Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Has Tony Leung been upstaged by a guy with a monkey? That appears to be the case for Wong Kar Wai's beautiful but frustrating martial arts film, ‘The Grandmaster’.
After a decade and a slew of other films about Ip Man, Wong's long delayed ‘The Grandmaster’ finally hits theatres. It bears many of his usual themes, such as unrequited love, the passing of an age and loneliness, as well as luscious cinematography and moody soundtrack. Thankfully, it's more accessible than his previous martial arts effort ‘Ashes of Time’, which many are still scratching their head over.
However, ‘The Grandmaster’ does have its share of problems. It feels like we are getting a lot of scenes from a larger tapestry, and the stories revolving around the characters feel incomplete.
The film starts out focusing on Ip Man, a martial artist in his 40s residing in Foshan, China. He challenges grandmaster Gong Yutian and manages to defeat him, earning Ip Man the ire of his opponent's daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi). She defeats him in a duel, but the two share what can only be described as a moment in the midst of the fight, where it seems they should be making love rather than exchanging blows.
‘The Grandmaster’ trailer
Since Ip Man is married to Zhang Yongcheng (Korean actress Song Hye-kyo), that spark never comes to fruition (it is a Wong Kar Wai film, after all).
Gong's father later dies at the hands of a former underling Ma San (Zhang Jin). The film deviates away from Ip Man to focus on Gong's revenge, culminating in a spectacular battle at a train station.
And there are other scraps of story floating around, from Ip Man's struggles during the Sino Japanese war and how he came to establish a martial arts school in Hong Kong. There's also the mysterious character known as The Razor, played by Chang Cheh.
The characters are underwritten, and a bodyguard of the Gong family who wields a saber and has a monkey companion is the most memorable character in the film, and far more intriguing than the two-dimensional Ip Man.
If there's one consolation, the fight scenes, choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping, are spectacular, even if we're not always sure what they're fighting for. At the start of the film, Ip Man battles against a band of hoodlums in the rain, allowing Wong to show closeups of raindrops along with Ip Man's blows.
‘The Grandmaster’ appears to be the story of not just one, but several grandmasters, while the plot threads are left to dangle and Wong is just showing snippets. Wong might be suggesting other themes, such as how a Kung Fu expert like The Razor turns toward commercial activities in order to survive in a new world, but it's not quite clear.
The non-linearity of the storyline is also frustrating and gives a lot away. It is evident that Gong survives the fight with the film's main villain, for example, because the film zooms ahead to Hong Kong before shuttling back to the epic battle. It's also the only fight where there is actually something tangible at stake other than just pride.
As for the Ip Man myth, there is little new that Wong gives to the story that the Donnie Yen movies haven't done, beyond a couple of fight scenes and his relationship with Gong.
For a director known for his subtlety, Wong also does a lot of telling, not showing. A scene where Gong confesses her feelings for Ip Man just feels unnecessary and makes one cringe. Characters speak in cryptic phrases, and too many of the shots, even non-fighting scenes, use slow motion, that ultimately disrupt the flow of the film. The most frustrating is what is missing; the audience has to fill in the blanks where large chunks of the narrative appear to have been left on the cutting room floor.
Packaging wise, the film just swirls with elegance and glamour. It's a pity that far too often the cast look like they're posing, and there's a general stiffness to the main characters. At least the soundtrack is luscious, even if Wong reuses tunes from his earlier films.
So is ‘The Grandmaster’ one of Wong Kar Wai's best? Unfortunately it falls far short. It's possibly the most accessible, with some stunning fight scenes, but the film doesn't come together as a whole despite its very pretty individual parts.
One certainly wishes for more coherence, and for Wong to at least deviate with a little more purpose. Hopefully, one day the supposed four hour version of the film will be screened, and the audience can judge for themselves.
Travis Wong is a film loving geek who got his start from frequenting video shops in JB. He frequented movie theaters more often than school, and received his cinematic epiphany when he watched 'Taxi Driver'. While not driving a cab, he haunts DVD shops, and he currently has the largest remaining collection of VHS tapes and Laserdiscs in the country.