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.
Up until now Cosmopolitan Magazine has enjoyed an unchallenged monopoly on Sex Tip columns, but their tyranny ends today as Dorkarama humbly presents our inspirational guide, 5 Tips To Drive Your Man Insane In The Bedroom. If the spark has sizzled, if the heat has waned, if the bishop won’t stick his head out of his turtleneck, try our techniques for turning your boring, well-adjusted man into a lunatic of love.
In the words of the Spice Girls, tell him what you want, what you really really want. And that’s to ‘Zig-a-zig-ah.’ When he asks what that means, smile coyly and insist that he knows exactly what you mean. Refuse to explain further. Reject any and all subsequent advances with the words, ‘You’re doing it wrong again. I said I wanna Zig-a-zig-ah!!’
Stimulate His Taste Buds
Nothing adds flavour to an amorous encounter like food play in the boudoir. Smear yourself in Brie that has been left to soften in the sun. The ripe aroma will stimulate his senses in unexpected ways. This is best timed for the nights when you’re at his place.
Unleash Your Fantasies
Dressing for pleasure always adds a fashion frisson to your frolicking. Slip out of the room promising to change into something more comfortable. Return dressed as the clown from Stephen King’s IT, if possible brandishing a knife. He won’t fall asleep on you tonight.
Set The Mood
Establishing the right tone will help your lover let his guard down so you can really get under his skin. Arrange lighted candles in the shape of a pentagram and insist that Behemoth’s album ‘The Satanist’ is the perfect music to get you in the mood. Play it so loud you have to shriek in each other’s face to be understood. He’ll have to get up close and personal now.
Catch Him Off Guard
Routine is the enemy of eroticism. Try taking him by surprise by loudly reciting from memory entire passages from Mein Kampf in the original German during foreplay, gesticulating wildly throughout.
Congratulations, you are on your way to leading your man into the uncharted lands of erotic madness and unbridled passion. Enjoy the trip!
At the risk of gross generalisation, British sci fi is typically cast in a much gloomier hue than it’s American cousin. Think of American comic books, dominated by superheroes out to save the world, epitomised by Superman, known as both the Man of Steel and the Man of Tomorrow. It’s all very optimistic, the promise of a brighter future and bold, brave heroes fighting for truth and justice. The UK’s flagship comic is 2000AD, home to an array of dystopian visions of the future, from the fascist super-cop Judge Dredd, to the downbeat adventures of Strontium Dog or The ABC Warriors. In this vein of dysfunctional sci fi comes The Machine, a film produced in the unlikeliest of science fiction settings – Wales.
Written and directed by Caradog James (great Welsh name that, Caradog), The Machine is a typically bleak British piece of sci fi in which the promise of a technologically advanced future leads to despair. Set in the near future Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens) works for the Ministry of Defence trying to create intelligent machines, capable of independent thought. His aims are altruistic, to use technology to help soldiers who have suffered brain damage in war and those afflicted by degenerative diseases. Of course, the MOD, personified in the form of McCarthy’s cold-blooded boss Thomson (Denis Lawson), thinks only of offensive applications. The culmination of Stephens’ research is The Machine (Caity Lotz), an android in the form of a young woman whose appearance is modelled on Stephens’ assistant Ava (Lotz again). Thomson sees The Machine as a weapon, but Stephens worries that her apparent self-awareness means that The Machine is alive and not just an incredibly advanced computer in human guise.
The Machine touches on some classic sci fi and cyberpunk themes – at what point does a machine with AI become a living being? If you can capture a human’s memories, thoughts and personalities in a computer, what is the essence of humanity? These ideas have been explored before in everything from Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep to Ghost In The Shell but Caradog James digs deep into this central dilemma of the narrowing divide between humans and machines.
Caity Lotz is impressive as The Machine in a role that demands moments of vulnerability and innocence balanced against a very powerful physicality. With a background in dance, Lotz carries herself with self-assured grace and performs her fight scenes with speed and skill, although these are few as this is a drama more than an action movie. Stephens has a difficult task. McCarthy is emotionally brittle and a bundle of tension, which makes him difficult to sympathise with or to warm to. As Thomson, Denis Lawson is obviously the villain of the hour, so some points for style but none for subtlety. Pooneh Hajimohammadi is diverting as Suri, one of the staff in the MOD’s research facility, even if her dialogue is incomprehensible (which is deliberate), and greater development of the subplot around her character would have been welcome.
The soundtrack is all synthesisers, which is both thematically appropriate – it’s all music made artificially without natural sound sources – and brings to mind the 1980s, particularly the films of John Carpenter whose self-composed film scores were always dominated by synthesisers. They also create a gloomy, downtrodden atmosphere. There are no soaring orchestras or bright guitars here, it’s all oppressive, cold electronics to match the mood.
Given that the film originated in Wales, land of song and valleys, it doesn’t boast a blockbuster’s budget but James and his team create a compelling world within the confines of McCarthy’s research facility. The visual effects on The Machine herself are impressive and moments when the limits of the budget are apparent – the avoidance of external locations being the most obvious – are easily forgiven as the gloomy interiors suit the story and add to a sense of claustrophobia. This is a film that replaces a big budget with big ideas which makes it a welcome contrast to standard sci fi summer blockbuster junk like the Transformers franchise or The Avengers (yes, The Avengers was fun and entertaining, but it was about as deep as a puddle in a drought). The pacing is measured – again anathema to Hollywood – but if the story engages your grey matter, it should have no trouble holding your attention. And, perhaps best and most British of all, The Machine offers a wickedly ambiguous, conflicted conclusion. The Machine will infect anyone who takes their sci fi smart, sharp and edged with darkness.