In conclusion – Wong Kar Wai clearly doesn’t get the whole martial arts movie genre.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
To lay out my stall, I’m not some Wong Kar Wai hater, he’s made some wonderful movies – Chungking Express is a particular favourite – but he needs to leave martial arts films to people who have some understanding of the form.
He’s already tried once with Ashes Of Time, a film that robs the viewer of the swordplay genre’s single most appealing trait – the sword fights themselves – by rendering them as blurry, impenetrable impressionist art. In Ashes Of Time, as indeed in all his work, Wong’s primary interest is in unfulfilled love. That’s his bread and butter, his rice and noodles. So decades after his artful but forgettable swordplay attempt, in The Grandmaster Wong tries his hand at the kung fu movie but, true to form, he delivers another tale of unfulfilled longing and completely botches the kung fu side of the story.
His subject, at least to start with, is Ip Man. Following in the tradition of Cantonese folk heroes like Fong Sai Yuk, Hung Hey Kwun, Wong Fey Hung and so many others, Ip Man is undergoing the process of being transformed into a myth. It began with Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen’s biopic in 2008 and has been picking up steam with every subsequent sequel and knockoff. The Grandmaster continues this mythologizing but actually adds comparatively little to the mythos. Played here by Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Ip Man first appears fighting a gang of unknown assailants in the pouring rain, most notably a muscular chap played by Cung Le. This sequence quickly highlights one of the film’s central problems. It’s a triumph of style with precious little substance. Ip’s fight in the rain has no context, his attackers no identities or agenda. So what’s the point of it?
Where Donnie Yen’s Ip Man was a noble family man, in The Grandmaster he’s a smug playboy who spends most of his time hanging around an upscale brothel. The martial arts world he inhabits seems an intensely insular one, the development of skills an exercise in ego to prove who’s the best. Living in Foshan, Ip is the representative of the southern kung fu masters in a contest of skill against the leading master of the northern styles, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang). There’s little sense of these masters being connected to their wider communities or world. The Japanese invasion of China is an inconvenience that disrupts their rivalries, rather than a blow to national pride – unusually for a kung fu film set during this period, The Grandmaster does not contain a scene in which Ip has to defend Chinese honour against a foreign fighter. On the one hand, that’s a refreshing choice, but on the other hand, Ip has no great rival in the film to drive his quest for martial arts mastery.
The second half of the movie isn’t about Ip at all, but about Gong Yutian’s daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) and her desire for vengeance against her father’s renegade pupil Ma San (Zhang Jin, who makes for a sneering, two-dimensional villain). This is the oldest, most over-used plot in the genre – ‘You killed my father, I want revenge.’ If it’s over familiarity wasn’t bad on its own, Wong’s handling of it is clumsy. Gong Er desires retribution for her father and to reclaim the mantle of the Gong family kung fu style, a blend of Hsing Yi and Ba Kua. This is a well worn trope in the genre – the idea that kung fu is a form of inheritance passed on from generation to generation within a family, from master to student. But Wong shoots himself in the foot and robs the whole enterprise of any credibility. Determined to reclaim the Gong family style, Gong Er promptly vows to never get married, never have kids…and never teach anyone kung fu.
She’s desperate to reclaim the family style from this evil usurper, just so she can take it to her grave? That makes no sense narratively or thematically. It’s a plot device so that Wong can construct an unfulfilled romance between Gong Er and Ip Man and everyone can look wistful all the time.
Ip is not involved in Gong Er’s quest to fight Ma San at all. He’s pushed out of the film entirely for that sequence, only returning for the forced sentimentality of the finale. And then, the icing on the cake, the film closes with the declaration that Ip Man spread the art of Wing Chun all across the world.
The only reason anyone has heard of either Ip Man or Wing Chun is because Ip was Bruce Lee’s instructor before Lee moved to the US. This is the worst sort of revisionism and typical of the nonsense that accompanies the mythologizing of these figures. Lee himself turned away from Wing Chun as he developed his own ideas on combat. This is clear in a comparison of his first book, ‘Gung Fu: The Philosophical Art Of Self Defence’, which is mainly based on Wing Chun, and then his series of ‘Bruce Lee’s Fighting Method’ books, in which he openly criticizes the stances and techniques of traditional martial arts, and his notes on punching in ‘The Tao Of Jeet Kune Do’ which borrow heavily from Western boxing manuals by Jack Dempsey, Thomas Inch and Edwin Haislet.
The fight choreography in The Grandmaster was overseen by Yuen Wo Ping. For my money, the best Wing Chun fight scenes are those in Sammo Hung’s wonderful films Prodigal Son and Warriors Two, followed by the first Wilson Yip movie. In both Prodigal Son and Warriors Two, the fights are built in the choreography and performance, but the fights in The Grandmaster rely heavily on editing and camera effects for their execution. There are some scenes that showcase different styles in action, putting the spotlight briefly on Ba Kua, Hsing Yi and Hung Kuen but the restless camerawork and quickfire editing obscure a great many movements, rather than revealing the techniques being performed. While the script features a highly generic revenge plot, albeit not one involving Ip Man, there are many other genre motifs noticeable by their absence. Ip has no nemesis to overcome, no technique to refine or master, no process of self cultivation to complete. Instead he falls in love with a woman he can never have because she’s made a nonsensical vow. Yes, the cinematography is beautiful, the sets are lavish and all that, but as a kung fu movie, The Grandmaster is meagre fare.