(Wong Kar-Wai, 2012)
I get the feeling that Wong Kar-Wai could take any story and turn it into a film about Tony Leung mooning around in period Hong Kong, remembering the various women in his life.
That’s not a bad thing; somehow director and star often seem capable of alchemy when they work together. But it doesn’t always make for an entirely satisfying experience.
Take The Grandmaster, for instance. It is Wong Kar-Wai’s first attempt at a martial arts film since Ashes of Time almost 20 years ago. That film is a bizarre, barely coherent clash between a directors sensibility and the demands of a genre. The result is delirious, beautiful and never entirely successful.
The Grandmasters is more accessible. It tells a story, following a handful of “grandmasters” – expert practitioners of different schools of Kung Fu – across a few decades in the early 20th Century. They include Yip Man (Leung), Gong Er (Zhang Zhiyi) and"the Razor"(Chang Chen). While other biopics have made much of how Ip Man resisted the Japanese, here his life as a warrior and his importance as a symbol and cultural figure is barely explored. The prologue features an extended and stunning battle between him and dozens of men at night in the rain. While this fight scene – visceral, beautiful and brilliantly choreographed – seems inspired by and then surpasses the climax of The Matrix Revolutions, it is entirely lacking in context of dramatic weight. It is unsurprising that this scene was used as a teaser for the film, since it works just as well as a standalone scene. Indeed it is never really explained who, when or why Ip was fighting those men.
Instead in the first act we alternate between learning about the contentment of his domestic life and the political strife in the Kung Fu community, where ageing masters try to settle upon dynamic new leadership while spreading understanding of the different styles across their immense country.
The narrative follows this pattern, elliptically cutting between different lives, times and places. Ultimately it focuses (but only to an extent) upon the relationship between Yip and Gong Er, whose early fight functions as a sort of consummation of a love that is never really acknowledged until it is too late.
There are problems with this approach. In his other work, Wong invests the characters with such intensity and emotional truth that when the romantic longing kicks in – as it always must – it feels earned and powerful. Here it feels a little tacked on, as if he was attempting to give a typical martial arts film some of his own personality with mixed results. You can almost feel him straining hard to find some resonance in this material, and the resulting thematic hollowness is the result. The way the narrative flips – that fight between Yip and Gong functions almost as a passing of the baton – makes it feel like two films stitched uncomfortably together.
But at least they’re two ravishingly beautiful films: the whole thing looks unbelievably good. Phillipe Le Sourd's cinematography is fabulous; and Wong chooses to shoot many of the fights indoors, ensuring that a rich, chocolatey palette predominates, an unusual look for a wuxia.
His cast are superb; Leung as deep and charismatic as ever, Zhiyi carrying much of the emotional weight and doing it easily. Both excel in the terrific martial art sequences, which do achieve some poetry amidst the flurries of lyrical physical action. Indeed, many directors more generally associated with the genre could learn a great deal from how these fight scenes are handled – always visually impressive, they never sacrifice physical coherence of visceral impact.
But this feels like Wong Kar-Wai compromised, trying to be something hes not. It is still lovely and full of good things, but it never feels quite right.