I’m surprised at how many variations of one man Chinese cinema can find inspiration to produce. How have they not run out of ideas? We’ve seen his story told in faithful biographies, in semi-biographical kung fu movies, and now Wong Kar Wai gives us the hybrid: Tedious acrobatic semi-biographical kung fu beauty.
The man of course is Ip Man, famed tutor of Bruce Lee in the martial art called Wing Chun. He’s been played by Dennis To, Anthony Wong, Donnie Yen and others. This time, he’s played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai (there are two famous Tony Leungs), and the first thing that struck me about this portrayal is how uncomfortable Leung looks in the scenes that actually require him to do kung fu. He is not a martial artist by profession. Donnie Yen is, and his confidence in kung fu roles is visibly present on screen. You can see the fluidity of his moves, and you can tell at once that kung fu to him is like painting to Rembrandt; it’s inherent. Leung, on the other hand, is as rigid as a board, which is sadly ironic considering that one of the fundamentals of Wing Chun is the softness and ease of one’s strokes.
Nevertheless, Leung is one of China’s best, and he excels at the dramatisation of Ip Man, which isn’t very often. The Grandmaster’s screenplay is attributed to three men — one of whom is Kar Wai himself — and for reasons I cannot fathom they have chosen to focus much of the story on a kung fu lady, Gong Er (Zhang Zi Yi) — who, as we discover, is the daughter of a famous Northern martial artist — instead of drawing Ip Man to the foreground. Why is so much time spent on her quest for revenge after a loyal apprentice of her father’s betrays and kills him? I don’t understand. Nothing of Ip Man’s life is chronicled, except for his move to Hong Kong, his opening of a Wing Chun school, and his abrupt departure from his wife (who says close to nothing throughout the entire movie). Yes, we see him in battle quite a lot, but the battles mean nothing. Most of them are friendly spars. Where is all the emotional exposition? By the end of the movie I felt a closer connection to Gong Er than I did to the grandmaster, and I doubt that’s what was supposed to happen.
I think what Kar Wai was aiming for with this adaptation is beauty. He loves his cinematic beauty; not just the beauty of cinematography, but of movement. His characters glide and slide with grace. When they fight, their feet are light enough to hover inches off the ground but sturdy enough to send clouds of dust billowing into the dark air from a kick to the chest. But he loses himself in all this splendour. There comes a time in most directors’ careers where the need to over indulge trumps the will to sit back and think rationally. Many believe Eyes Wide Shut to be Kubrick’s most indulgent movie (a rather perfunctory statement considering all his movies are over indulgent). And in my opinion Apocalypse Now contains little to no humility.
The Grandmaster is possibly such a film. I see very little in it that speaks for Kar Wai’s love of movies. Yes, many of his shots are exquisite, but the story hidden between them is nowhere deep enough to tie them all together. Where is the focus? On the sandy dunes of Ashes Of Time perhaps. That movie, filmed in 1994 and also directed by Kar Wai, contained no narrative to speak of. It was a collage of beautiful imagery and strong, vibrant colours. Every shot was a joy to look at, even if you had no idea why they were there or what they were trying to say. The Grandmaster has a narrative. It’s there. It’s just concealed. And it shouldn’t be. It should be driving the cinematography, not the other way round.
And enough of Ip Man. I’ve seen enough of his life. Why not shift your resources to Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan? They could do with a good biopic. Jackie Chan might even opt to do his own stunts.
Best Moment | That one quick close-up of Chinese calligraphy. Man, that’s gorgeous.
Worst Moment | Leung in the fight scenes. He just looks out of place.