I feel as if I’ve started or ending with this statement in so many of my reviews it should just be a given by now and I should stop pointing it out, but my biggest takeaway from watching this film is that I wish I had seen it in a theater. The cinematography is probably its strongest attribute, and my TV just could not handle the blacks that Wong plunges much of his film in. It’s disappointing to realize to say the least, and I hope that you either have a better TV or take my advice and don’t try this at home.
Also, scanning wikipedia, it turns out I was completely unclear on the plot in the beginning of the film. The Grandmaster is nominally the story of Ip Man (Tony Leung), the Wing Chun master who ended up popularizing Kung Fu and training Bruce Lee. However, this isn’t a straight biopic per se, or rather it’s Wong Kar-Wai doing a biopic, so when the story mainly focuses on the will-they-won’t-they relationship between Ip Man and Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang) no one is really surprised. The first half shows Ip Man gaining prominence in the martial arts world of Southern China, eventually being elected to challenge the master of Northern China, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), who is also Gong Er’s father. Gong Er then challenges Ip Man after he wins over her father, and she wins. Gong Er and Ip Man part ways but remain in contact for many years. During this time, China faces invasion from the Japanese in the lead up to WWII. Gong Er continues to protect her father’s legacy against his protege, Ma San (Zhang Jin), who killed him. Ip Man opens a martial arts school in Hong Kong and tries to provide for his family, who die of starvation. Ip Man and Gong Er meet many years later, after the war, and Gong Er relates the story of her fight with Ma San.
In the beginning of the film it was hard for me to keep track of who was challenging whom for what in the realm of martial arts, though I mainly blame my less than attentive home viewing for this. That being said, the second half of the film was a lot clearer and also just more interesting to me. It’s probably pretty unfair to say that Wong’s films make more sense when you can fit them in the box unrequited love, but that’s sort of how it shook out for me here. Not that Gong Er and Ip Man’s relationship really approaches the one in In the Mood for Love, the two of them are kept at a distance but it’s clear they care about each other a great deal on both a personal and professional level. It still feels like typical Wong though, with them only meeting occasionally but still having this very essential connection. Both Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang are delightful to watch as always.
I actually remembered not knowing anything about this movie and thinking it came out of nowhere in my coverage of the 2013 Oscars. It was a rare foreign film that managed to cross over to nominations in other categories despite not being nominated for foreign-language film. It’s easy to see why it was able to do this, it’s a period piece and rendered very opulently. I really know basically nothing about martial arts films, but whenever I do think of them I don’t really think of them taking place in the 1930s as this one does. This makes the style of the whole thing a bit more interesting to consider.
As I wagered in the top though, the cinematography is the best thing about this movie. The camera work during all of the fight scenes is amazing, as well as the use of slo-motion which is easy to botch but done well here. (Wong seems a master of using it the way I prefer to see it used, not to just slow things down so you can see them, but to show high concentration or emotional association between the characters.) The film’s lighting reminds me a lot of The Godfather and I don’t say that lightly. The film is mostly bathed in darkness for many of the scenes, while the actors’ faces are a lit with a very warm, burnished, gold light. The DP on the film (and there seems to be only one this time, which seems like a feat in itself) was Philipe Le Sourd, who previously worked with Wong on a commercial and is also the DP on Sofia Coppola’s upcoming feature The Beguiled (just one more reason to be excited about that film).
I don’t really think I’ve benefited from the full Grandmaster experience, but I liked the movie all the same. It was exceedingly enjoyable just to watch these actors navigate this incredible beautiful environment, even if with my substandard viewing experience I couldn’t see all of it. I know I’ve been doing a pretty terrible job with the Wong Kar-Wai quest thus far, and I hope that I can track down the last couple films and devote my full attention and consideration to them. Until then, know that The Grandmaster is good, but probably a lot better in a theater.
Long story short: 3/4 stars
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