Friday, August 30, 2013

The Grandmaster: All the right moves

The Grandmaster (2013) • View trailer 
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.

Having agreed to a martial arts duel with the angry Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), Ip Man (Tony
Leung) wagers the match's outcome on the precision of his particular brand of kung fu.
The resulting skirmish is a masterpiece of graceful choreography and tighty edited
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.

All that said...

...Kar-Wai’s narrative approach is slow and methodical, at times so leisurely as to stop altogether. Mainstream viewers accustomed to the rat-a-tat pacing of contemporary Hollywood fare will find this style challenging, to say the least; I daresay some patrons will be bored beyond words.

Then, too, The Grandmaster won’t even be on the radar of American viewers who dislike foreign films to begin with, and — if forced to endure them — make a point of avoiding imports with subtitles, in favor of those dubbed into English. I can’t imagine a greater heresy, in this case; so much of this story’s drama depends on the superlative emotion placed into the dialogue delivered by its many characters ... and you lose all that with dubbing.

We don’t need to understand individual words, in order to perceive the intensity — or gentleness — with which each syllable is rendered. Acting this fine often transcends the need for precise translations.

Kar-Wai’s film, close to a decade in the planning and making, is inspired by the life and times of legendary kung fu master Ip Man, whose professional acclaim emerged during the waning days of China’s last dynasty, and was overshadowed by Japan’s invasion in 1937, and — following World War II — the subsequent rise of the People’s Republic of China.

Ironically, this period of chaos, division and war also hosted a golden age of Chinese martial arts: an era when once-competitive disciplines were embraced collectively and collaboratively, as highly skilled specialists of each learned to respect and learn from each other.

For the most part, anyway. In martial arts, as with any other craft, petty emotions sometimes cloud the exercise of wisdom and judgment.

Ip Man (Tony Leung), born to a wealthy family in Foshan, in the south of China, is introduced as a happily married man whose social standing has allowed him to focus on a style of martial arts known as wing chun. His skill with this discipline’s three “hands” — spade, pin and sheath — earns the respect of colleagues who choose him to represent them when Grandmaster Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang), leader of the martial arts world of Northern China, elects to celebrate his impending retirement during a ceremony in Foshan.

A longstanding rivalry has existed between these two realms, with Northern China’s martial arts “elite” often contemptuous of their so-called “upstart” colleagues in the south. But Gong Baosen recognizes the value of bringing ALL martial artists together at a time when their entire country needs to unite against Japan: an inclusive outlook viewed with scorn by his disciple and successor, Ma San (Zhang Jin).

Gong Baosen and Ip Man meet in a most unusual battle; the result infuriates the former’s daughter, Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), who — as a woman — has not been allowed to carry on her father’s name and training, even though she is the sole inheritor of his lethal bagua-style “64 Hands” technique. She therefore demands her own match against Ip Man, who accepts this challenge with amusement; this skirmish, taking place under equally unconventional rules, also builds to an unexpected outcome.

What briefly follows — as we’re told by an off-camera narrator who sometimes speaks as Ip Man himself, and other times as a third-party observer — becomes the “spring” of Ip Man’s life. It segues, all too swiftly, into a lethal winter that begins with the Japanese invasion of Foshan and surrounding regions of Southern China.

In terms of the broad canvas, Kar-Wai’s film is a study of milestones, many immortalized by photographs taken at key moments, the vibrant tones of Le Sourd’s full-color tableaus freezing into the sepia-hued stillness of a snapshot that we imagine has been preserved, somewhere, in an album. This global view is contrasted by the individual threads of Ip Man’s life, many designated by melees or formal “duels” where he must prove, time and again, that his beloved wing chun is a match for any other martial arts discipline.

But this also is a saga of reckonings: of anger left simmering, sometimes far too long, and of revenge attempted — or taken — under dire circumstances.

Leung will be recognized from sprawling Chinese epics such as Red Cliff, and gritty cop dramas such as Infernal Affairs — which inspired Martin Scorsese’s The Departed — but he shines equally well in quieter dramas such as 2000’s exquisitely atmospheric In the Mood for Love, which Leung also made with Kar-Wai. Leung’s work here is similarly minimalist, with the actor drawing impressive power — and emotional complexity — from bemused glances and half-smiles.

But Leung is far from impassive; his every flicker of expression speaks volumes, in the manner of consummate actors such as Anthony Hopkins or Cate Blanchett. Ip Man’s patience, wisdom and forbearance become both heartbreaking and superhuman, as these events unfold, and yet Leung ensures that Ip Man never loses his stature as a skilled but otherwise ordinary man who views his craft as a great art form, and not a flamboyant excuse for vulgar thugs to brawl in the streets.

The quiet dignity of Leung’s performance reassures us that Ip Man can survive any indignity or tragedy; we’re not so sure about Gong Er. Despite this young woman’s balletic grace and warrior expertise, Zhang imbues her with a worrisome vulnerability, her grim determination subtly offset by a stiff porcelain bearing that could shatter without warning.

Both Ip Man and Gong Er endure pain and loss: their own, along with metaphoric calamities writ larger by the surrounding cultural revolution, and by the accompanying cultural loss. Linguists scramble, these days, to preserve languages in danger of being lost; what price, then, the disappearance of an entire art form?

Qingxiang exudes the wisdom of a long life, as the aging grandmaster; Jin is appropriately petulant and impatient as the treacherous Ma San. Song Hye Kyo is quietly graceful as Ip Man’s devoted wife, while Shang Tielong is memorably colorful as Gong Er’s guardian, never seen without his pet monkey.

Kar-Wai and action choreographer Yuen Wo Ping orchestrate the various fight scenes both cleverly and delightfully. Action fans will love the sequence wherein Ip Man must prove himself worthy to face Grandmaster Gong Baosen, by first defeating a series of Southern masters: the sort of elimination skirmishes that Bruce Lee endured in Enter the Dragon. Alternatively, the superbly choreographed battle between Ip Man and Gong Er has the astonishing athletic grace of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

I can’t say enough about Le Sourd’s cinematography, with its slow-motion raindrops and sparkling crystals of falling snow, and of the way he conveys emotional depth via shadow. Kar-Wai, happily, does not overuse tight close-ups, recognizing that Le Sourd’s scenic compositions render them unnecessary.

Production designer William Chang lends poetic grace to the story’s various locations, whether the frozen, snow-swept vistas of Northeast China, or the grim, explosive destruction of thuggish soldiers invading the balmy, subtropical south. We feel both the cold and the oppressive humidity.

Full disclosure demands that I mention we’re dealing, here in the United States, with a compromised product. Kar-Wai’s original cut runs 130 minutes, but this American release is an abbreviated 108 minutes. Much as there is to admire about this gorgeous, hypnotic cinematic dream, then, I cannot grant top marks without having experienced it the way Kar-Wai intended.

A treat that must wait for video afterlife, I guess.

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