I am willing to accept, as a beginning to the argument, that there are ways to tell a story that differ from a style I might glossily call “Western”. I would grant too, though more cautiously, that these styles can be considered successful beyond a single viewing. Some of you relativists or relativist sympathizers may scoff at my caution, but a central premise to my perspective on film and literature is that it must be (a) accessible to anyone capable of levels (b) inside the “four corners” of the work itself. If it is only understood by members of the guild, then we all might as well have stayed home. It is clear to me that The Grandmaster (2013) earnestly attempted to share its story with those uninitiated in the world of kung fu. However, The Grandmaster did not observe that the key to unlocking that world to we outsiders was the primal motivation of its characters. “A true martial artist does not live for, he simply lives.” That needs some explanation.
In the world of kung fu, the North and South, separated by the Yangtze River, comprise the two major bodies of organized martial arts. In the north, Gong Yutian (Qingxiang Wang) is the Grandmaster, having established acclaimed organizations, combined certain fighting techniques, and other such bits of honorable kung fu-ing. As the Grandmaster grew old, in the late 1930’s he chose as his successor Ma San (Jin Zhang) because Gong’s daughter, Er (Ziyi Zhang) was (obviously) a woman and therefore unsanctioned in the martial arts. The Grandmaster had heard of a renowned martial artist named Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), who practiced the art of Wing Chun. The Grandmaster traveled to the south and challenged the southern establishment to a fight and the south chose Master Ip as their champion. He initially succeeded, but then lost in a fight against Gong Er, who was practiced in the Grandmaster’s art of 64 Hands. Then came the Japanese invasion and Ip had to move to Hong Kong to make a living. And there he began to teach kung fu.
It’s not really a plot that lends itself to ellipses because it is the story of Ip Man who lived the life of a kung fu master. That is to say, nothing really interesting happened except for his fighting all sorts of people from different schools of martial arts. The most interesting part of his life was his unconsummated love affair with Gong Er and his truncated life with his wife and children. The Grandmaster, directed by acclaimed director Wong Kar Wai, is more interested in the fighting and what it represents to its characters. To me, I’m afraid it seemed a lot of schoolyard twaddle with people fighting symbolic battles over legacies while the world around them was speedily being dismembered by the lunacy of war. Why, for example, did Gong Er vow never to marry or teach the 64 Hands when Ma San became a Japanese collaborator? Fighting Ma San for dishonoring her father, I can understand, but the vow seemed random. “I shall never, from this day, eat sushi. This I vow!”
But this may simply be culture lost in translation and that is perfectly acceptable, but clearly there was an attempt to ease that translation. Whether Wong Kar Wai desired it–and this seems like the very thing producers impose–there was both copious expository narration and actual title cards interspersed to explain either what just happened (one of them was that vow I mentioned above) or what happened between the last scene and the next. “In 1938, the Japanese asked Ip Man to collaborate but he wouldn’t” and the like. Both devices were painfully anachronistic and counter-productive. Yes, the trailer did attempt with all of its might to fool people into thinking The Grandmaster was one giant beautiful fight sequence, but no amount of plot explanation was going to salve their anger. So the rest of the audience, there to see Wong Kar Wai’s latest, is only going to be annoyed for being patronized.
But the real flaw is that they felt the need for the narration and title cards. Instead of letting the story play out, writers Wong Kar Wai, Jingzhi Zou, and Haofeng Xu put in an inartful line or two to carry us through. Perhaps if they were more interested in telling the story of Ip Man rather than the exploits of Ip Man, they could rely on a well-framed narrative. Instead, The Grandmaster is in the style of a fairy tale, entirely constructed of set pieces. But there is no moral to the story, there is no real historical context. There was a terrible civil war raging right up until the Japanese invasion and restarted right after the Japanese surrendered. Watching this movie, you might think everything was honky-dory until the Japanese arrived. Ip Man fights the master of this style, then he fights the master of that style, then he fights this renowned Hong Kong fighter, then he taught Bruce Lee. Why did he fight so many people in the rain? I couldn’t say.
The early fighting scenes are all performed in the fanciful fashion one associates with kung fu movies. When Ip Man kicks or punches you, you might just get knocked fifteen feet into the air. The main difference between the simple blocking kicks and the super ass-kicking kicks seems to be the sound. I thought I was seeing a biopic directed by someone known for his stylish romantic dramas. Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd and Wong Kar Wai’s central stylistic choice in The Grandmaster seems to be the stutter shot where the film is clean but the action stutters along to give some kind of impression. I found it a pointless imperfection.
The other great choice was the slow motion shot intercut with the kinetic fight sequences. The problem there was that the filming was so close and the fights so wide-ranging that the action became incomprehensible. He’s punching, then she slides somewhere, she kicks, it’s blocked, she slides again, now she’s on the rail and he’s down on the stairs. She wins! Wait, why did she win? It’s possible that I simply don’t have the martial arts knowledge to make sense of all of this. That definitely happened when one Tai Chi master ominously lights a match and Ip Man ominously lights his cigarette on it and the Tai Chi master says, “You have the gift.” I giggle at the memory of it.
And another thing! The music is a mixed bag. Wong uses Morricone’s Deborah’s Theme from Once Upon a Time in America (1984) (I suspect off of the Yo-Yo Ma album) twice. It is probably one of the best pieces of music written for a film. It’s just too bad that it wasn’t written for this one, otherwise I would give Wong the credit for incorporating a beautiful score. This way, it’s more like cheating. The rest of the soundtrack includes one other tune in the classical style, a couple (painful) Chinese “opera” numbers, and wooden percussion for fighting to.
As you can tell, I did not have a pleasant experience in the theater. So, I go back to my initial argument-starter. Yes, perhaps there are other ways to tell a story and, yes, they may not be intuitively appreciable if one is not schooled in the art of that hemisphere. So I’m struggling to look back on the film and see what I cannot immediately see. Maybe it just wasn’t good.
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