ReviewWriter: Elaine EweWriter Ratings:Overall: Cast: Plot: Effects: Cinematography: Watch this if you liked:
Wong Kar Wai's films
Arguably one of the most anticipated films of the year, Wong Kar Wai's "The Grandmaster" has indeed lived up to expectations and more. If art imitates life and vice versa, then "The Grandmaster" is reflexive as an extension of the man himself, as he reaches the point in his life for him to reflect on his career. A culmination of Wong Kar Wai's 31 years of his experience as a director, and ultimately, as an auteur, the film not only has the finesse of "Ashes Of Time", the eclecticism of "Happy Together" and the non-chronological nature of "2046", its central themes are that of reflection and duality.
These qualities are to the forefront in his bracing new film, "The Grandmaster", in which it opens with imagery of Leung and his reflection in a mirror, then punctuated by various ethereal and expressively-shot of scenes unfolding in water, mirrors and metaphoric lingo. Wong takes his theme of reflection even further by introducing duality, to bring home the point that reflections can also mean similar beings with different personalities. Like when one lifts up their right arm, in the mirror, it is the left arm that goes up. This idea is demonstrated as the film begins, when Yip Man remarks, "Kung fu equals two words: horizontal and vertical. The one lying down is out; only the last man standing counts." Wang Qingxiang also remarks, "In life, some people thrive in light, others in darkness."
Based on these themes, "The Grandmaster" becomes an opera in two acts, headlined by Tony Leung, who plays the legendary Yip Man (Ye Wen), while Zhang Ziyi plays Gong Er, the daughter of a famed Northeastern martial arts master. Both of them get their own arc in which they struggle to deal with the ideals of society, honour, and their own self-imposed need to deprive themselves of happiness. This is a recurring theme in Wong's works, where his characters have fleeting encounters that do not go beyond regretful experiences that haunt them for years afterwards. However, the division of the film's focus is also what sets the film apart from the many versions of Ip Man - the multilayered narrative does not glorify Yip Man and his achievements, choosing instead to focus on his encounters with other martial arts master, probably the reason that the film is titled "The Grandmasters" initially. A key to understanding the film comes when Yip Man reflects that his wife loves to watch the opera at the Gold Pavilion, a brothel described as "where good men gather in a floating world". Clearly this is a metaphorical representation of Wong's film as well, about good men gathered in his beautifully choreographed and filmed 'floating world'.
A grace note of the movie is that Chang Chen's character, known only as "The Razor", is designed to be a foil for Yip Man, and also to reference its theme of duality. While the two never meet in the film, "The Razor" also has his own monumental encounter with Gong Er, his own fight scene in the rain and his own teaching school like Yip Man. The only difference between "The Razor" and Yip Man is his hotheadedness and tendency for violence, best emphasised through comparisons their rain fight scenes. "The Razor" beat his enemies up to the point that blood was shed, even going so far as to smash someone's head against the brick wall after he was down while Yip Man did not, and went the fallen man alone. There is clearly a much longer film here, so it is just too bad that he fell victim to Wong's drastic re-editing of the film, leaving him with only three scenes.
In a film full of reflection, Zhang's performance is a major one, and perhaps her best one to date. When we first meet her properly, during a gorgeously closeup shot of her exceptionally fair face, she is a headstrong, defiant girl who tries to convince her father that he is committing a great mistake by giving Yip Man the right to compete against him. Gong Er is a reflection of her father, literally and metaphorically, and she even remarks at one point in the film that she is not a hero like him, but in the end, upon reflection, Gong Er realises that her actions have just made her weary. That the film ends with her looking even fairer in a qipao but for different reasons, is a testament of how Wong will go on to deconstruct her established persona thoroughly and completely, but one that we will only realise through reflection.
Meanwhile, Tony Leung carves out yet another memorable performance as Yip Man, despite playing his usual brooding act. The devil is in the details - when he holds his wife's hand during their opera session together, his brief glances at Gong Er during their duel, his newfound prowess as a martial arts star and the upward quirk of his mouth whenever he is amused. Dignified and refined, Leung makes us believe that it is possible for Gong Er to fall for him after one intimate match.
Like almost every Wong Kar Wai film, the film's cinematography - brilliantly brought to fruition by Philippe Le Sourd, oozes Wong's trademark elegance and reenacts his successes of marrying the physical and philosophy, kung fu and romance. The early sequence where Yip Man takes on a group of men that outnumber him in the rain sets the stage for more to come - ravishing slow-motion shots, still shots and close-up shots that chart the many years that "The Grandmaster" spans, including the Japanese occupation and Sino-Japanese War. All this is set to a haunting classical music score by Shigeru Umebayashi, who also scored some of Wong's better known films.
Wong Kar Wai brings his own take to the well-told tale of the man who taught Bruce Lee, and made it into one of the most unforgettable, unshakably unique films of this year. It is uniquely Wong, with its slow, deliberate pace, in which the characters gracefully and stylishly reflect upon life and missed opportunities to a haunting soundtrack put together by Frankie Chan. "The Grandmaster" may not be for everyone, and even fans of Wong may need to view it multiple times in order to fully understand it, but it makes other films and filmmakers look timid and feeble.Cinema Online, 24 January 2013