Nick Pinkerton on The Grandmaster
As the legend of Wong Kar-wai goes, the movie that broke the Hong Kong director internationally, 1994’s Chungking Express, was an improvisational lark, a way to blow off steam after the grueling desert shoot of his delirious wuxia epic Ashes of Time.
It was the Chungking Wong that the whole wide world fell in love with, working off-the-cuff, writing by night and shooting by day with his trusty DP, madman run-and-gun Aussie Christopher Doyle. Chungking was exuberant and pensive, mixing those tricks dismissed as “MTV-style” with ruminant, deeply felt moments, all overlaid with the sensibility of a romantic fatalist who had a sly humor about the ephemerality of things. If you were at an impressionable age when Wong was on his grind, Chungking, Fallen Angels, and Happy Together offered an invitation, fairly throbbing with a romantic expectancy that nothing in life could hope to deliver on. It was a tonic vision of love that could somehow be insuperably huge and totally inconsequential at the same time.
The Grandmaster, Wong’s tenth feature, finds him back in the genre territory where he was never quite so beloved—and this is good news! Ashes of Time seems more than its reputation today and Chungking slightly less, but one thing hasn’t changed: Wong was never a storyteller interested in leaving a nice trail of narrative breadcrumbs for the viewer, and he still isn’t. The Grandmaster begins in a flurry, an onslaught of stimuli that keeps up through the first half with little respite. Amid this rush of flying fists and parade of characters, voiceover, intertitles, and on-screen name tags bear the burden of setting the scene and identifying the players.
It’s 1936, on the eve of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The rival Northern and Southern schools of Chinese martial arts have merged to face the looming foreign threat, though this pact hasn’t entirely banished the old competitive spirit. Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), an undefeated grandmaster from Dongbei in the northeast, journeys south to Foshan, Guangdong province. He’s announcing his retirement, to be celebrated with an exhibition contest, and he’s also looking for a successor. Gong Yutian’s own disciple, the bellicose Ma San (Zhang Jin), is deemed “too sharp a blade,” while Gong Yutian’s only child, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), has everything to recommend her—save for her sex.
Gong Yutian, then, looks over the masters of Foshan, one of whom, Ip Man (Tony Leung), has begun to distinguish himself. Gong Yutian first sees Ip Man surrounded by enemies, in a torrential nighttime rain that has turned the street into a shallow reservoir. They rush en masse. Ip Man sends broken bodies flying, and Wong establishes the fast-slow cadence of his action scenes, in which the fluttering of blows is intercut with isolated slo-motion details, like water spinning from the brim of Ip’s panama hat as he whirls and strikes, the whipping of his sodden overcoat, and the plop of fat raindrops which seem to sizzle as they hit the ground. The combat has been choreographed by legendary fight coordinator Yuen Woo-ping, and even as the cutting is frenetic, the action is never less than legible. The same can’t be said for motivations—for example, there’s nothing to explain who Ip Man’s assailants are. This scarcely matters, though, in the terms that the movie establishes: “Kung fu: two words. One horizontal, one vertical,” Leung says, “If you’re wrong, you’ll be left lying down. If you’re right, you’re left standing.” What we need to know about Ip Man in this situation is that he is right.
Ip Man, or Yip Man, was a real historical figure, and though presumably Wong, per his usual practice, embellished, and improvised freely throughout the production of The Grandmaster, the film conforms to the basic facts of Ip Man’s life. Born in 1893 to a well-to-do Foshan family, Ip Man was a practitioner of the Wing Chun style of kung fu. During the wartime occupation, he openly opposed the Japanese army; in the difficult postwar years, after losing two daughters during the widespread famine, he left his native province in 1949 to make a living in Hong Kong. Sealed off from the mainland when the border was closed in 1951, he established himself there as a teacher, his name spread by his most famous pupil, Bruce Lee.
