Wong Kar-wai depicts ceremony as much as he tells stories. Artifacts, gestures, fashion – these are the things his camera caresses and the things of which rituals are made.
The biopic genre values the opposite: specific dates, information, chronology. And so The Grandmaster, Wong’s biographical drama of revered martial-arts master Ip Man, is like a butterfly that can’t quite escape its chrysalis. Watching it – at least the 108-minute “American” edit I saw – you can sense a more impressionistic film wanting to break free.
Thankfully, it takes more than intertitles and explanatory voiceovers to derail a master like Wong. Despite such formalistic restrictions, The Grandmaster is still a showcase for what the Hong Kong filmmaker does best: evoke a theme through repeated motions in a way that recalls, at least for this Western churchgoer, something akin to liturgy.
At the heart of nearly every one of these ceremonies is either the wielding or the transfer of power.
The best scenes, in fact, take the form of tableaus. Some are purposefully arranged group photos – including portraits of Ip Man (Tony Leung) with his family or his students – yet even many of the live-action moments have the elaborately designed feel of a lush stage production, frozen just before the curtain comes down. When Ip Man attends a banquet with Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the daughter of a visiting master from the north, they are like figures in a pre-ordained narrative, complete with an observing audience. (Another ceremonial facet of the movie is the fact that so many scenes include spectators, be they the women of a brothel or martial-arts students.)
At the heart of nearly every one of these ceremonies is either the wielding or the transfer of power. A crucial moment comes early on, when Gong Er’s father (Wang Qingxiang), who is in search of a successor, presents Ip Man with a challenge involving a small cake that he holds in his hand. I wasn’t clear on the exact tradition being enacted – explanatory voiceover is mercifully absent here – but the swooping of hands and exchanging of stares tells us all we need to know about the mutual respect being expressed between these two men.
Power is, of course, quite literally transferred and expressed in the many fight sequences, which are choreographed by the great Yuen Wo Ping and given a signature sensuality by Wong (I can’t remember another martial-arts film that paid this much attention to the placement and positioning of feet). Ip Man engages a series of opponents in order to test his wing chun technique against various other methods. Again, it’s less about “victory” and more about sharing knowledge and assessing an opponent’s character. When Ip Man and Gong Er square off in a balletic contest involving a flight of stairs (my favorite bout), her victory ignites not anger and resentment but newfound respect and a decades-long, unrequited affair.
As Gong Er, Ziyi Zhang is almost too good: she makes you wish the entire film was about her character. Leung brings a charming bemusement to the title role, but Zhang offers something far richer: a tragic portrait of a woman willing to fight for her family’s tradition, but disallowed because of her gender. Her symbolic reclaiming of her family’s name in a train-station showdown with her father’s sniveling, regrettably appointed successor (Jin Zhang) is the emotional high point of the film. Supposedly Gong Er gets more screen time in the original, Chinese cut of The Grandmaster, but never mind that. She deserves her own picture.