Discerning movie lovers have learned to turn to Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai for neo-Nouvelle Vague romance, for Asian gamines and 24-hour urban bustle and yearning glances, for bittersweet shaggy-dog stories of missed connections and lonely apartments. Kung fu, not so much. And yet the director of Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love has spent nearly a decade on an unlikely passion project: an epic biopic of kung-fu icon Ip Man, the man who taught Bruce Lee.
In the Mood for an Ass-Kicking? Well, kinda. The Grandmaster is a most unusual Wong film and a most unusual kung-fu film, and not entirely successful on either score.
It opens with a classic kung-fu trope: the venerable master (Hong Kong screen grandmaster Tony Leung as Ip) dispatching a passel of fighters from a rival school—in a lashing rain inside a locked courtyard, no less. But right away, Wong's lack of interest in traditional movie action smacks you in the face. Even with cool gags like a carriage crunched into matchsticks between two combatants' mighty kicks, Wong's lens is much more likely to obsess at length over, say, the way drops fly from the spinning brim of Ip's signature straw Panama. It's not so much that The Grandmaster's copious and often dazzling fight scenes are edited too chaotically to scan (the usual sin these days), it's that Wong shoots it too close and consistently veers away from physical-space sense toward sensuousness.
This isn't exactly a surprise. Wong's films have dished out intense onscreen eye candy for more than 25 years now, and The Grandmaster certainly has its ravishing moments, including gladiatorial ones. Even in the midst of heated hand-to-hand, a shot of the wind from a flying fist ruffling a silk midriff, or the toe of a soft shoe landing and pivoting in slow-motion with the delicacy of a fox's footfall, can make you catch your breath. But he goes with an uncharacteristically dark, dingy color palette here, which robs his frame of much of its usual sumptuousness. It doesn't make for good cinematic martial arts or good pure visual swoon.
Even stranger, The Grandmaster has none of the brooding, becalmed existentialism of Wong's last wuxia foray, 1994's Ashes of Time, or the artfully fractured narrative of more recent films like 2046. Indeed, in many ways, it is his most conventional film in decades, though no more successful for delivering something like a linear story rather than his usual elliptical, impressionist gossamer.
Accounts have surfaced of a four-hour cut, a shorter Chinese cut, and an even shorter cut rearranged for America (Wong is a notorious tinkerer, as is Harvey Weinstein, the film's distributor). Regardless, there is simply too much happening here to work inside a relatively tidy 108-minute running time. In addition to sketching the differences between the main kung-fu schools of 1930s China, as well as their various sub-schools (cue conga-line of mini fight scenes), The Grandmaster traces the saga of stoic, humble Ip defending and preserving his own wing chun style against rivals, real life, and the forces of four, count-'em, four decades of Chinese history. On top of that, Wong weaves in a tragic love story between the married Ip and Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the daughter of a rival grandmaster (Wang Qingxiang). And she, as it happens, is also out to preserve her own family's tarnished kung-fu legacy against a craven rival (Zhang Jin) who usurps it. Complications ensue.
Quietly pining love is a Wong specialty, of course, and the rare occasions when Leung and Zhang share the screen transport. Their elegant kung-fu-battle-as-courtship-ritual whips all the other hand-to-hand scenes here, in fact, thanks to its secret weapon: erotic simmer. Equally beautiful and elegant, the leads can't help but make any screen they grace a better place to point your eyes, and they both dig into a wealth of subtle heartache beneath their characters' courtly reserve. But this movie is mostly about kung fu, and a lot of it, and Wong and Weinstein's timer is running.
Indeed, it's tough to recall a more blatant chop job. Wong's always been a wildly discursive storyteller—that's part of his appeal for his admirers—and, likewise, fans will be used to Leung's voiceover externalizing some of his character's internal thoughts (though the actor's casual delivery feels jarring in this period context). But the fits-and-starts flow and the slew of title cards needed to try to explain whole chunks of history and story rob the film itself of any semblance of a grandmaster's precision or grace.