THE GRANDMASTER (Wong Kar Wai, 2012)
Ever since Donnie Yen stepped into the shoes of Ip Man, everybody joined the bandwagon. Wong Kar Wai's THE GRANDMASTER, however is a respectable addition to the lot, and Tony Leung Chiu Wai with his unmatched cool, plays Ip Man handsomely.
Long gestating in the mind of WKW, THE GRANDMASTER is his second action movie (after ASHES OF TIME) and his first movie in five years (after 2007's MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS). Kar Wai is known for taking time during production, and his crew during filming of 2046 reportedly joked that they will wrap up filming by year 2046. Nevertheless, WKW's fans patiently wait for the auteur's next project to come out.
Common in WKW's films are themes of unrequited love and the painful aftermath of time, and they are not absent in THE GRANDMASTER, where a historical tale featuring slick martial arts choreography by master Yuen Woo Ping contains elements of a romantic angle. Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Gong Er (Zhang Zi Yi) started out as philosophical rivals but later turned out to be good friends, and in spite of that friendship is a subliminal romantic longing reminiscent of the actors' previous characters in WKW's 2046. The exchange of letters feel like IL MARE so much that sadly, Ip Man's wife Cheung Wing-sing (Song Hye Kyo) is reduced to a placeholder.
THE GRANDMASTER really is Gong Er's story. The story revolves around her claim for her family's honor, and Ip Man happens to be incidental in the plot. There is not enough action sequences as I'd hoped, but then again WKW's intention was probably to focus more on the philosophy of Kung Fu, and to outline the relationship between Ip Man and Gong Er. That, and to slide some slices of history, like the second Sino-Japanese war.
Zhang Zi Yi attacks her character Gong Er with determination and authority, sort of like a development of her arrogant Jen in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. The fight sequence in the train station is most notable, and Zi Yi rises to the occasion, telling us she is a force to be reckoned with in a man's world.
Song Hye Kyo, playing Madam Ip is luminous even with minimal dialogue. Poor thing, her character was undermined by a lot of things going on about Ip Man and Gong Er. Her character could have added some depth to Ip Man, especially at times of heavy voice over use by Tony Leung.
Also, the character "The Razor" played by Chang Chen, who is a nationalist agent and himself, a master martial artist, was totally incidental to the plot, almost accidental, one might say. This confuses me really about the central theme of THE GRANDMASTER. Is it about country? Is it about fate? Is it about family?
Signature slow motion sequences, bright colors, and a terrific musical score by Shigeru Umebayashi (who also did the score for 2046, one of the best scored piece of cinema) make THE GRANDMASTER a compelling watch. However, the slow pacing and the lengthy dialogue will be an obvious challenge to the viewer, even for a WKW fan like me. I love that WKW always instills some words to remember by the end of his films, but I wished he'd surprise us from time to time. His plot progression, as evidenced by this movie becomes predictable, and the film could have used at least 10 or 20 minutes less and still remain coherent. How I wish he will be able to send shivers up my spine again the way he did when he revealed the metaphor of the train cabins in 2046, or the ending of IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, or when Andy Lau and Maggie Cheung kissed in the phone booth in AS TEARS GO BY.
Just the same, for the brief electric spark when Tony Leung and Zhang Zi Yi met eyes midair during a sparring session in this film, WKW will always remain in my heart as the world's most romantic filmmaker.