While Donnie Yen kicked off the Ip Man craze back in 2008, you could argue that Wong Kar Wai was partially responsible. Wong had announced his own Ip Man film prior to the Yen picture even being conceived, but it took ages to finally complete it. That years-long production was arduous. Wong’s go-to actor Tony Leung, who doesn’t have a martial arts background, had to learn Wing Chun in order to play Ip Man; he broke his arm twice, once during training and another time while filming. Actress Zhang Ziyi spent six grueling months, 12 hours a day, learning Bagua-style (Baguazhang) so she could fight like a true master.
In the interim, Donnie Yen put out two Ip Man films (with a 3D sequel still in the works), Herman Yau did two of his own (The Legend is Born: Ip Man and Ip Man: The Final Fight), and there was also an Ip Man television series.
Each Ip Man project presents an aspect of the real-life Ip Man. The Yen films offered Ip Man as a badass, and The Final Fight presented the human side of Ip Man via Anthony Wong’s performance. I think The Grandmaster presents the mythic, poetic, and metaphorical version of Ip Man. Wong’s created a glorious vision of the philosophy of the martial arts, but it’s a vision that seems to have been obscured by the 22 minutes of cuts in The Weinstein Company’s US release of the film.
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The Grandmaster (Yut Doi Jung Si; 一代宗师)
Director: Wong Kar Wai
Country: China (Hong Kong)
Release Date: August 23, 2013
I write “seems” because I haven’t watched the 130-minute Hong Kong cut of The Grandmaster, the official director’s cut of the film. (I haven’t seen the 115-minute international cut either.) There’s a lot that can happen in 22 minutes. I skimmed a recent piece by David Ehrlich on film.com that details all of the differences between the longer cut and the US release. It’s spoiler heavy, but just looking at the bolded text, there are plenty of shuffled scenes, nixed story elements, and truncated sequences that break the architecture of the original movie.
Before checking out the Ehrlich piece, I could still tell where some of the changes were. The Grandmaster is guided by Ip Man’s overt narration, and every now and then some English text appears for transitions and explanations. Certain moments feel choppy, others feel like the proportions are off, some feel misplaced, and the coda is just strange; the tape is visible, the movie is sticky with glue.
What I want from a Wong Kar Wai film is sumptuousness, emotion, and observation, as found in his previous movies like In the Mood for Love, Happy Together, or Chungking Express. It’s still there in this version of The Grandmaster, but it’s been heavily compromised. It says something about Wong’s gifts as a filmmaker that this compromised material still shines and still has moments that are undeniably breathtaking, and yet these glowing bits are like neon arrows pointing out that 22 minutes worth of lacunae.
If you look at the marketing that Weinstein did for The Grandmaster, it made the film seem like a chop socky movie. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding about the material and how to sell it. This is not a standard martial arts movie. The Grandmaster, as it ought to be, is an art house martial arts movie. There’s incredible action in the film, but it’s more daring and much headier than its arty wuxia forebears like Ang Lee’s Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Zhang Yimou’s Hero. Yuen Woo-Ping’s fight choreography is still remarkable, but it’s the way that Wong Kar Wai stages, shoots, and edits the action that makes it transcendent. The fighting goes beyond visceral spectacle and becomes something spiritual, metaphysical.
When Ip Man twists to throw a punch, Wong cuts to a close-up of his hat brim soaked with rain, the water arcing away in slow motion. We don’t see his body, but we know the motion his body makes simply from the motion of the water. Ip Man twists again and his shirt sleeve will send water off in a spearing jet. The speed and strength of that strike are there in the motion of rain and cloth, and it’s never distracting. These disturbances are extensions of action. Before a punch nearly connects, Wong focuses on the little push of air on fabric that precedes the blow. More disturbance, more extension of movement; the punch is more than just a punch.
This poetic way of presenting the fight scenes gets at the heart of The Grandmaster. For a martial artist, the martial arts is more than just self-defense. It’s a way of life. To commit yourself wholly to a craft or an art means mental discipline, the formation of a personal philosophy, a means of comporting yourself to the world that aligns with the craft or art. The physical motions are repeated until they’re internalized; any movement is the expression of that person’s whole being. That may be the subtext in other martial arts films, but it is expressed with such remarkable sweep in The Grandmaster. It’s the idea of what Ip Man represents as a martial artist that’s most important to the movie rather than Ip Man himself as a historical figure. The same goes for Zhang Ziyi’s character Gong Er.
Though previous Ip Man films were only about Ip Man, The Grandmaster is as much about him as it is Gong Er. (This explains why the movie was at one time going to be called The Grandmasters.) The first half involves duels between Northern-style martial artists and Southern-style martial artists, exploring ideas about differences in style and what these mean to those who care about such distinctions. When Gong Er and Ip Man eventually duel, the scene is as much about pride in mastery as it is about the seduction of mastery–you can be great and be admired for it, and you can be great to win a person’s admiration. There’s a kind of love that blossoms while they’re battling each other and it continues after Gong Er returns to the north.
The second half of The Grandmaster shifts from Ip Man’s home in Foshan to post-WWII Hong Kong. The streets are filled with martial artists, many of whom are teachers or have mundane day jobs that are still somehow expressions of their inner skill. Many of the movie’s side characters, however briefly they appear, could carry their own feature films. While in Hong Kong, Ip Man tries to find out whatever happened to Gong Er.
This is one of those breaks in the narrative I wasn’t expecting, and it will probably throw off a lot of audiences given how much it subverts the conventions and expectations built into many action films and martial arts films. Gong Er becomes the driving force that reveals a lot of the philosophical machinery that probably inspired Wong to make a martial arts movie in this way. I imagine the transition is smoother in the longer cut of the film. With Gong Er, there’s an exploration of gender roles, veneration of parents, obligations to future generations, and the importance of maintaining a legacy or tradition. Again, it’s the idea of extension, where the fights means more than just beating someone physically.
These high stakes for the martial artists are heightened by the way that Wong treats his locations, emphasizing verticals and horizontals. The enclosed spaces of Foshan are lush in color, the dark streets of Hong Kong have a sense of mystery. I mentioned that this feels like a mythic iteration of Ip Man. More than Leung’s performance, it’s the writing and the locations that are key in establishing this mythological feel. These spaces and their moods are inhabited by characters who seem like the figures of legend. They embody ideas and ideals, they fight over primal and yet fundamental human concerns, they are known by certain deeds or identified by the objects that they carry which are extensions of their personalities.
The mythic feel reaches its peak during the final fight, which is the stuff of classical myth and legend, but charged with potent concerns that are at once unique to the characters and universal. The stakes are high, the emotions raw, and the characters are fighting for more than just honor. Behind them rushes a potent metaphor for time, both the past and the future, because what they’re fighting about has everything to do with matters of extension through time.
It’s hard to score The Grandmaster because it’s so compromised a work. Every great scene hints at the brilliance of a scene that’s not in the film, and knowing that Wong changed the sequence of certain scenes makes me feel like I’ve been reading a novel with chapters in the wrong order. The fighting in martial arts movies is so much about rhythm and motion, and both are disrupted in this cut of the film. What The Grandmaster offers is a flawed vision of something greater. This is a beautiful punch, but mostly just that; I know there’s supposed to be more to it.