4.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for violence, drug use and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.30.13
This is the Dr. Zhivago of martial-arts epics.
The parallels are so striking that I’m convinced Chinese director Wong Kar-Wai must have studied David Lean’s 1965 film intimately. It’s not merely a matter of the factual elements in Kar-Wai’s biographical drama hewing closely to key plot points in Boris Pasternak’s novel; the luxurious work by Kar-Wai’s cinematographer, Philippe Le Sourd, evokes strong memories of Freddie Young’s Academy Award-winning camerawork, in Dr. Zhivago, just as Kar-Wai’s composers, Nathaniel Méchaly and Shigeru Umebayashi, deliver a lush (and Western-based) symphonic score very much in the mold of Maurice Jarre’s haunting themes for Lean’s film.
Factor in William Chang’s sumptuous production design for Kar-Wai, with a segment that evokes the “winter palace” chapter from Lean’s film, and the comparisons become too numerous to be accidental.
More to the point, Kar-Wai’s film — which he also scripted, in collaboration with Jingzhi Zou and Haofeng Xu — takes its core characters through similar spirals of triumph and shattering tragedy, against a backdrop of world events that scatter them like helpless leaves in a hurricane. Individual lives are of no consequence within the inexorable march of history, and yet we better grasp such nation-changing events because of such individual lives.
All this, and The Grandmaster also is an exhilarating parade of ever-more-exciting martial arts bouts, very much like genre classics that range from lowbrow action flicks (Enter the Dragon) to highbrow dramas (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
That’s an impressive to-do list ... but, then, Kar-Wai is an impressive director: one of very few who understands how best to exploit the medium, blending every element — sound, image, emotion — for maximum impact. Far too many filmmakers create dialogue-heavy works that are little more than radio with pictures; Kar-Wai, first and foremost, puts the “motion” into his motion pictures, unerringly amplifying viewer response with touches as subtle as falling rain, or the graceful slide of a shoe on a slippery surface.
We cannot help being amazed, transfixed, even transported.