The first that anyone heard of Wong’s intention to make a movie about Ip Man was at a 2002 press conference, and in the decade interim before The Grandmaster’s completion, news continued to trickle in. In 2009, for example, Leung broke his arm during a sparring exercise—the actor, making his seventh film with Wong, had no previous martial arts experience, and so put in years of Wing Chun training with Yip Man’s son, Yip Chun. The work paid off. Leung at no point seems like a tourist, and as woolly as Wong’s editing is, it never aims to disguise or augment the physical performances, cutting to show impact rather than create the illusion of it. While Leung trained, Wong went on a pilgrimage to meet China’s living martial arts masters, immersing himself in their world, as seemed to him necessary. “The word kung fu,” Wong has said, speaking of his method, “Means the time that you have to spend."
Not everyone burrows into their material quite so diligently. A cottage industry of Ip Man entertainments have sprung up while Wong did his kung fu, including Wilson Yip’s protean 2008 Ip Man and 2010’s Ip Man 2, both starring Donnie Yen, and Herman Yau’s 2010 The Legend Is Born: Ip Man and Ip Man: The Final Fight, released this spring. The particular care taken on The Grandmaster is evident from that first fight, however, or with the introduction of the Golden Pavilion, a brothel created in ornate detail, all lacquered wood and burnished gold, by Wong’s longtime production designer, William Chang.
The Golden Pavilion is the center of martial arts activity in Foshan; it’s here that Ip Man must carve his way through a gallery of southern masters before reaching Gong Yutian. These preliminaries, when not wholly a display of kinetics, are textbook-clear illustrations of the mechanics of Wing Chun style—Ip Man explains the “Spade, pin, sheath” hands of the form during one match, as later he will count down each of its eight kicks while sending potential pupils sailing around his studio. Wong has an underlying didactic mission here, and the action is generously seasoned with musings on the philosophical component of kung fu. (Too generously, at times: Gong Yutian seems he can’t yawn without an aphorism tumbling out of his mouth.) There’s not a single blow exchanged in the face-off between Gong Yutian and Ip Man, in which Ip Man, in a deceptively simple riddle, is challenged with breaking a round cookie, leading to a matching of wits accompanied by a sort of rhythmic dance.
While it’s accurate to say that The Grandmaster emphasizes the “art” aspect of “martial arts,” it also makes the film sound more pompous than it is. All of what’s above passes the basic test of visceral excitement, and proceeds in a giddy blur—until a set piece arrives that stands above the rest, as, for purposes of the narrative, it necessarily must. Gong Er, indignant at how the cookie crumbled in her father’s defeat, challenges Ip Man, offering him a demonstration of her “64 Hands” technique. When they get down to it, there’s an acrobatic freedom in the contest that we haven’t seen before—the fighting in The Grandmaster is mostly earthbound, no wire fu takeoffs. As Ip Man and Gong Er pull and heave one another this way and that over the bannisters and along the great stairwell of the Golden Pavilion, there is a moment when their faces pass so close to one another—hers upside-down—that their noses almost touch, close enough for a kiss. It’s an instant in time and space, and in Wong’s universe an instant is all it takes: it’s the “April the 16th. At one minute before 3pm on April the 16th, 1960” in Days of Being Wild; it’s Chungking’s “At the high point of our intimacy, we were just 0.01cm from each other.”
Gong Er leaves Foshan, and she and Ip Man begin an epistolary romance. “I dream of seeing the 64 Hands again in the snow,” he writes her, and it’s hard to say if it’s the memory of her or the memory of her art that’s haunting him more. Maybe there’s no difference. He plans to visit her, even buys a heavy winter coat in preparation to face the cold north, but when hard times set in, the coat must be pawned, and the trip never happens. Heading to Hong Kong, Ip Man will find new opponents—“A well-matched opponent is rare as a good friend,” he muses after fighting a draw with a fellow exile called Razor—though it is seems that, saying this, his mind is elsewhere.
