The good news about Wong Kar-wai’s new film is that, following the debacle that was My Blueberry Nights (2007), the good Wong is back. The Grandmaster not only banishes the (thankfully now easily forgotten) memory of Blueberry, but also manages to continue building on themes and forms from Wong’s previous films while steering his art in an entirely new direction—and this despite the fact that, on the surface, The Grandmaster puts him squarely back in the kind of genre territory he hasn’t occupied since his first film, As Tears Go By (1988). Wong also finds himself in a commercial situation that is relatively new for him but now standard for (almost all) Hong Kong filmmakers: that his film be releasable in the mainland (i.e., censorship-ready), and attractive to mainland Chinese audiences. (The Grandmaster seems to have met both requirements: it has done extraordinarily well at the Chinese box office, and looks to be Wong’s biggest hit by far in Chinese-speaking territories.)
The Grandmaster is a martial-arts film, whose complicated narrative strategies and ambitious attempt to re-stylize a form that—on the evidence of the past ten years of Chinese action blockbusters—looks to be increasingly moribund, sets it apart from its generic brethren. The film dutifully works through the high points of the biography of Ip Man, the founder of wing chun and mentor to Bruce Lee, but in an often elliptical fashion, heavily dependent on intertitles for context and plot, punctuated with flashbacks and flash-forwards (some marked, some unmarked). These create a varied narrative rhythm with “abnormal” pauses and accelerations that seem to echo the alternating stop-start, slo-mo/hyper-speed syncopations of the film’s action scenes. The first wave of English-language reviews coming out of the Chinese and Berlin premieres—whose different versions contained many minor and some significant variations (I write about the China version here)—complained about the film’s “ill-behaved” narrative speed and structure. This may be a deliberate strategy on Wong’s part; it may betray an as yet unresolved tension in the film between its loyalty to genre and its historical ambitions. The Grandmaster both fulfills and frustrates the requirements of the period action-movie biopic, Wong continually puncturing the fabric of his generically templated narrative with his radical telescoping of events and chronological leaps. Not just conventionally mapping narrative onto (a) real life, in The Grandmaster Wong is mapping cinema onto history—or, if you will, imbricating history into cinema.
There has been a flurry of Ip Man films recently, most notably Wilson Yip’s 2008 Ip Man and the 2010 sequel Ip Man 2 (both starring Donnie Yen, today’s preeminent kung fu star actor). Herman Yau’s The Legend Is Born: Ip Man (2010) and his upcoming Ip Man: The Final Fight are attempts to ride the box-office success of those two hits. (The Grandmaster would actually have predated the Yip diptych, but was held up by a frequently delayed production process.) All the films are biographically based, which is to say that they are anchored in a certain set of facts about Ip Man’s life—his birth in 1893 in Foshan, near Guangzhou in southern China; his wealthy background; his early kung fu studies and subsequent rise to fame as a master of the southern style nanquan, or southern fist; his troubles under the Japanese occupation and descent into poverty; his relocation to Hong Kong, development of his unique wing chun style, establishment of his kung fu school, and career as a wing chun teacher. The Donnie Yen films, rather stolid but effectively streamlined examples of straight-up, nostalgic Shaw Brothers-style kung fu, highlight Ip Man’s anti-Japanese “heroism”—a stance that’s conveniently in synch with the propaganda priorities of the Chinese government.
What does Wong Kar-wai do with this kind of generic structure? His usual mode of gorgeously, impressionistically photographed dreams saturated with a Proustian longing for times and loves lost and haunted by the tragedy of a time never to be regained does not immediately seem to lend itself to the kung fu world; his one previous martial-arts film, Ashes of Time (1994), was an idiosyncratically auteurist variation of the more glamorous, “upscale” wuxia sub-genre, in which noble swordsmen joust for honour. Both the plebian kung fu and the aristocratic wuxia sub-genres are in essence vehicles of moral instruction, addressing contemporary Chinese society with sometimes conservative, sometimes radical readings of what it means to pursue a worthy life, and positioning this search against a broader social context of tumultuous, often corrupt times. Though history has often been in the background of Wong’s films—especially in In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004), but as early as Days of Being Wild (1990)—it has constituted more of a background, an atmospheric setting for his characters’ romantic preoccupations. History has not been a subject in itself. With The Grandmaster, Wong moves history from the background to the foreground. This is a major revision of his cinema, and one with interesting structural and formal implications.
