The Grandmaster Review
Almost ten years in the making, there was always going to be a huge weight of expectation on Wong Kar-wai's Ip Man feature that it would have been impossible to meet. The question of finding a balance between the real-life biographical elements with the martial arts action is challenging enough, but it has undoubtedly been made even more complicated by the liberties taken with historical and biographical facts as presented in Wilson Yip's popular Ip Man films, not to mention the challenge of replicating or bettering Donnie Yen's charismatic interpretation of the Wing Chun grandmaster. In addition to that, there are also certain stylistic expectations from a Wong Kar-wai film that would seem to be at odds with such material. Somehow the director manages to balance all these elements fairly successfully, although inevitably trying to appeal to everyone involves a certain amount of compromise that risks leaving no-one entirely happy with the final result. What is perhaps more critical than audience consensus however is that to The Grandmaster doesn't quite meet the high ambitions that the director clearly has for the work either.
Broken down into its constituent parts, The Grandmaster works well on just about every level, but it just never seems to cohere in a way that allows it to aspire to something greater ot to some transcendental state of completeness or abstraction that you will find in the best Wong Kar-wai movies. The actions sequences are superbly filmed, the first half of the film fairly packed with very cool night-time action battles taking place in thunderous downpours on glistening silver-wet backstreets and then in the confines of delicate and elaborately decorated dark Chinese interiors of wealthy Foshan homes. There's a sense that the director wishes to use these exterior and interior locations to apply to the greater outside world as well as the deeper inside one, relating Ip Man's battles to an historical context as well as to the notion of mindset of the Chinese people in the divisions of North and South, in the struggle under Japanese occupation, and later in the condition of the people of Hong Kong during this period. As seen in previous Wong Kar-wai films, it's an important period for the director, and once again, he creates a stunningly realised and beautiful memory-reality of the period.
The second half of the film manages to retain some of the elaborately choreographed action sequences, but turns more inward with its focus on the unconventional and unconsummated relationship between Ip Man and Gong Er. The battles are more personal ones, an inner struggle with one's own demons and one's family duties, but the personal torments aren't entirely detached from the historical conflict, or from the background of the martial arts gangs, schools and factions competing for dominance in post-war Hong Kong. Here the director is not so much on solid ground as solid heaven, with Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi impressively re-establishing the chemistry that worked so well in the extraordinary 2046. Similar techniques from that film are employed here, with repetition of visual and musical cues, the sustained tension between them sublimated and enveloped in silences with blank or open expressions that only occasionally spill over as a single tear rolling down a cheek.
Visually, Philippe Le Sourd's cinematography for The Grandmaster lives up to the lushness of colour and the use of light and shadow that do well to establish the mood and the other intangible characteristics of a Wong Kar-wai film. It's gorgeously lit and well-edited to bring about a balance and a mythical quality to the biographical elements, to the suggestion of Eastern philosophy and mystical forces at play within it, as well as using the speed and slow-motion camera effects to give additional impact to the martial arts action sequences. The manner in which it matches form to content is a big improvement over the near pastiche of My Blueberry Nights, but the imagery is still a little too slick, lacking the experimental edge and unpredictability of Christopher Doyle's more adventurous cinematography for this director's work.
As accomplished as The Grandmaster is, and unquestionably still wholly a Wong Kar-wai film in its approach and philosophy, it's still not a patch on the classic Wong/Doyle work at their best, and as such not even close to a match for director's other work in this genre, Ashes of Time. Dashed off in a couple of months, incoherent, inconsistent and barely comprehensible as it is, Ashes of Time's fragmentation of time and location has a much more thrilling, dazzling edge with a distinctive style that works much better to bring the martial arts adventure and the mysticism together, and indeed even in establishing that connection between of the inner and outer worlds of its characters. While he may no longer be working at his peak without the fruitful collaborative input of Christopher Doyle, The Grandmaster is however still very much a Wong Kar-wai film, and for that alone it still has considerable merit.