So, for that matter, is Wong’s. Razor is played by Chang Chen, a frequent Wong collaborator. He has third billing here, yet Razor scarcely figures into the story at all, exiting the narrative without fanfare, as does Ip Man’s wife back in Forshan, played by Song Hye-kyo. Perhaps these disappearances are meant to evoke the way of things among displaced peoples, victims of a transient time. More likely they are victims of the editing room, for The Grandmaster has shrunk as it’s headed West. By Wong’s own recounting, 130 minutes became 125 for Berlin which became 108 for the States—and this from a purported four-hour rough cut! While it’s not unheard of for novelists to set to work without a clear blueprint for what they’re building—part of the pleasure of reading Georges Simenon or Julien Green, for example, is noticing how they paint themselves into corners and then find their way out—but among filmmakers working on this scale, only Terrence Malick similarly discovers his movies in the shooting. At points, Wong might have benefitted from Malick’s willingness to leave performances on the cutting room floor, rather than whittling them down to nubs.
When Ip Man rediscovers Gong Er in Hong Kong, however, Wong rediscovers his movie’s sense of purpose. In an epic flashback which dominates the latter half of the film, Gong Er recounts the tragic events of the interceding years. Her father dies after a fight with Ma San, who’s become a servant of the Empire of Japan’s puppet state Manchuria. Before Buddha, she foreswears marriage, motherhood, and the teaching of her art, all for a chance at vengeance.
On a rail platform in falling snow, Gong Er and the family retainer, Jiang (Shang Tielong), wait for Ma San’s train to arrive. Jiang draws his sword and charges, carving through the ranks of Ma San’s entourage, as each man falls his blade tears through their heavy winter clothes, ribbons of white down escaping like fleeing souls. And then Gong Er strikes. What follows is one of the most sublime sequences that Wong has ever shot, perhaps one of the most sublime that has ever appeared in a kung fu film. Wong has stated that it took two months to film, and though this seems sheer madness, it’s impossible to find fault with the result. And maybe it’s the train, which might very well be the Shanghai Express; maybe it’s Gong Er’s overcoat, with the heavy cuffs and collar of the 1930s; maybe it’s the different planes of steam, snow, and shadow that give the image such depth and dynamism; but here it’s suddenly abundantly clear how much Wong owes to von Sternberg. “I dream of seeing the 64 Hands again in the snow”—and we do see it, and it is a dream. This is the early climax of Gong Er’s life, for she stays true to her vow even when reunited with Ip Man, and it’s The Grandmaster’s exhilarating apex, although there is still a good bit of runtime ahead. The prematurity of the grand finale is by design, for what follows is the story of two people responding to life once its heroic period is over, and it’s subtly rapturous in its own way.
When we return to present-tense Hong Kong, the transition is accompanied by an arrangement of “Deborah’s Tune,” from Ennio Morricone’s score to Sergio Leone’s 1984 Once Upon a Time in America. One does not have to guess at what attraction Leone’s last film holds for Wong Kar-wai, for it is a memory movie, its mode a voluptuous nostalgia, tinged with regret and disappointment, and heady as incense. Covering nearly 50 years in the lives of a gang of New York Jewish slum kids, Once Upon a Time makes pulp of Proust—when Robert De Niro’s ex-hood, Noodles, is asked what he’s been doing in his decades of exile, he replies “been goin’ to bed early.” The film has the soft-edged feeling of a hallucination—which it may be, for it returns time and again to Noodles in a Chinatown opium den, puffing his way to oblivion. The same fate, horizontal on a palette, awaits Gong Er, but Ip Man continues vertical. Both exiles, neither Gong Er nor Ip Man have the option of escaping their past, but she dies dwelling on hers, while he, as a teacher, passes his into the future under the name of tradition.
Like Ip Man, and like so many Hong Kongese, Wong is himself an immigrant, born in Shanghai but arrived in the city aged five. In his art, Wong has continually reimagined the city around the time of his arrival: Days of Being Wild looked towards 1960 Hong Kong from the vantage of 1990, the first of a sixties-set period triptych that continued with 2000’s In the Mood for Love and 2004’s 2046. But while the roar of the emergent Chinese Dragon has been the story of the 21st century, Wong hasn’t engaged with the New China of which Hong Kong is and is not a part. In 1997, the year of the handover, Wong was sealed in an editing room reviewing images of Argentina, the setting of his Happy Together. Since In the Mood for Love, Wong has contributed a segment to the 2004 omnibus film Eros and completed a restoration/overhaul of his lone wuxia, re-released as Ashes of Time Redux, but The Grandmaster is only his third completed feature. There is a demand for Hong Kong to make films for the mainland market now—is this is what led Wong to try his luck in America with 2007’s My Blueberry Nights?
