The Grandmaster (2013)

Only because I had a hard time finding an image that did this movie's visuals justice.

Only because I had a hard time finding an image that did this movie’s visuals justice.

While most movies are certainly watchable on a television, there are some that absolutely must be experienced on the big screen. Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster (一代宗師), of course, falls strongly into the latter category.

The Grandmaster is Wong Kar-Wai’s dramatization of the life and times of martial arts legend Ip Man (played here by Wong regular Tony Leung, who has appeared in every Wong film I have seen so far) through China’s turbulent years from the Second Sino-Japanese War to the rise of communism.

If I were to write a dictionary, I would define “audio-visual treat” as “The Grandmaster”. Wong Kar-Wai is still one of my all time favorite directors, and I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed with his visual style when I saw the opening fight between Ip Man and several goons in the middle of a rainstorm.

A stylistic decision I found interesting was how Wong contrasted Hong Kong and China. For much of the time the movie is in Hong Kong, Wong made the movie feel a little claustrophobic, where his characters are often indoors in tight rooms, very much reminding me of his earlier In the Mood for Love. In China, on the other hand, we have massive, sweeping shots of snow-covered fields. As I said in my review of Iwai Shunji’s Love Letter, I’m a sucker for movies that make snow look beautiful. You can probably imagine what I felt when I saw snow handled by Wong Kar Wai in this movie.

Zhang Ziyi, who played Ip Man’s wife Gong Er, is, in the opinion of the Indian-American guy writing this review, basically the most beautiful woman to have ever existed (I know, my female Chinese friends will hate me for saying this), and she was all the more appealing when shot through Philippe Le Sourd’s camera. She was fit in perfectly in Wong’s vision of 1960s Hong Kong in 2046, and she was fit in perfectly in The Grandmaster as well. Her jet black hair contrasted with the aforementioned beautiful snow absolutely gorgeously.

The Grandmaster was the first time I got to see Wong Kar-Wai handle an action movie, much less one this focused on martial arts. The fight scenes here relied a lot more on Wong’s visual flair than on choreography (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon comes to mind as an example of a movie where the opposite was true), and they were truly a sight to behold.

This is the first time I have seen a Wong Kar-Wai movie where sound effects really played an important part in the mise-en-scene. In earlier movies, Wong seemed to make more use of music, like when Faye danced to The Mamas and the Papas’ California Dreaming in Chungking Express.

Unfortunately, while The Grandmaster actually exceeded my expectations for its visuals and sound, the story wasn’t exactly what I defined to be an emotional tour-de-force. While Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was ultimately a love story where I felt emotionally invested in all the lead characters, I really had a hard time caring about Ip Man here. At one point, in a flashback-within-a-flashback, we see Gong Er temporarily take over as our lead protagonist. Her arc, which lasted for maybe 20 minutes, had me much more engaged than that of Ip Man, which was the rest of the movie. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Wong Kar-Wai doesn’t really believe in writing scripts, and that tendency reared its ugly head here. The reason it is so much more problematic in The Grandmaster than it was in any of Wong’s other films is that The Grandmaster was a movie where the plot drove the characters, while in movies like 2046, it was the lead character driving the plot. Tony Leung tends to play very stoic characters, which was ideal for 2046, but I wasn’t sure it was appropriate here. There’s part of me that believes this stoicism could hint at a deficiency in Leung’s acting ability.

I was lucky to catch this movie the last night the Cornell Cinema was showing it because it is one that needs to be experienced projected on a theater screen. With that in mind, I don’t imagine myself rushing out to get this movie on Blu-Ray; as it is, I know I won’t feel the same about the visuals on a television screen, and I couldn’t be bothered to revisit the story. While it was still a good movie, and I still love it for Wong’s audio-visual flourish, I will say it was the worst Wong Kar-Wai movie I have seen to date.

Score: 3/4