Wong Kar-wai’s most recent film is a (kinda, sorta) biopic, dramatising the life of the legendary Wing Chun martial arts grandmaster Ip Man, a man who counted Bruce Lee among his pupils and who is played here by Wong’s long-term collaborator Tony Leung. It’s mostly set during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, a time of great political upheavel in China and, according to this story, an important period in the history of martial arts: there are long-standing tensions between northern and southern China – and those who practice their respective regional fighting disciplines – but there is a sense of old enemies coming together to fight invading Japanese forces, with Ip eventually fleeing to Hong Kong after the Second Sino-Japanese War. The film initially focuses on Ip’s rise as the southern champion, his temporary descent into poverty and his unconsummated relationship with Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the surviving daughter of a northern grandmaster, but latterly it shifts its attention to a dynastic struggle between Gong and Ma San (Zhang Jin), which ends with a sumptuously-shot showdown at a snowy train station; you could certainly argue that Wong’s film, or at least the second half of it, is as much about Gong as it is about Ip.
The subtle and beautiful montages that hint at the various complicated states of Ip and Gong’s relationship are sadly ruined by a typically clunky Weinstein Company interference, with some intrusive explanatory text added for western audiences. Indeed it’s difficult to know, without seeing the original cut of this film, whether Wong or the Weinsteins are to blame for the various problems with The Grandmaster‘s story: it is occasionally muddled and rather unfocused but that’s hardly a surprise when you discover that the version released in the UK has lost 30 minutes of footage — make of that what you will. Despite this I have to say that watching the film remains an enjoyable experience overall, simply because it is a real visual treat. Wong has always used an expressive colour palette and this latest work – shot on 35mm film – is no different, while cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his work here, frames the characters up close over and over again, isolating their starkly lit faces against dark or out of focus backgrounds. Fights take place in elaborate indoor settings or in rainy and snowy outdoor locations; we see the individual droplets of rain and the snowflakes falling and landing while the characters dance around one another, and Wong repeatedly shows nearby surfaces as bodies impact upon them in one way or another; meanwhile the camerawork captures hands and feet as they move gracefully in battle, with slow-mo as prevalent as ever. I’m no martial arts connoisseur but the fighting in The Grandmaster looks very impressive to my eyes, and there seems to be an emphasis on traditional style rather than multiplex-pleasing acrobatics, in keeping with the film’s nostalgic leanings; there’s a commendable desire to get to grips with the philosophy underpinning the fighting styles too, though I suspect the bulk of that has been Weinsteined. The director tips his hat repeatedly to Sergio Leone, and Wong is clearly aiming for the same kind of epic, sweeping feel that Leone made his own; at one point the soundtrack references Ennio Morricone’s magnificent score for Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America and it’s wholly relevant, too, given that it arrives as one character’s life is gradually taken over by opium use. But this version has little of the cohesion of Leone’s work: The Grandmaster spans decades, has a backdrop of political change running alongside personal stories, looks the part and sounds the part, so it really is a shame that the western cut reduces it to a narrative mess.
Directed by: Wong Kar-wai.
Written by: Wong Kar-wai, Zou Jingzhi, Xu Haofeng.
Starring: Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Zhang Jin, Song Hye-kyo, Wang Qingxiang.
Cinematography: Philippe Le Sourd.
Editing: William Chang.
Music: Shigeru Umebayashi, Stefano Lentini.
Running Time: 104 minutes.