Director: Kar Wai Wong
Runtime: 130 minutes
Say what you will about director Kar Wai Wong, but the man knows how to craft an elegant, lush film. This is clearly on display in The Grandmaster (to be released as Grandmasters in the US), Wong's first film in nearly five years. The Grandmaster certainly marks a step in the right direction after 2008's odd My Blueberry Nights (his English language debut). With so many big names from Asian cinema making their English debuts this year, there remains something exciting about Wong returning to his native tongue to explore the martial arts/wuxia genre. Yet even though Wong is technically returning to his comfort zone (language-wise), his long-delayed look at the life of Yip Man is a strangely uneven outing. It's as beautiful as anything the director has put on the silver screen, and it has an elegant flow, yet it suffers from a screenplay that is all over the map. However, the film's polish holds the film together more than one might expect, resulting in something of an elegantly disjointed anomaly.
Though The Grandmaster still boasts Wong's signature dreamy visuals (complete with slow-motion, both blurry and smooth), this film immediately announces itself as a departure from the director's recent work. Barely a minute after the opening credits finish, we're plunged into an expertly choreographed fight in a rainy street. Like some scaled down version of the Neo vs. Mr. Smith scene, Yip Man (Wong regular Tony Leung) takes down a horde of assailants, all while never losing control of the fight (or his hat).
Yet even though the opening is a highly energized work of visual prowess, what follows is more reliant on exposition. Early on, Yip's voice over is nicely laid over some establishing footage. As time progresses, however, we realize that the opening voice over is virtually all that The Grandmaster considers necessary for character development. Leung has delivered strong work under Wong's guidance before, yet he is poorly served by the screenplay. The bulk of Yip's story is grounded in his quest to master various schools of martial arts, yet Wong never allows this quest to speak to anything deeper. There are lines about the various techniques (and even philosophies) of the different schools, but they alternate between strictly technical and strictly superficial.
More compelling is the secondary story, revolving around Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), and a quest for revenge against a traitor during the Japanese occupation of China. Wong seems to agree. Once Er enters the story, the film seems more interested in completing her arc, while only periodically checking in on Yip Man's training (as well as his burgeoning reputation). When the film segues into its lovely denouement, only Er's story seems to matter, while Yip might as well be nothing more than a blank audience stand-in. Both stories should have plenty to offer, purely from a narrative stand point. It's this potential that makes The Grandmaster's story structure so frustrating upon reflection. Wong has tried to reach too far, and has created a misshapen film, rather than an expansive and atmospheric epic. This is most evident in a subplot about The Razor Yixiantian (Chen Chang), that is reduced to a standalone sequence which Wong (and his editor) merely leaves hanging in mid-air.
However, it should be noted that most of The Grandmaster's problems can be somewhat ignored while watching the film. In addition to looking gorgeous, it has the benefit of some outstanding fight sequences masterfully choreographed by Woo-Ping Yuen. Considering that Wong's last few films have been built around solemn romantic longing, it's refreshing to see him tackle his action scenes with such exciting results. Even as he plays with so many different frame rates, the editing often strings them together in such a manner that elevates the action set-pieces, and allows them to work in-sync with Wong's style. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the film looks gorgeous as well, with everything from costumes to sets filled with lush dark colors. The aesthetic is so consistent and convincing that it ensures that The Grandmaster is a pleasurable viewing experience in the moment, faults and all.
And while Leung is left with little to work with, Zhang is able to elevate her material just enough so that the film isn't left feeling completely empty. Part of this is, of course, due to her story having legitimate stakes. Yip perfects his art in peace, while Er does so on a quest for justice. As such, there's more to connect with in Er's story, even as Wong frustratingly refuses to go more than a centimeter beneath the glossy surface. It's the closest that The Grandmaster comes to having a beating heart beneath all of the lush visuals.
Often in cases like this, blame would be placed on the stylistic flourishes, but that's not exactly true of The Grandmaster. It comes down to the screenplay (and perhaps some of the months of work in the editing room). Style can often derail a good or solid script, but here the style is actually pulling double duty in order to compensate for the script's shortcomings. For all of the empty melodrama that fills up The Grandmaster, it packs a mildly affecting resolution. Only at the end does it truly begin to explore the convictions of these fighters, and their relationship with the world around them. The level of depth that it achieves in its final moments, however, is where it should have started, rather than ended.