Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi)


Director Wong Kar-wai

Actor Tony Leung as Ip Man











THE GRANDMASTER (Yi dai zong shi)                    B+                                                          Hong Kong  China  (130 mi)  2013  ‘Scope   US cut (108 mi)  d:  Wong Kar-wai              

Don’t tell me how well you fight, or how great your teacher is, or brag about your style.           Kung fu: two words.  Horizontal.  Vertical.  Make a mistake, horizontal.  Stay standing and you win.     —Ip Man (Tony Leung)

Wong Kar-wai puts his art house stamp on the martial arts drama with this sweeping, magisterial work, made over the span of five years, with lead actor Tony Leung breaking his arm twice during the extended production in his role as Ip Man, a legendary martial arts figure who mastered the art of Wing Chun, which emphasizes self-defense through short-range combat with direct punches and blocks and low kicks, gaining notoriety for having taught Bruce Lee in Hong Kong in the late 50’s, who developed his own hybrid martial arts philosophy, Jeet Kune Do (“The Way of the Intercepting Fist”).  Shot on 35mm by Philippe Le Sourd, filmed in a range of stunning locations that include the snow-swept landscapes of Northeast China and the subtropical South, divided by the Yangtze River, the lush visual approach accentuates a luxurious look onscreen, highly operatic and hypnotically beautiful, becoming the director’s highest grossing film, outgrossing his previous four features combined.  Even so, the American release is subject to controversy, largely due to the influence of Harvey Weinstein, as it cuts more than 20-minutes from the Hong Kong version (both versions approved by the director), where viewers have a choice which version they prefer, with David Ehrlich meticulously outlining the differences (Kung Foolish: How The American Cut of 'The Grandmaster ...).  Assuming one has the opportunity to view both, start with the American cut, which largely showcases Ip Man, yet despite being gorgeous to look at, feels unfinished, like a connection of vignettes all strung together, poorly written, feeling emptier and more shallow, as if missing an overall story, while the longer version adds a fuller depth of characterization involving Ip Man and Gong Er, which seems to improve the viewing experience, though significant scenes in each version are altogether missing in the other, making them two contrasting versions, each with their own aesthetic virtues.  Examining China from the early 30’s to the early 50’s, a time of chaos, division, and war that was also the golden age of Chinese martial arts, founded on two basic principles of horizontal and vertical, given a near-biographical examination, opening in Foshan with Ip Man in his white hat battling dozens of combatants in a downpour of rain, creating a choreography of ballet-like rallies and retreats, THE GRANDMASTER | Opening Scene YouTube (1:51), yet successfully fends them all off, leading to early flashbacks of his life, narrating many of the scenes himself.  Seemingly content in his role, they are visited by Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), a Wudang Boxing martial arts grandmaster from Dongbei in northern China who has successfully combined many different fighting styles into one, but he announces his retirement, replaced in the north by his successor Ma San (Zhang Jin), determined that the south should have the opportunity to appoint its own leader.  Gong’s daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) arrives, urging her father not to fight, as none are worthy of his stature, yet her father takes a broader view, recognizing the need for younger talent to distinguish itself, with Ip Man easily fending off competition, Best Fight Scene From The Grandmaster 2013 (Ip Man Fights With Other Masters) YouTube (6:48), leading to a face-off with Gong, who instead challenges him to a battle of wits, testing his philosophical mettle, with Ip Man successfully prevailing in the challenge, becoming the bonafide leader in the south.

