North and south, horizontal and vertical, men and women, son and daughter, life and living – these are some of the dichotomies that Wong Kar Wai delves into upon his long awaited return in The Grandmaster. Opposing but not mutually exclusive, these dichotomies afford Wai the opportunity to offer a persuasive biopic on the martial artist Ip Man while irrevocably sharing the same sort of narrative and thematic space as Wai’s previous pictures. Those familiar with Wai’s prior works will see a clear kinship to the opulent interiors and period-specific details of In the Mood for Love or the breathless, kinetic energy of Chungking Express. Yet it’s Wai’s 1995 film, Fallen Angels that The Grandmaster bares the most striking resemblance to.
Both dwelling on genre-specific details (Fallen Angels and the gangster film, The Grandmaster and the martial arts film), Wai’s purposeful rejection of narrative structure presents a uniquely-calibrated experience. Plot-wise, The Grandmaster recounts Ip Man’s (Tony Leung) exile into Hong Kong following Japan’s mainland invasion. Torn from his family and stripped of the prestige that came from being a martial artist within his community, Man would eventually popularize the Wing Chen style of Kung Fu – a style that, as most commentators on Ip Man’s life note, would become the backbone of Bruce Lee’s teachings. Yet the film’s storytelling really begins and ends with Ip Man’s life, with the narrative propulsion of the middle dedicated to the Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi). The daughter of a celebrated Grandmaster of Northern China, Gong Er’ s gender compromises her social standing, even as she proves to be a more skilled martial artist than her brother, who’s short-sightedness proves to be his undoing. The two parallel narratives converge, eventually highlighting the tradition of suffering the runs through the veins of Gong Er and Ip Man and the different ways in which they handle loss.
The parallel narratives in both Fallen Angels and The Grandmaster accentuate a similar thematic ideal – the ideal of forging ahead. In Fallen Angels, the overarching narrative device stems from a career hitman looking to put an end to death and leaving the business. In The Grandmaster, Wai delicately reflects on the trauma of a man and woman of different upbringings who must make ends meet through the imposed social structure. Much like Fallen Angels, there aren’t any free-spirited romantics (such as Faye Wong in Chungking Express) that populate the narrative plain in The Grandmaster. Amid Yuen Woo-Ping’s visceral fight choreography, Philippe Le Sourd’s immaculate photography (this film just about has the best rain sequences ever), and the multidimensional editing, is a grounded film on emotional loss and attempting to reconcile that loss through the teachings of tradition. In that way, the very use of kung-fu is not a device to highlight domination over an opponent but rather a therapeutic exercise.
In something of a deceiving sleight of hand, the director attempts to posit historical truths amid his usual hyper-stylism – a jarring effect that ends up being Wai’s most significant misstep. The two components fail to complement each other, presenting a painful self-awareness to the proceedings. Fallen Angels, arguably Wai’s most hyper-stylized film to date, was preoccupied with youths and the contemporary structures that were defined through narrative happenstance, which therein provided the seamless and kinetic experience that The Grandmaster strives for. Perhaps it’s this jarring effect that makes portions of The Grandmaster nearly incomprehensible, with particular characters entering and exiting the narrative space within minutes and with little consequence. Much has already been noted on the shortened-version of The Grandmaster currently released in theaters (apparently several versions exist, ranging from ten minutes longer to the American release to a four-hour extended cut), though the case here is that the hypnotic quality that so defined all of Wong Kar Wai’s work is erratic here. Precision and timing may be the worldview that Ip Man lives by, but the patchwork that is the American version of The Grandmaster is anything but. Cracked at the seams, the tapestry that Wai still gives way to a wholly engrossing achievement – the master sways and stumbles, but never quite falls.