Today I watched Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (2013)
Ip Man was a real martial artist who lived during a very tumultuous time in modern Chinese history. I think this is a big part of why he has become such a popular figure in fiction as his experiences during the Second Sino-Japanese War reflect, in many ways, the experiences of the entire country and people. As with most works based on his life, this film focuses on that period. It begins in the Thirties as Ip Man makes a name for himself in the old martial world, a world that the film portrays as steeped in tradition. Here every conversation is like a choreographed dance, the steps dictated by deeply held social customs and formalities. As Japan invades this world crumbles into chaos and the formerly rich Ip Man comes upon very hard times, eventually losing two daughters in poverty brought on by the violence. Throughout this the film also follows Gong Er, the daughter of another Kung Fu master and her struggles with her legacy. Her father had another disciple in the form of an adopted son named Ma San who, during the war, sides with the Japanese for his own gain, which leads to him killing Gong Er’s father.
These two stories run together through the film and provide the action to back up what is otherwise a very slow moving and philosophical picture. While martial philosophy is frequently a feature of martial arts films, this one pushes it to the forefront, as a character in it’s own right. This is a film about major changes that happened in the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties and how the Chinese identity changed through that, as seen through the lens of the martial world. But this broad focus leaves some of the individual characters behind, many of them feeling coincidental to the film overall. In some ways this continues to enforce themes of change as characters are washed away by the river of time. These themes are brought to life with visuals of staggering beauty and some of the finest choreography available. There is a feeling of old, period photography in much of the shooting style, perfect for presenting the choreographed social dance of the early period and breaking down into a much noisier visual language with the coming modernization. It is a really smart blending of theme and visual that makes this film really stand out among other peers.
This presentation really is the crux of this film as individual human drama only seems relevant during specific episodes while a broader national drama plays out across the greater narrative. That being said the cast do a great job with their roles, especially the two leads of Tony Leung Chiu-wai as Ip Man and Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er. These two performers are especially good at presenting the understated chemistry between them with a lot of subtlety. I think this is a very worthwhile, if challenging film. The meditative nature of it’s drama and themes may not be for everyone but if it does engage you, it is a very rewarding experience that bears a wealth of philosophical content to explore. 5/5