Rental Pick: Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster (2013)

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When I watched Ip Man earlier this Summer, someone recommended that I watch The Grandmaster, but unfortunately Netflix Streaming doesn’t have it. But thanks to my dear friend Michael from It Rains … You Get Wet for kindly lending me the dvd via mail. If you’re curious which version, it’s the Special Edition 2-Disc version in Chinese with English subtitles.

There are three things that appeal to me about The Grandmaster: Tony Leung Chiu Wai as a protagonist, Wong Kar Wai‘s direction and the story of Ip Man itself. Apparently it took the perfectionist director 10 years to bring this film to live, and from what I’ve seen, seems that most of it is spent on perfecting the visuals of the film. Now, I’m not being sarcastic here as the visuals truly is ah-mazing! My hubby said it’s as if every frame of this film is picture-frame worthy, and the opening sequence of Ip Man fighting a bunch of people in the rain is just glorious!

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This is the first film of Wong Kar Wai that I’ve ever seen, as our plan to watch In The Mood For Love for our Movie Night a couple of years back fell through and I never got around to it since. So I later found out from his IMDb page of the Chinese director’s signature style, i.e. his frequent usage of time-lapse photography, quick freeze-frames in the middle of certain scenes, and the way his characters are often shown having a conversation mostly off-screen or with their faces shown in reflective surfaces, etc. The Grandmaster is certainly a VERY stylish film, there’s a meticulous attention paid down to the last detail which I find really fascinating. I mean, the martial arts master is wearing a white Fedora the entire time he’s fighting in the rain, and the gorgeous Ziyi Zhang’s never without a white flower in her hair even as she does her Kung Fu. If you like martial arts films, you’ll surely enjoy the fight scenes! Tony Leung reportedly trained pretty hard for a whole year in preparation for this role and it shows! He’s quite graceful in his moves, but I think that’s largely how the sequences were shot.

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The thing is, as a character study, which is what I would expect here, the film is lacking a focused narrative. I feel that the strong visuals trumps storytelling and that seems as if it’s a deliberate move on the director’s part. I think it’s interesting that the story of Ip Man is intertwined with Gong Er’s (Zhang Ziyi), both in Foshan and later in Hong Kong when the Japanese invaded their city. Their path crossed as Gong Er is seeking vengeance for the death of her father in the hand of her own family member who’s become a Japanese sympathizer. As intriguing as that story is, I struggled to follow the story with the choppy narrative and overwhelming visuals. There is a man named Razor (Chen Chang)that I haven’t got a clue what his relation was to the main characters, despite a fascinating introduction on the train. I had to read about it later to find out who he was. Perhaps this film is intended for people who are already familiar with Ip Man story? I’m not sure but I certainly knew less about the character than what I’ve learned from the 2008 Ip Man film.

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That said, I’m still glad I watched it and got to know Kar Wai’s beautiful cinematic style. I love the minimalist dialog to contrast the rich and tremendous visuals. The lack of spoken words are more than made up by the subtle gestures and delicate glances, enhanced by the Zen-like charisma of Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi. I could watch both of these actors all day, they’re so mesmerizing! As I’m not as familiar with martial arts films, I’m afraid the metaphors and underlying messages might be lost on me [my brother who’s more into Kung Fu movies might appreciate this more], but it’s still worth a mention. Lastly, I was hoping to see Bruce Lee as he’s clearly Ip Man’s most famous pupil, but I don’t see a scene with him specifically. He might’ve been one of the students shown towards the end and in this photo but not sure which one he is.

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Overall, The Grandmaster is an intriguing film that warrants a recommendation. Even the lack of focused storytelling still makes this a compelling film and a visual feast. It takes a certain level of sensitivity and patience but I do think it’s worth the effort.

Three and a half stars out of Five
3.5 out of 5 reels


Thoughts on The Grandmaster? I’d love to hear it!