My introduction to Wong Kar Wai came in the form of his english language debut My Blueberry Nights. While a lot of fans of him view that film as somewhat of a failure, I personally consider it to be an amazing film. Besides the breathtaking visuals and remarkable soundtrack, Wong Kar Wai is able to represent love and all of its flaws and powers in a very specific and fresh manner. Since then I’ve watched his other films and while the only other I truly love is In The Mood For Love, I can’t deny that each film yields an interesting and at times cathartic experience. So is The Grandmaster another masterpiece? Or merely a good film?
The Grandmaster traces the lives of martial arts master Ip Man (Tony Leung). How he rose to fame, then to obscurity during the war and back again. It also explores his friendship with the daughter, Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), of one of the great master who herself is on a path of vengeance against those who would destroy her family’s legacy.
Prior to watching this film I made the mistake of actually formulating certain expectations for the film. As a result of the fighting sequences shown in the trailers, I thought the film would have a lot of action sequences. But just like Wong Kar Wai proved that he could re-conceptualize science-fiction with 2046, he does the same with the action genre in The Grandmaster. This is not to say that there aren’t too many action scenes, but just that the action film formula is morphed into something different. Usually with action film, the end has a climatic showdown between rivals but that’s not the case here. All the action happens within the first half and after that there is none. Now how you take that depends entirely on your sensibilities and familiarity to Wong Kar Wai’s work. I liked it, but first lets take action.
The famous rain action sequences seen in the trailers delivers, but oddly enough it is not the best action sequence. There’s another rain fighting duel that’s also quite good and as a parallel to the first I mentioned, becomes even cooler. And the train station fight is also pretty awesome. But the best one happens between Ip Man and Gong Er indoors. Because that fights has some specific rules, there is an added intensity and creativity at play. Plus it marks the genesis of the strong bond between the film’s two protagonists. The fighting choreography is outstanding from start to finish, and Wong Kar Wai’s treatment of action fluctuates to be honest. In some parts his unique style renders the fights incredibly beautiful and poetic, but other times it feels somewhat intrusive. Sometimes he just doesn’t let the fight breathe and it makes them feel a bit disjointed, especially when it is ten men against one. But when it is one on one they work brilliantly.
Now the biggest surprise for me came at the halfway mark where the film takes a considerable shift. The action is replaced with straight up drama and character dialogue. If the first half was about martial-arts masters proving their greatness and building their legacy, the second half is about how their devotion to honour and technique gradually damages their personal lives. This is also the moment where the war occurs and all of the characters way of life is put into disarray. But more significantly, the film opts to finally explore in depth the relationship between it’s two protagonists. In a way, The Grandmaster turns into In The Mood For Love in its last half and I for one think that was a perfect move to make. This is the moment where Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang’s performances truly shine as they recreate but to greater effect the intense chemistry they had in 2046. There is a strong bond between their characters, an unspoken love and admiration that can never be acted on, only subtlety expressed. It is quite affecting and heart-breaking.
During the last half I also got the feeling that this was the aspect of this story Wong Kar Wai was really interested in. The previous stuff with the action felt like a director trying to emulate an idea, but with this last part when love is the focus the film finally takes flight. As any fan of his knows, love is his strong suite and I’m still surprised that he is able to show us new aspects of it. You’d think he had said all that could be said about love, but you’d be wrong. A downside to this shift is that it also makes The Grandmaster feel like two films in one. Yes, they both work but it adds a lack of focus that you usually don’t see in Wong Kar Wai. Furthermore, the introduction to a third “protagonist” feels incredibly misguided and forced. That, I believe, is the film’s greatness flaw. Chen Chang’s presence isn’t explained and after the film spends 20-30 minutes on him, it totally drops him never to be seen again. What was the point of that? Besides some cool action, that character added nothing to the film.
Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster was not the film I expected. All of the action scenes are amazing to watch and while they lack the sense of danger, they still manage to be awe-inspiring. Wong Kar Wai tries to infuse them with something new and different, and like many experiments sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Nevertheless, the sheer majestic beautify of the visuals is enough to turn them into one of the coolest action scenes in years. The film’s strength lies in the performances and more specifically in the relationship between Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang’s characters. They are the heart of the film and even though separate they are able to effortlessly carry their respective plot-lines, when they converge is when The Grandmaster reaches it’s precipice. It is the immensely affecting relationship between this two character that will make you forget about the film missteps and flaws. At least the music is consistently perfect throughout the film.