Wong Kar Wai, Hong Kong Cinema's most prestigious auteur, finally delivers his long-gestating biopic of Wing Chun pioneer Ip Man, and it proves an action-packed visual feast. Light on narrative, but oozing Wong's trademark elegance, the film weaves the director's familiar themes of love, loss and the corrosive nature of time around some of the most gorgeous martial arts sequences ever filmed.
The Grandmaster has been a project so long in the works that for some it may qualify as the most-anticipated film of the new Millennium. It was way back in 2002 that Wong Kar Wai and leading man Tony Leung Chiu Wai called a press conference to declare their intentions. It was more than 18 months ago that the first teaser trailer for the film was released, featuring - as it transpires - footage from the film's opening scene: a rain-soaked street fight between a trilby-sporting Leung and a dozen faceless assailants. As recently as last month, the film's release date was pushed back (again) from 18 December to early January and Wong was still putting the final touches to the film mere hours before its world premiere in Beijing on 6 January.
The story begins in Foshan province, where at the age of 40, Ip Man (Tony Leung) is happily married to a beautiful, doting wife (Korean actress Song Hye-kyo), lives off a healthy inheritance, and has continued the family legacy of advocating Wing Chun, a simplified yet remarkably effective form of kung-fu. At the Golden Pavilion, a local brothel patronised by many of the region's finest martial artists, North-eastern Grandmaster Gong (Wang Qingxiang) challenges the best Southerner to a fight, before he returns North. After seeing off his rivals from the other local martial arts schools, Ip Man comes forward, only to demonstrate that intelligence and restraint can prove as powerful weapons as kung fu. Ip insists that Northern and Southern martial arts can co-exist peacefully, and Gong leaves humbled, yet satisfied.
Master Gong's daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) is less satisfied, however, and returns to challenge Ip Man herself. During their fight, they share the briefest moment of attraction, awakening a forbidden yearning within them both. Gong Er returns home, only to discover that her father's best student, Ma Shan (Zhang Jin), refuses to accept his master's defeat, and kills him. Gong's dying wish is that the two reconcile and marry, as the last remaining practitioners of Gong's revered 64 Hands technique. However, Gong Er vows to have her revenge.
While it may sound like The Grandmaster features a lot of plot for a Wong Kar Wai film, this really isn't the case. The film spans many years, including the Japanese occupation and Sino-Japanese War, but in a refreshing break from recent Chinese cinematic trends, the conflict goes largely ignored. As with all Wong's films, the characters are the primary focus, and how they struggle to interact through the veneer of society, honour, and their own self-imposed need to starve themselves of happiness.
There is clearly a much longer film here. Reports abound that until very recently, Wong had a four-hour cut of the film, while the version that goes on general release in Hong Kong and China this week clocks in at about 130 minutes. Perhaps the biggest victim of this drastic re-editing is Chang Chen. Given third billing, as well as his own character poster, his character probably only manages about ten minutes of screen time and only appears in three scenes. Zhao Benshan's worldly-wise father figure gets even less screen time to the extent his role in the film proves almost entirely pointless.
Chang's character, known only as "The Razor", is first seen on a train, fleeing from the Chinese army. Bleeding, and brandishing a cutthroat razor blade, Gong Er sees him and instinctively shields him from the search party. This moment teases at a possible romance between the two youngsters, not to mention reunites Zhang and Chang onscreen for the first time since Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. We anticipate their next encounter, and how it could complicate Gong Er's relationship with Ip Man, but even after both characters make the move to Hong Kong, The Razor never meets any of the principals again.
Many of the recurring themes that Wong allows to permeate his work resurface in The Grandmaster. Characters have fleeting encounters that are never built upon, but which continue to haunt them for years afterwards. Time proves once again to be everyone's greatest enemy, not only causing people to grow old, but also to forget the things they held most dear - and in this film particularly, the idea that age makes them weak, and less able to defend themselves plagues them relentlessly. Because, of course, for all its melancholy musing and forlorn contemplation, this is a film about martial artists and The Grandmaster is one hell of a beautiful kung fu movie.
Action choreographer Yuen Woo Ping repeatedly dazzles us with his intensity and imagination, staging a number of standout fight sequences throughout the film that are captured exquisitely by Philippe Le Sourd's ravishing cinematography. Screen legends like Bruce Leung Siu Lung and Cung Le push Tony Leung to the limits of his newfound prowess, while Zhang Ziyi and Zhang Jin are also thoroughly convincing fighters on screen. But the staging of the action in The Grandmaster is a far cry from the kung fu in Wong's last martial arts venture, 1994's Ashes of Time. That film instilled a magical quality into its action, coupled with that blurry slo-mo camerawork Chris Doyle favoured at the time. In The Grandmaster, we see everything, and the fights themselves are shot almost as elegant courtships, dictated by ritual, ceremony and mutual respect, or when Zhang's character is involved, a breathless sensuality that only heightens the tension between opponents. Umebayashi Shigeru's gorgeous score is another highlight, complemented by an array of songs and classical pieces ranging from 1950s Canto-pop ballads to Ennio Morricone's theme from Once Upon A Time in America - a film that is evoked on numerous occasions throughout.
While admittedly Wong Kar Wai hasn't set himself a very difficult target, it seems extremely likely that The Grandmaster will prove to be the most financially successful film of his career. The anticipation alone should ensure enough tickets are pre-sold to take him most of the way, but the fact that the film is actually really good to boot should help see it do healthy box office both here and overseas. That said, audiences primed by the Donnie Yen/Wilson Yip collaborations who approach this film looking for another dose of nationalistic breast-beating and old-school chop socky action stand a good chance of leaving disappointed.
The Grandmaster remains first and foremost a Wong Kar Wai film, employing a very slow, deliberate pace throughout and dedicates long periods of time to watching its characters ponder the great mysteries of life, or more often, wallow in their own regrets and missed opportunities. But this is interspersed by some truly fantastic action, which should delight kung fu fans and arthouse cinephiles alike. In The Grandmaster, Wong Kar Wai has crafted the best-looking martial arts film since Zhang Yimou's Hero, and the most successful marriage of kung fu and classic romance since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and is more than deserving of that film's measure of international success.