Compared to his first wuxia film, 1994’s overlooked Ashes of Time, Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster is straightforward and simple; indeed, this might be the director’s most accessible offering not named Chungking Express, thanks to a dose of character-identifiers and expository title cards. Where Ashes of Time was painted with bold impressionist strokes, unfolding more like a dream than an actual life, often times at the expense of narrative coherency, The Grandmaster is a series of cliché plot-points—often maddeningly told—rescued by details and exquisite expressionist camerawork.
Title cards tell us that there is a divide between martial art practitioners in the North of China and the South of China, and a bit more exposition (with an action scene thrown in) leads to the North’s master, Gong Yutian, stepping down and appointing Ma San his heir, with Ip Man (Tony Leung) being chosen to represent the South. Not unexpectedly, Ip Man and Gong Yutian’s daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Yiyi), fall for one another as they spar in a somewhat unreasoned tournament.
This part of the movie, which I would measure as being a bit under half the film, holds few resemblances to Wong’s previous work. For one, a great deal of it is highly choreographed action scenes, in which longshots of punches and kicks are often interrupted by slow-motion close-ups of limbs in motion. Only a few scenes, all of them in the “Gold Pavilion” where the martial artists fight, contain Wong’s recognizable color palette. In the exteriors it rains hard, but it’s very dark, and the short shot lengths and stylized sound effects don’t give off the exotic, seductive atmosphere that is unmistakable in almost all of Wong’s work.
But when the Sino-Japanese War breaks out in 1938 and (again, as title cards inform us), Ip Man loses his daughters to starvation and is then separated from his family in Hong Kong, it begins to feel more like a film by its auteur. For one, the isolation of Hong Kong from mainland China is a major plot point, and that theme tends to recur throughout Wong’s oeuvre; for another, the emphasis turns from kung-fu to character, with all the familiar points of bad, impossible, and incompatible love finding their way to the surface. Unfortunately, there isn’t much here that Wong hasn’t explored elsewhere thanks to the constant need to insert an action scene, even if they add nothing to the story (as a meeting between Ip Man and martial arts master “The Razor” does). Thankfully, the camerawork remains exquisite, and along with the swelling score, propels the film toward grandiosity. Likewise, the dialogue is more stylized than usual, and although it often falls flat—try counting how many times you can predict the next line—it’s also full of meaningful callbacks and images that nicely complement the film’s scope and structure.
While that certainly makes The Grandmaster an experience, the predictable plotting and exposition dumps don’t put enough emphasis on the details, such as the family lives or the politics surrounding the story, to elevate the film (full disclosure: The Weinstein Company cut 22 minutes from the film and added much of the title cards; the original cut is, by almost all accounts, a much better movie). What does work, however, is the evolution of Gong Er’s character through generations and political turmoil. The Grandmaster is the most explicitly feminist of Wong’s films, and Gong Er’s evolution is perhaps the most complete element of the film. At the beginning, her father wants her to be a doctor but it’s clear she can fight. We are eventually treated to her backstory, and her inner-conflict is, in many ways, more interesting than Ip Man’s story. Gong Er’s story unfolds through generations and is always at the mercy of her political climate. Ip Man, by contrast, seems to exist almost outside of his environment; things happen, even to his family, but his changes are difficult to detect.
When Gong Er’s story concludes, The Grandmaster reaches what should be an ending, as it had turned focus on her some time ago, but it keeps going. And going. And going. Title card after title card, minor scene after minor scene, and appropriate after ending after appropriate ending is passed up until, after an infuriating few minutes, the film calls back an early line and concludes.
It’s hard to say, at least from this cut, how exactly the historical backdrop of The Grandmaster impacted Ip Man, or what it says about him and the other characters. Action sequences are regularly forced in, making The Grandmaster a far cry from the magical distillations of time and romance that Wong so frequently uses to humanize his characters and their world at large. There are traces of magic in The Grandmaster poking through, but this is a director who frequently manages to do much more than poke with his ambitious, beautiful stories. Surely the stylized dialogue and throwaway plot moments, such as the arc of Ma Sen and Ip Man’s battle with “The Razor” would have significance in the Chinese Cut (or, hopefully they would; based on Wong’s track record, I feel confident making that claim), but here, they’re baffling and/or excuses to get to more action. Still, that The Grandmaster frustrates in so many ways but still manages to be a worthwhile experience speaks to how effective its best sequences are, and to the perfectionism that Wong and his cinematographer, Philippe Le Sourd, grappled with in every shot, which makes The Grandmaster occasionally transporting. The downside, once again, is that “occasionally” isn’t good enough in such an intricately structured and grandiose film.