Wong’s film follows Ip Man’s history with fictitious embellishments. The film begins with Ip Man (a restrained and noble Tony Leung Chiu-wai) already established as a kung fu master in Foshan when the northern grandmaster Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) arrives from Dongbei, in the northeast of China, to announce his retirement and anoint a successor in the south through a tournament in the Golden Pavilion; this establishment doubles as a luxurious brothel and meeting place for martial-arts masters. Gong’s hot-headed disciple Ma San (Zhang Jin) claims the title, but Ip Man asserts himself with an impressive display of fighting skills, and then defeats Gong in a ritualized competition. Refusing to accept that a Gong family member can be defeated, Gong’s daughter Gong Er (played with cold ferocity by Zhang Ziyi) challenges Ip Man to another fight, which she nominally wins. When the Japanese occupation of Dongbei threatens the south, Ma San, who is now allied with the Japanese, confronts and kills Master Gong. While the vengeful Gong Er hunts for Ma San, Ip Man, his family fortune lost in the war, retreats to Hong Kong after famine kills his daughters. The two later meet again in Hong Kong, where Ip Man has established his martial-arts school. After avenging her father’s murder in a brutal battle against Ma San (in a complex, viscerally exciting action set piece set on a train platform that is already being hailed as a potential classic of the genre), Gong Er, her spirit extinguished, sinks into dissipation. (The Hong Kong sequence also features a couple of scenes with the film’s third major star, Chang Chen, whose role as a former Kuomintang agent seems to have been drastically cut down from its initial conception.)
Seven impressive action sequences punctuate the largely chronological action, giving local kung fu fans the spectacular—and spectacularized—fighting set pieces that they expect. The film’s opening action sequence—a nocturnal, rain-drenched battle between Ip Man and an anonymous gang of challengers—immediately sets the terms of Wong’s variation on the martial-arts visual style. As opposed to the classic Shaw tradition, where extended takes seek to emphasize the clarity and flow of the action, most of the shots of this four-minute sequence last for one second or less, a hyper-montage style (a Wong trademark, though usually deployed at slower speeds of cutting) accentuated by an extensive use of extreme slow motion and close-ups that isolate certain moments of contact, action or reaction. A traditional critique of overly “montaged” kung fu action scenes would claim that the style sacrifices the sensation of bodies moving and colliding with palpable force in real space. Wong, however, while cutting as quickly as any Hollywood action film, manages somehow to preserve that visceral sense of impact; one can almost imaginatively “feel” the movements echoing empathetically through one’s body. Tsui Hark has come closest to achieving this paradoxical synthesis of style and effect in his postmodern soaring wuxia swordplay, but not in the close-quarters combat of kung fu.
The set piece in which Ip Man defeats Gong Yutian is unique: there is no fighting, but rather, in something approaching pure dance-movement, a contest to see if Ip Man can break a small round cake that Gong is holding. Arms intertwine; positions recalibrate; no blows are exchanged. This non-action action sequence most clearly reveals the influence of Wong’s co-screenwriter and martial-arts consultant Xu Haofeng, whose The Sword Identity (2011) and Judge Archer (2012) have redefined contemporary wuxia cinema with an emphasis on conceptual abstraction, clear, quick action and severe, almost minimalist design. Xu believes that the most profound action occurs in the mind, and thus shows only the barest essentials of it on the screen—a kind of superstructure that evokes the philosophical and moral underpinnings of the martial-arts discipline. Though Wong certainly doesn’t abide by Xu’s dictum that absence conveys the greatest meaning—visual excess is in his blood—he seems to share Xu’s ideological position that what is manifest on screen are only the phantasmal physical traces of deeper political, social, and spiritual forces.