While The Grandmaster is by no means contemporary, it was a bona fide mainland hit. Wong has succeeded through appeal to a common history, a common tradition, though not without compromise. Like previous Ip Man films, The Grandmaster makes much of its hero’s anti-Japanese nationalism—although the fact that Ip Man’s flight to Hong Kong after the Communist Party’s victory in the Chinese Civil War was at least partially determined by his membership in Chiang Kai-shek’s oppositional Kuomintang is tastefully elided. Which is not to say that Wong’s film is not, in its way, still very out-of-step with the state apparatus.
The first half of The Grandmaster is set in a period that’s new to Wong’s cinema: China before the revolution. (I am excepting the setting of Ashes, more mythic than historical.) This is not the decadent, Westernized jazz age Republic, but a world steeped in centuries-old continuities, a 1936 where the imperial past is still not really past. This section is full of solemn, tableau-like groupings contrasting the outbursts of action, grave faces of elders in black tunics observing from shadow, or the women of the Golden Pavilion lined up in their brocaded silk. This backdrop of stillness seems to define the period for Wong. After Ip Man and Gong Yutian have ended their contest, Wong introduces a device that he will use throughout the movie. Characters pose for a portrait picture, the film frame offering the photographer’s view. The image is frozen, sapped of color, and becomes a black-and-white relic, a moment suspended in time. (Wong has spoken of the influence of period photographs on The Grandmaster, inspiring “an urge to make a film about the beauty and elegance of Chinese men and women.”) Later, in the Hong Kong section, Wong will get similarly evocative use of early color newsreel footage of the city.
A promotional documentary which appeared preceding The Grandmaster’s Chinese release followed Wong on his journey to meet the living kung fu masters, marginalized by the state yet carrying on in obscurity. In interviews, Wong has criticized the Chinese government’s emphasis on purely competitive martial arts, and The Grandmaster has been taken as Wong’s reproach to challenges that this and upstart MMA, emphasizing KOs while ignoring the tradition and moral component of martial arts, have posed to traditional kung fu. (An occidental comparison might be the eclipse of boxing in the U.S., a historically oriented sport obsessed with its own legacy which, in the words of A. J. Liebling, “is joined onto the past like a man's arm to his shoulder.") All of which is not to claim that Wong makes a lost paradise of the lost China-his film fully acknowledges that the stifling patriarchy prevents Gong Er from receiving just recognition or achieving her full potential. Better to say that, like world cinema’s other premiere nostalgist, Terence Davies, Wong’s feelings about the remembered or imagined past are conflicted—and therefore valuable.
“I was lucky to meet you in my prime,” Gong Er tells Ip Man with mingled pride and regret, a line which belongs in the annals of all-time gut-punchers. Having surrendered her future, Gong Er is content to perish and take the 64 Hands with her, but Ip Man’s enduring example is the one that Wong leans on.
The Grandmaster concludes on what reads as a statement of solidarity with all those swimming against the stream of hostile times, passing on traditions that only they know the value of. It’s a beautiful sentiment, if clumsily expressed, for Wong is much better with restless longing than mentor-pupil relationships and buoyant feel-good outro montages. What resounds afterwards isn’t Ip Man welcoming a boy who is presumably a preadolescent Bruce Lee into his school, but Ip Man and Gong Er at the opera, Ip Man presenting Gong Er with a button from his pawned winter coat that he’s kept all these years, and particularly Gong Er’s ultimate moment on the platform. It’s here that Wong really makes his pedagogical point, by letting his images do the talking. “I have watched the best. I have learned from the best,” this scene says. “This is how it’s done.”