More of a somber and reflective film, recalling ASHES OF TIME (1994), the director’s last martial arts film, which he fiddled with for more than a decade before releasing a finalized version entitled ASHES OF TIME REDUX (2008), which was more of a western, with little emphasis on actual fighting, yet the prevalence of death pervades throughout, while this has uncommonly superlative production values, where the photography, costumes, and interiors are stunning, incorporating philosophical meaning behind the combat, yet even if much of this falls flat, attempting to add cerebral layers of depth and sorrow to the personal relations, the dialogue never distinguishes itself, feeling empty, lacking the depth it seeks, but it does beautifully frame combat in romantic detail.  Gong Er doesn’t rest with his victory, challenging Ip Man to regain her family honor in a highly elaborate and festive occasion, including ornate costumes and a banquet feast, Shigeru Umebayashi - Moyou on Vimeo YouTube (4:11), pulling out all the stops for this main event, which gathers tremendous publicity, and with it prestigious honor, yet the competition is different in that a man and woman are involved, where deep feelings of desire underlie their every move, exquisitely designed by choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, becoming an outpouring of affection both for the sport and each other, as their faces come in near contact, barely grazing the other, showing much restraint and admiring respect as well as scintillating moves.  They both agree that “Kung Fu is about precision,” so the first to break a piece of furniture becomes the loser, literally dancing across the screen in carefully calculated movements designed to impress as well as challenge any perceived weakness in their opponent’s defense, becoming extremely erotic and acrobatic, set to the music of Lentini’s Stabat Mater, Best Martial Arts Scenes : The Grandmaster Ip Man vs Gong Er YouTube (5:18), where courtesy is Ip Man’s ultimate undoing, barely breaking a stair step while gallantly saving her from falling.  She declares victory, redeeming her family honor, yet the two develop a mysterious intimacy that is profoundly affecting, with Ip Man demanding a rematch in the north, staying in contact through an exchange of letters, but Japan’s unexpected invasion of Manchuria prevents that from ever happening, routing Beijing and Shanghai, while capturing the Chinese capital of Nanjing, resulting in the Rape of Nanjing in 1937.  Japan’s brutal occupation moves from the historical background to become a central focus of the film, leading to the murders of several hundred thousand Chinese, some buried alive in a scorched earth policy, burning entire villages, where many women were captured and gang raped, their bodies grotesquely mutilated afterwards.  In a sign of national betrayal, Ma San throws his allegiance to Japan, while the hardships endured by ordinary Chinese citizens are massive, enduring years of deprivation and poverty, with excessively bleak times of rampant starvation where millions died, taking the lives of Ip Man’s own children, leading him to pursue a new life in Hong Kong in the early 50’s, filled at the time with fleeing refugees, trying to establish a martial arts academy, but finding it slow going, as there are various martial arts styles vying for superiority, valuing technical mastery over any philosophical inclinations, introducing his own Wing Chun techniques, which more than holds its own against the competition, but he refuses to become a circus act or street performer in carnival-like street exhibitions and instead ekes out a modest living.  By the time he sends for his wife, the borders of Hong Kong have been closed, caught in a time warp keeping both separated and apart, never able to see each other again.  Alienation and regret dominate the later years of their lives, each leading a solitary existence.            

Layered in sadness and profound solemnity, among the darkest films since THE GODFATHER (1972), almost entirely pitched in black, opulently lit, with the war having driven the country apart, leaving families decimated, separated over time and distance, many suffering in silence.  Out of curiosity, Ip Man discovers Gong Er has given up martial arts and has set up a doctor’s practice, so he pays her a visit, but discovers how profoundly her life has changed, now using opium regularly, literally detached from the world.  A flashback sequence that she narrates reveals the source of her anguish, returning back to the war years when the traitor Ma San kills her father as an enemy of the people, taking over the martial arts school and compound, with Gong Er vowing revenge, revealing her closeness to her father growing up, never allowing anyone to tarnish his name, THE GRANDMASTER | Daughter Of The Master YouTube (3:05), set to the music of Shigeru Umebayashi – Kokuhaku (Sorekara Epilogue I).  Making a vow to Buddha to never teach, marry, or have children, devoting her life to vengeance against Ma San, whose arrogance knows no bounds, “You’re just a woman.  You don’t count.”  Her ultimate showdown takes place in a flashback on Chinese New Year’s Eve in 1940, a dazzling train sequence set in the snow filled with poetic flourish, THE GRANDMASTER | Train Fight YouTube (3:44), leaving little doubt of her true capabilities, an avenging angel using a strategy taught by her father that Ma San never learned, paying the ultimate price.  Yet the fight has left her injured as well, battle scarred through the years, using opium to ease the pain, losing all interest in the martial arts.  Meeting her on Chinese New Year’s Eve in 1950, she reveals her lifelong affection for him since their first fight, which she’s not afraid to divulge, knowing the degree of her extreme detachment, where nothing will come of it, yet their meeting is one of polite formality and grace, shot with excessive tenderness.  The film style is typical Wong Kar-wai, sumptuously beautiful, luscious and extravagant, often changing film speed, using slow motion or extreme close-ups, varying the look and tone with the melancholic musical score, which even veers into the operatic, using Bellini’s “Casta Diva” from Norma to accentuate the extreme elegance and delicacy at work here, especially when he makes Chang Chen’s Razor, another of the grandmasters and an expert of the Bajiquan school, utterly stupefied when he makes the blade sing, which has him shaking his head with disbelief, suggesting a well-matched opponent is as rare as a good friend, finding a balance in their extremes, actually attaining true harmony (not shown in longer version).  The contrasting styles are at the heart of any martial arts saga, with Ma San and Razor reflecting sadistic impulses of supreme arrogance, while Gong Er and Ip Man are more refined and dignified, displaying a relaxed confidence, maintaining the tradition of Kung-fu as a shining example of decency, supreme art, and wisdom, where their lives are defined by the martial arts code of honor.   Ip Man trades in his former status as a warrior to become a teacher of new generations, where his Wing Chun school flourishes, popularizing a once secretive and elitist martial arts on a worldwide scale, training a young student named Bruce Lee, who himself popularized the martial arts and put his own stamp on the artform by making movies, becoming an international star.  This film allows Ip Man to emerge from the shadows of history and take his rightful place of honor, with Wong Kar-wai providing a masterful portrait of poetic eloquence, but whether it lives up to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s equally enthralling 2015 Top Ten List #9 The Assassin (Nie Yinniang) is another story.  

