Movie Review: The Grandmaster

Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster is neither a kung fu epic nor a love story – it's a poem

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 January, 2013, 1:30pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 January, 2013, 1:30pm

Our love for fantasy – more specifically our fascination with supernatural powers – transcends cultures and generations. While children in America grow up reading DC and Marvel comic books, kids in Hong Kong have their kung fu manga and Jin Yong novels. Martial arts heroes, often based on folk legends or important events in Chinese history, are our versions of Superman and Captain America. Over the last half-century, kung fu dramas have dominated the silver screen in Hong Kong, and action stars like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li have had us cheering in the theatre and mimicking their moves at home.

In 2003, Ang Lee reinvented the martial arts genre with the groundbreaking Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Lee taught audiences that kung fu movies can be so much more than trite plots and stock characters; that even action flicks can be nuanced, romantic and even philosophical. Crouching Tiger not only set the gold standard in the martial arts genre, but it also made Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen international stars. The two went on to make many more films that looked like, but never quite measured up to Lee's masterpiece.

When I first learned that there would be another martial arts epic called The Grandmaster starring Zhang and Chang, I reacted the same way that anyone would: I rolled my eyes and said: “Not again!” But Grandmaster is said to be different from the lot.

The movie, a decade in the making, is directed by Wong Kar-wai. An enfant terrible in Hong Kong cinema, Wong has enchanted audiences with art house gems like Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love and Happy Together. Wong has a near-obsession with unconsummated love, a subject matter he explores by manipulating film speeds and camera angles. Though the director’s place in modern film history is undisputed, he is sometimes criticised for valuing stylism over coherence and form over substance. Those same criticisms apply to Grandmaster. The movie is a semi-biography about Yip Man (or Ip Man), the real life kung fu master who trained Bruce Lee and popularised a school of martial arts called Wing Chun.

Grandmaster opens with a fight scene that, had it not looked so suspiciously similar to the final showdown in the Matrix trilogy, would have been quite impressive. We don't know why Yip is fighting or whom he is fighting against. We just know that Tony Leung Chiu-wai, who plays the protagonist, is Keanu Reeves in a straw hat. Slowly the plot begins to emerge: Yip is the best fighter in Foshan – a martial arts stronghold in Southern China – and he has reluctantly agreed to accept a challenge from a master from the North. As soon as the plot starts to clear up, however, the movie veers off badly to a subplot involving Zhang Ziyi's character Gong Er, the proud daughter of the Northern master and a diva warrior who fights better than anyone else (including Yip). Then comes the Sino-Japanese war, which destroys everything: homes, families and even the movie's storyline. There were times during the 130-minute movie I seriously asked myself whether I was still watching the same film. Or did I go to the restrooms and come back to the wrong cinema?

Wong Kar-wai is known for his fragmented narratives. But Grandmaster has far too many loose ends even for a Wong film. It is as if the director has given up on the story and is interested only in stuffing his film with artsy shots. Shooting the movement of shadows across a peeling wall, for instance, takes priority over resolving plot holes like the confounding character played by Chang Chen. Questions like "Who is Chang?" and "Whom is he running away from?" leave the audience scratching their heads and exchanging confused looks.

Diehard kung fu fans are bound to be disappointed with Grandmaster, especially if they go in expecting a more glamorous remake of Ip Man, the hugely popular biopic about the same martial artist starring Donnie Yen Ji-dan. To be fair, we ought to judge Grandmaster for what it is. It is neither a kung fu epic nor a love story. It is a poem, one that hangs on a fragile plot of unrequited love and failed romance. And like all poems, it is much more about imagery and style than reason and substance.

The movie bears all the hallmarks of a Wong Kar-wai creation: saturated colors, fragmented editing and Latin music. Whether these techniques translate well to the kung fu genre is a matter of taste. And whether that makes Wong a one-trick pony or a true auteur who sticks to his own creative vision is a matter of faith. For now, Crouching Tiger remains the reigning heavyweight champion in the world of martial arts movies this generation has seen.