Like the crystalline shards of broken glass and ice that glide through the frames of each fight sequence, Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster pieces together the life of legendary martial artist Ip Man (Tony Leung) in beautifully filmed fragments. The film floats back and forth through Ip’s time, blending historical facts, a philosophy of martial arts, kung fu choreography, and Wong’s own interpretative take on the well-documented life of Ip (the subject of five different Chinese produced features since Wilson Yip’s Ip Man in 2008, though given his status as a national hero, this documentation filters through a propaganda-infused lens). To say that a Wong film meditates over a sense of subdued yearning is like describing a Tarantino movie as violent and referential: at this point, it can just be assumed. Wong stands as one of international cinema’s established masters. Each of his films conveys his interests in stylized clarity, whether the battles between love and cultural decorum or the contours and varieties of footwear fashion. Yet, given Ip’s iconic status within modern China, the film nevertheless deserves interest &,mdash; in the same way that a Tarantino biopic of George Washington might turn a few heads (for what it’s worth, a Tarantino version of the Ip Man story might prove a interesting comparison piece as well, given the former’s obsession with Hong Kong martial arts cinema).
With The Grandmaster, Wong’s cinematic preoccupations embed themselves onto the framework of both Ip’s life and martial arts film conventions. The fight scenes, choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping, fall somewhere between Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix — the two works Yuen is most known for (at least in the US) — combining the balletic grace of the former with the sleek modern gloss of the latter. To be fair, this is also technically Wong’s second foray into the genre after Ashes of Time, which had a re-edited version released in 2008; given that the US release of The Grandmaster is around 20 minutes shorter than the Chinese version (and purportedly a good deal less than Wong’s original cut), it should not come as a surprise if alternate versions pop up in the future. My inner conspiracy theorist also wonders if this version has not been cut to closer resemble In the Mood for Love and 2046, similar to how the trademark Raymond Carver style grew out of editing. Loosely tracing Ip’s rise to prominence, the film focuses on his feelings towards the daughter of a Northern martial arts master, Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang). When she challenges Ip to a sparring match, the scene plays out more like a ballroom dance in a Jane Austen novel. As Ip navigates the tragedies of his life with a spiritual detachment from the (assumed) perspective of looking backward, his thoughts return to Gong Er; the film itself even sidetracks from his narrative towards hers, giving her the privileged position of the climactic fight before the anticlimax of their unrealized relationship.
Again, this is all conveyed through fragments, scenes not always given proper context to feel removed from time itself. The title cards inserted throughout to give historical weight retract from the scenes themselves. Characters enter, exit, and re-enter in an almost random pattern. Wong turns this fragmentation into a motif, imbuing certain frames with a kaleidoscopic effect or pasting still photographs into the montage. Still, given Wong’s undeniable mastery, he could do more with all these beautiful little tile pieces. The film hints at a larger unifying theme for this choice: The destructive turmoil of the Japanese occupation and the upheaval of post-war China — reflected in both the lives of Ip Man and Gong Er — leads to the disappearance of culture in the form of martial arts styles such as the 64 Hands of Gong’s family, but also the liberating of a style such as Wing Chun from the rigid societal confines of tradition. The lamentation for what is lost dances, or spars, as the film suggests there is little difference between the two, with the optimism towards the future.