The Grandmaster is a biopic that does what most biopic cannot do, become compelling cinema. It is director Wong Kar Wai’s return to the screen in six-year, his return to Chinese cinema in nine years, and his return to form in thirteen years. It is the story of Ip Man, famed martial artist of Wing Chun, and his journey from practitioner to teacher over the course of thirty years. The title The Grandmaster refers to Ip Man, but it could easily reflect some of the talent in front of and behind the camera. Writer/director Wong Kar Wai is master of Chinese cinema, helping to bring international attention to Chinese cinema with Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, and In The Mood For Love. Tony Leung, himself a master actor, can convey more information and emotion with a simple look from his eyes than most can with an entire page of dialog. Zhang Ziyi has been at home in these martial arts films for years, and when given a chance, she too can transform into a beautiful and understated actress. Throw in martial arts choreography from the Yuen Woo Ping, and you got yourself one heck of a lot of masters.
Told in flashback with narration, the story begins with a forty-year-old Ip Man (Leung), a well to-do martial artist who has lived his life in relative peace, referring to this season of his life as spring. The martial arts world is suddenly thrown into a tizzy when Gong Yutian (Qingxiang Wang) resigns as master and divides the kung fu world into two regions, north and south. He appoints Ma San (Jin Zhang) as the north master and leaves the election of the south master up to the different schools. Ip is selected as the primary candidate and must defeat three masters from three different styles before squaring off with Gong Yutian. His Wing Chun defeats the other schools, but Gong Yutian is different. They spar, not to prove a superior style or school, but philosophy. Gong Yutian quickly realizes the skills and mindset of Ip, concedes the battle, and dubs Ip the master. Gong Yutain’s daughter, Gong Er (Ziyi) challenges Ip to a duel and show him her 64 Hands technique. For the first time, Ip looses a match, and the two fall in love.
China falls under heavy unrest and Ip finds himself a stranger in his home country. His daughters starve to death, and Ip moves to Hong Kong in hopes of making money by teaching martial arts. All the while, he thinks of Gong Er, and searches for her. Gong Er has her own problems to deal with, Ma San killed her father, and she takes a vow of vengeance. Gong Er and Ma San meet at a train station and fight with Gong Er emerging the victor. However, she sustains heavy injuries and has to give up martial arts, turning to the opium pipe for pain relief. When Ip finally finds her, his heart breaks to hear her tale and see what has become of her. Gong Er is too far-gone to rekindle any romance or to carry on the legend of the 64 Hands. Ip returns to his school and continued to teach Wing Chun until his death in 1972.
If you see The Grandmaster in American theaters, chances are good that you are going to see a cut down version (from 130 minutes to 109 minutes) with some expository inter-titles and the occasional voice over to provide information. David Ehrlich of film.com does an excellent job identifying the cuts, which are mainly focused to streamline the dual lead of Ip Man and Gong Er down to just Ip. The romance between the two of them is reduced from an actual love affair to something unspoken and unrealized. To be fair, Kar Wai can do more without than most directors can with. It is a shame that the Weinsteins felt it was necessary to make the film more palatable to an American audience. It would be easy to say that the Weinsteins think little of their audience, but some of the best independent and foreign films in the past twenty years made it to the multiplexes because of Harvey and Bob Weinstein. Maybe they made the changes because they thought they knew better than Kar Wai. An absurd idea, but then again, no one hits it out of the park every time. Kar Wai’s most recent film My Blueberry Nights was a dud, but that doesn’t mean he’s lost his edge. No, the Weinsteins are just wrong this time. They are wrong to underestimate their audience, and they are wrong to cut one frame from The Grandmaster. However, I do not think this hurts the movie, nor does it hollow it out. Kar Wai seems less concerned with re-telling history or educating his audience, and more concerned with images and the poetry of movement. After all, that is what good cinema is. There has always been a successful smell test when it comes to movies, turn the sound down, and you should still be able to follow the story based solely on the images. The images do much more than carry the story or inform the audiences, they leave their mark. Most directors photograph information, Wong Kar Wai photographs emotion.
The Grandmaster is a movie that is difficult to write about, but easy to sit and discuss over tea. It is in essence filmed philosophy. Through fight scenes and a few dialog scenes, we come to understand Ip Man’s philosophy. Pay attention to the images, how they are framed, how and when Kar Wai chooses to move the camera, all of those close-ups of the fighter’s feet and you will come to understand not only Wong Kar Wai’s philosophy, but choreographer Yuen Woo Ping’s as well. The cuts to the American version leave the story disjointed and jarring, however the central philosophy remains, and it would take a lot more than a few hacks here and there from the Weinsteins to butcher that.
French filmmaker, Robert Bresson once said, “A film is not a spectacle, it is in the first place a style.” Style, it’s as important to story as it is to identity, here playing a much greater role than in most movies. Style is used to define a community, a way of life, a tradition (or in the case of the 64 Hands, a tradition that is dying) and a philosophy. It’s also the style of a character, Ip Man who only wore a western suit once, yet adorns his head with a beautiful broad-rimmed white fedora, actively choosing not to fit in with either the place or the time. Style is also a hallmark of Wong Kar Wai, signing his films with ghostly imagery achieved by slowing down or speeding up shots in editing that were under-cranked or over-cranked during shooting. The film concludes with Ip staring directly into the camera and asking, “What’s your style?” A question that is as relevant to martial artists as it is to any artist. After seeing The Grandmaster, it’s clear that Wong Kar Wai knows what his style is.