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!

Musings on Asian directors… why so few of them thrive in Hollywood?

StokerPosterI had just seen STOKER on Tuesday night, which inspires me to write about this post. Now, a lot of you know I was born in South East Asia but I moved to the US to go to college and has been staying here since. I feel like I need to preface this article by saying that I am actually guilty of not being familiar with Asian cinema even though my brother was into Kung Fu movies at the time (particularly the Sin Tiaw Hiap Lu series). I personally am not a fan of martial arts nor samurai movies, which explains why I have not seen any of Akira Kurosawa films.

Even today, there are only a handful of Asian directors I could name whose work I’m familiar with. I’m focusing primarily on Asian actors born outside of US soil. One of the most successful one is the Taiwanese-born Ang Lee, who’s got two Best Director Oscars under his belt by now. Sense & Sensibility is one of my favorite films of ALL TIME, whilst Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Life of Pi are two of Lee’s films I’ll remember fondly. I’ve become quite familiar with Chinese-born John Woo (Face/Off) and Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers, Hero), Japanese Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), South Korean Jee-woon Kim (The Last Stand) and most recently, fellow Seoul-born Chan-Wook Park with Stoker. I still haven’t got around to seeing Wong Kar Wai‘s work, especially In the Mood for Love and Chung King Express.

JackieChanThis article from Film Junk has asked a similar question back in 2009, focusing specifically on Jackie Chan. I bet many of you were surprised by that, and so did I, but apparently one of Chinese’s most famous action hero has directed 18 films since 1979! The article even mentioned that “…there are action scenes in Chan’s Police Story aka Police Force that have been duplicated in Hollywood films…” citing Tango & Cash and Michael Bay’s Bad Boys II as examples. Yet the writer argued that Chan could only find work in Hollywood as an actor.

I discussed a few of these articles with my pal Ted (who’s also a South East Asian native) who’s perhaps more familiar with Hong Kong action films/thrillers. He agreed that “…it’s hard for these established directors to come over here and be successful. Most studio executives wants them to make the same kind of films but with Western actors. Then a lot of audiences here aren’t used to their kind of film-making so their films won’t make any money.” Of course this issue isn’t just limited to Asian actors, apparently it’s also tough for most European directors too, unless they’re Brits. Most well-known French or German directors have failed to make it in Hollywood.

Now, since Stoker is still fresh in my mind, let’s talk about Chan-Wook Park for a bit. I know Park is quite popular to Western audiences thanks to his vengeance trilogy, particularly Oldboy. He’s done about a dozen feature films in his native South Korea, so Stoker is his first English-language film and his first time working under the Hollywood system.

I found this Wall Street Journal blog interview with Park, and asked about his Hollywood debut, he replied that he…” felt there was a slight barrier and the humor that was found in my Korean films [did] not always travel well…” Now, the cultural barrier certainly could play a part in whether a non-American directors could make it in Tinseltown, though having seen Stoker, I don’t think that was an issue for Park. Even fellow Korean Jee-woon Kim did very well with the action-comedy The Last Stand despite the language barrier with the actors (I mentioned in my review that he barely speaks any English).

So perhaps it’s something else that might’ve been a hindrance for them to making it big. This article from The Grid points out that perhaps the key that a foreign director could thrive in Hollywood is versatility. It stated that “…[John] Woo’s problem may have been typecasting. As a vaunted Asian action director, he was expected to work the same magic in his American vehicles, and every one was compared (usually unfavourably) to his earlier movies in Hong Kong.” The writer Martin Morrow astutely compared Woo’s career to Ang Lee’s impeccable versatility.

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Ang Lee and John Woo

I saw Lee’s Taiwanese film The Wedding Banquet before I saw the Jane Austen adaptation Sense and Sensibility, and he’s been genre-jumping ever since with The Ice Storm, Marvel superhero Hulk, Brokeback Mountain, and going back to his roots in creating the martial-arts fantasy Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the highly risque NC-17 sexual thriller Lust, Caution. The article quoted an interview with NPR where he said, “I was afraid that if I stayed in one place doing [the] same type of movies, I’d be pigeonholed.. and I would have a very limited career.” Of course the road to success did not come easy for Lee either, as veteran Chinese-born actress Lisa Lu — who knew Lee from his days as a film student in NYU in early 1980s — revealed in this Voice of America article, “He asked me to see his thesis film, and when I looked at the film, I knew he was very talented,” Lu said. “So from there on, we became very good friends, and I tried to introduce him to everybody, but the timing was too early. At that time nobody wanted anything Chinese.”

Going back to Park, currently he seems to be associated with cerebral, violent thrillers, even though he did a Korean sci-fi rom-com I’m A Cyborg but that’s OK, but I don’t know how many western audiences are familiar with that one. Ted gave me a script review of an ultra-violent Western that supposedly Park was attached to direct, I’ll post that later this month, but that gives you a hint that Park might also be capable at genre-jumping. I’m curious whether Park could make the leap the way Ang Lee did and perhaps even make it to the awards circle.

I certainly would like to see more foreign directors not just make it but thrive in Hollywood. I mean, since Hollywood is notorious for ripping off Asian and European cinema anyway, why not make room for their filmmakers to do well here?


So what do you think? Curious to hear your thoughts on this one, folks. While you’re at it, who’s your favorite Asian director(s)?