Director: Wong Kar Wai
Stars: Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi
Release Company: The Weinstein Company
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Hong Kong takes center stage this week with the wide theatrical release of The Grandmaster. The city's most reknown filmmaker pays homage to Ip Man, the legendary martial arts teacher ultimately responsible for the global popularity of Wing Chun. This is largely due to his most famous student: Chinese-American film star Bruce Lee. In recent years, however, Lee's teacher has served as the primary source for film projects: Ip Man and Ip Man 2 starring Donnie Yen and The Legend is Born--Ip Man starring Dennis To.
But if you expect a martial arts extravaganza in Wong Kar Wai's film, you will be disappointed. The opening title sequences of flowing paint indicate that this isn't an ordinary action film. The universally acclaimed director creates cinema art that emphasizes emotional restraint and understatement. He doesn't even cast a martial artist for the lead role; instead he casts Tony Leung--arguably the finest Chinese actor of all time.
John Woo once referred to Leung as the "Chinese Cary Grant," and Leung has worked closely with Wong Kar Wai on many of his films: Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Happy Together, Ashes of Time, In the Mood for Love, 2046. Leung is to Kar Wai as DeNiro and DiCapprio are to Scorsese. Not every actor is comfortable with Wong Kar Wai's improvisational style that demands actors to reveal what they can bring to a role, but Leung thrives supremely with it. Patiently immersing himself into the mental/spiritual state of the character, Leung acts with subtle facial gestures that would never be captured by most filmmakers. Such is the case with The Grandmaster.
Unlike the Donnie Yen films, Kar Wai follows the chronology of Ip Man's life (largely through inter-titles) but reflectively considers the art of Wing Chun through flashbacks that emphasize inner character and Chinese code of honor. Martial arts sequences are impressionistic using the filmmaker's signature style. Often performed in pouring rain or snowfall, the cameraman works like a Tai Chi master to capture footwork and various vertical/horizontal movements up close--frequently slowed down in swirling water splashes. (Note: Kar Wai fans will be rewarded with smoke swirls in other scenes)
Balancing Leung is Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er. A trained dancer, Ziyi has performed convincingly as a martial artist in films popular in the west: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The House of Flying Daggers. After Gong Er's father loses a philosophical contest with Ip Man, Gong Er issues a challenge to defend family honor. The intense physical battle evolves into emotional connection, as the losing Ip Man swears to re-locate his family to the north for a rematch. Unfortunately, the Japanese invade and throw Foshan into chaos and Ip Man's family into poverty while Gong Er faces her own struggles. The real intensity occurs on screen when the two actors are in proximity, where both actors communicate supreme respect and restrained longing for each other.
The unevenness of the film is largely due to the way Wong Kar Wai works. While he has a general outline about the direction of his film, spontaneity rules each day of filming--this may involve a new script or have no script... actors must be prepared to deliver what they can. But The Grandmaster works well with the filmmaker's vision. As martial arts master remarks that the key move of his school lies in "reflection," the same applies to the theme of the film itself.
The film doesn't need a flurry of fancy moves. Ip Man simplifies Wing Chun and reflects on its universal significance for Life to deliver an effective homage effectively, even including a clever nod to Bruce Lee.