Saturday, September 07, 2013

Martial Art: Wong Kar-wai's THE GRANDMASTER

In fighting, as in storytelling, one of one’s greatest allies is the element of surprise.  A well-placed strike, an unexpected kick. When I walked into the local cineplex this afternoon, I felt I knew what was coming as I sat down for Wong Kar-wai’s THE GRANDMASTER. And at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I found it to be the most unexpectedly terrific film I’ve seen in more than a year and possibly the best martial arts picture since Zhang Yimou’s Hero and Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi.

What makes it so great?  Intention and detail.  When I first saw the Grandmaster trailers I thought, “Wow, Wong Kar-wai’s doing a genre film again?”  He hadn’t really done one since Ashes of Time in 1994 (and the cine-revisionist Ashes of Time Redux in 2008). In the between years, the man perfected the slow-burn romance drama with In the Mood For Love, 2046 and The Hand – his contribution to the omnibus film, Eros – and brought his sensibilities stateside with the noble Norah Jones and Jude Law-led My Blueberry Nights which wasn’t perfect but grew on and blossomed for me very quickly. So when I saw Tony Leung fighting ten or fifteen random people at night in the rain as the renowned Wing Chun master Ip Man — more recently played with general action flick acclaim by Donnie Yen — I thought it was an unusual step for WKW to make something so popularist, so apparently standard-looking. Like Edward Hopper penciling an issue of a Spider-Man comic. Not a bad move, just… Well, unexpected.

I should have known better.

The Grandmaster is about fighting, both one’s physical opponent and one’s own desires. Part biopic, part action flick… but all art film, and even more so than it appears. A beautiful bait and switch, things start out as you might expect but in the latter half the film’s real strengths are revealed. Lovingly filmed, edited, photographed and performed, it’s not so concerned with badassness, sweeping vistas and operatic theatricality, though there is quite a bit of that in the first half and specific moments in the second and those scenes are still very well done and rank among the best anyone has ever done them. Then the visceral thrill of battle and excitement gives way to a more serene, heartfelt and contemplative second half that fits squarely into WKW’s more recent oeuvre. You realize that you’re watching something different, something that will tug at your emotions as much as it fulfills your need for fight choreography. You feel the fights more when you care about the characters this much, when they’re this well-drawn.

No slap to Donnie Yen’s Ip Man films is intended here.  They’re a lot of fun and remain well-made and well-performed action adventures. WKW’s Grandmaster is just a different take with different artistic concerns.  Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining are both haunted house films. One’s a fun, sweet thrill ride and one’s a strange and shattering artistic wonder. The Grandmaster, just as The Shining does with Kubrick, also serves as a reminder about the sure-handed skill of it’s director, Wong Kar-wai..

The guy couldn’t make an average movie if he tried.

(See this thing in a theater, if at all possible. This deserves to make a ton of money. And stay a moment after the credits start. There’s an unexpected midway “gotcha” there that gets a real smile.)