The longer Hong Kong version alters the film significantly, as it’s more drawn out and elongated, more of a melodrama, profoundly sad, mournful, and tragic, extending Gong Er’s character significantly, as well as her bodyguard and clan protector Jiang (Shang Tielong), almost always seen with a monkey on his shoulder, who stands by her through the bitter end.  Her role is expanded significantly, given greater characterization, almost equal to that of Ip Man, both rivals in combat and in love, though she remains true to her vows.  Gong Er’s vow of revenge against Ma San is told with great passion, among the more lyrical scenes in the film, placed in greater context, particularly after the murder of her father, adding a sense of urgency to her family honor, where her family name is at stake.  Her ferocity in her fight scenes are emblematic of a fierce individualism, unafraid and emboldened by the weight of the moment, yet tragically her later years are filled with pathos and regret, which comes to embody the deeper meaning of life, as what is life without regrets?  The longer version eliminates the sequence of Gong Er as a young girl learning from her father, practicing her martial arts moves in the snow, while also eliminating the music of Bellini’s Norma, where the music is decidedly different, more tragically overwrought, resurrecting an Ennio Morricone theme from ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984), Ennio Morricone (Live) - Once Upon A Time In America (Deborah's Theme) YouTube (3:34), given the deeper context of a melodrama.  Ip Man is married to Zhang Yongcheng (Song Hye-Kyo) in limited screen time, though has more screen time in the longer version, including moments of intimacy, where at one point each gives the other a bath.  Among the more memorable scenes is watching the family take a photograph together, adding the look of vintage photographs, but it’s also the last time they would all be together, as the war decimated their family.  Much of the historical period is told like a newsreel of unfolding events, complete with bluster and bombast, creating decorative pageantry reminiscent of Kurosawa, with soldiers led by flags and flying banners caught up in a nationalistic fervor.  Curiously, some of the better scenes in one version are completely left out of the other, including musical selections, leaving each version significantly flawed, yet still effective, with Wong Kar-wai, the ultimate master of unrequited love, perhaps most defined by IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000), seemingly more interested in the story of Gong Er and the unleashing of her repressed desires, with the longer version ending in the silent emptiness of the Buddhist temple where Gong Er took her vows, the source of her spiritual renewal.  There is no mention of Bruce Lee in the longer version, which also extends the stories of other characters, like Razor (Chang Chen), who ends up being a nationalist spy, protected from the Japanese authorities in a train sequence by Gong Er, using her coat to hide a bloody injury.  The longer version feels more connected, where there’s an over-arching story of a romantic love triangle, one with his wife and another never realized with Gong Er, where the flames are sadly reduced to an ember, leaving only smoldering memories of what might have been, where an unrelenting loneliness defines their lives in the later stages, with Ip’s wife stranded in Foshan after the closing of the Hong Kong borders, while Gong Er looks at the lost promise of her younger self, giving up her martial arts training, a major part of her identity, seemingly resigned to let it go, where nagging injuries plague her later life, returning to opium for relief.  That melancholic sadness is more pronounced in the Hong Kong version, where loneliness and the pain of living is more elevated, taking a toll on their lives, leaving them all a shell of their former selves, with only Ip Man retaining his love of martial arts, establishing an academy in Hong Kong teaching Wing Chun, while those who have had the biggest impact in his life are only a fleeting memory, disappearing like a puff of smoke. 

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