equally well decked out in fashionable, eye catching attire. Wong must have been struck by something inherently graceful about martial arts, and it is keenly translated to the screen first by their dress and manner. When we finally do get down to fighting, rather than a blur of fists The Grandmaster’s fights are slow ballets of fingers and half steps, battles determined by a matter of inches. One fight climaxes when someone falls off the stairs, and that fall takes almost a minute to resolve in screen time. More interested in mid-fight time-dilation than the phrenetic pummeling of your typical martial arts feature, the Grandmaster’s approach is rather rare and is easy to appreciate as an ode to the refined manners and taste of the bygone era captured here.
After a few aggrandizing matches in mainland China which show Ip Man comfortably rising up in the pre-WW2 martial arts social club, most of the subsequent Japanese occupation is skipped and Ip Man himself is sidelined. This is important to mention because this choice is critical to what the film is trying to capture (or at least this edit of the film- Grandmaster was over twice as long and shown as a series in China). The director’s romantic inclinations creep in and a very chaste seduction between martial artists colors the events of history. Rather than a lustful soulmate “English Patient” situation, this is built entirely on respect for each other’s martial prowess, only possible for people immersed in both the art and the tradition. The resulting throughlines and dramatic explosions actually shift to a family beyond Ip Man’s, and he is forced out of the mythmaking in his own story. Ability is no match for a tragic circumstance, Wong seems to be telling us. Or at the very least, we cannot avoid the dramatic longings and defeats that punctuate human existence, even when you can physically force people to obey.
The duality of martial skill and existential fulfillment are a delectable treat, but the structure of the Grandmaster feels oddly ungraceful itself. Time passes irregularly in starts and stops, never quite sitting with these characters for long enough before they are getting up to fight again. An odd complaint for an action movie, I know, but the result is the stakes are never really set, only mentioned in whispers and searching looks, until the final glorious snowy trainyard battle. It is perhaps a backhanded compliment to Wong to say that he has unexpectedly failed to give us an instant classic, but the Grandmaster is a charming unique fusion nonetheless. It doesn’t do enough to convince outsiders that there’s something authentically beautiful lurking in this way of life, but if you are already sympathetic to careful foot placement it can be rewarding.
Originally published on Synthetic Error December 22, 2020