Zhang Ziyi and Tony Leung finally fight in the film’s centrepiece: their erotically charged wuxia-style combat that seems to fly up the stairwell of the Golden Pavillion. This intimate physical encounter—the couple end up frozen in a Wongian instant of time, her upside-down face a millimetre from his—manages to transmute the emotional and sexual charge of Leung and Maggie Cheung’s In the Mood for Love affair into action-cinema terms. The interrupted sexual charge of this scene infuses the rest of the film with Wong’s trademark aura of eros-regret.
While The Grandmaster explicitly places Ip Man’s life against key moments in China’s tumultuous 20th century—from the late Qing period into the warlord era, through the brutal Japanese occupation and Chinese resistance, the revolution and the founding of the People’s Republic, and then to a new future in Hong Kong under British colonial administration—history enters the film most powerfully through metaphor. Characters frequently pause to enunciate epigrammatic phrases which apply equally to the martial-arts world, with its moral and philosophical jianghu (i.e., a closed world with its own coded behaviours), and the larger context of Chinese history; lines like “There are northern and southern fighting styles, but can a nation be divided into north and south?” explicitly link kung fu philosophy to a discourse of nation. The organizing structure of the film’s dialogue and imagery is insistently bipolar: north and south are differentiated both geographically (Wong drenches the film’s southern scenes in rain, while the northern scenes swirl with snow) and conceptually, with the characters constantly contrasting northern and southern styles. (Tellingly, Master Gong’s life work, which remained incomplete, was to combine the northern and southern schools into one.) At both the beginning and end of the film, Ip Man boils down his theory of kung fu to a binary opposition, between heng (horizontal) and shu (vertical): “Kung fu, two words: one horizontal, one vertical.”
As Wong has stated in interviews, he is less interested in the mechanics of kung fu than in the philosophies of kung fu practitioners: their discipline, their modesty, and, in particular, their generosity, which is to say their dedication to continuity, to passing on to the next generation what previous generations of masters have taught them. One way to parse The Grandmaster is to see it as establishing an opposition (through its narrative, dialogue, and conceptual underpinnings) between Ip Man, who opens and closes the film, and Gong Er, who dominates its middle section. Ip embodies the grandmaster’s traditionalism and dedication in the face of disruption; his commitment is to continuity, to existence through and across time. Gong Er is the opposite, her desire for vengeance fixing her firmly within time. In order to avenge the murder of her father, she embraces a temporal dead end: she renounces marriage, offspring, and, most importantly, signals the end of a kung fu tradition (the Gong family “sixty-four hands” technique) by refusing to pass it on to a disciple. This opposition between continuity and renunciation is as much historical as philosophical-moral. Hovering in the near future as The Grandmaster ends are the great famine of 1958-1962 and the Cultural Revolution of 1968-1976, when family lineages, the country’s cultural inheritance, and Chinese cultural continuity itself were irreparably damaged; a philosophy that seeks to preserve continuity under the threat of disruption thus becomes intrinsic to the characters’ (and to a nation’s) struggle for survival in the face of a traumatic century and a wounded history.
“Kung fu, two words: one horizontal, one vertical”—the epigram has a variety of meanings. The simplest is that there must be a loser (lying on the ground) and a winner (left standing); in a larger sense, the epigram captures the unalterable oppositions in the ways we think and behave. Nations, peoples, “the Chinese” themselves are divided; China (north) and Hong Kong (south) are two utterly different worlds; Ip Man and Gong Er’s mutual attraction will never be able to reconcile their opposing ways of being. Master Gong’s unification project is in principle unachieveable. Gong Er is principled vengeance, a passionate engagement with the world, an immersion in history which results in her sacrificing the possibility of leaving any legacy; Ip Man must dispassionately remove himself from historical struggles in order to preserve the classical equilibrium that allows him to transmit tradition, and thus to preserve a civilization with value. Neither Ip Man nor Gong Er inhabits a complete world, and their tragedy may be that their worlds, our worlds, are forever destined to be divided.