Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster is infuriating in a specific way. It’s the kind of misfire that only a top filmmaker could achieve. There are sublime shots – the period cinematography endlessly evocative – and Kar Wai’s script brings the same quiet melancholy that defines his earlier work. But for all its peerless style, there are several crucial misfires. None of the characters speak in actual conversation; Kar Wei’s script instead relies on elliptical riddles and metaphor. The action sequences are poorly edited, so there’s no way to tell whether they’re well-choreographed. The titular Grandmaster was a real person who eventually became a national folk hero, and Kar Wei bends his superlative life into an obscure, maddening art school narrative.
Tony Leung, who nowadays looks like Asian Barack Obama, stars as Ip Man, a master of the Wing Chun style of kung fu. When we first meet him, he fends off attacks from about a dozen bad guys. Actually, I’m not so sure they’re bad guys since Kar Wai’s script never explains why Ip Man fights in the street, or what his attackers want from him. The only possibility is that the sequence is a style exercise, one that’s meant that clarify the Ip Man’s prowess, and on the front it fails, too.
He fights in the pouring rain, and Kar Wai pays special attention to each kick and twirl. In slow motion, we watch the elegant parabolas and how bodies cut through the rain drops. The specifics of the fight are secondary; I could see legendary choreographer Yuen Woo-ping being frustrated with his final product. Instead of showing the actors in a full shot, there are ancillary details, and a good fight sequence needs more than bells and whistles. The Grandmaster is about an hour and forty-five minutes long, and it could be around twenty minutes short, if not longer, without all the superfluous slow motion.
Kar Wei is slow to develop a story. Grandmaster Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang) wants to unify the North and South schools of martial arts, and the south elects Ip Man as their representative. He gets tips from several other masters before he challenges Baosen, yet they all seem unnecessary. Kar Wai chose to represent Ip Man as a sort of demigod: he never gets punched – I watched carefully – and seems to predict every move thrown at him.
Once Baosen settles on Ip Man, there’s a historical interlude. Civil war between China and Japan upend the plans of Ip Man and his colleagues, and later he picks up the pieces in Hong Kong (instead of actually developing Ip Man’s family as important characters – many of whom starve to death – they’re explained away with title cards). After he starts a Wing Chun school, Ip Man discovers that Gong Baosen’s daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) works there as a doctor. This is Wong Kar Wai we’re talking about here, so we know the film’s final third deals with their impossible love.
The dialogue is so bad in The Grandmaster that I seriously think that some of it is simply lost in translation. There are many, many scenes where Ip Man discusses different styles of kung fu, and what specific moves mean. The names for the moves do not mean anything to a layperson, so many conversations are confounding. The only real connection is between Ip Man and Gong Er, but Kar Wai prefers to keep their passions simmering. This kind of slow-burn romance worked in his other films, but it’s mired when all the other relationships lack the same nuance and attention to detail.
There is exactly one good scene in The Grandmaster, and it’s suspenseful because none of Kar Wai’s usual tricks are apparent. Gong Er wants revenge for the death of her father, so she fights his evil former pupil in a train station. There is suspense because there are stakes – Gong Er gets beat up badly in this fight – and Kar Wai pulls away from his characters so we can see their bodies in motion, not just their limbs. Kar Wai and Leung spent four years preparing for The Grandmaster, and their dedication only appears in throwaway shots of beauty. This is a biopic that literally has placeholders for major parts of its subject’s life.