Even in the heavily cut form of the infamous Weinstein edit, Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (2013) has that strange alchemy that creates truly spine-tingling cinema. A ravishing film that brings pomp and grandeur to the kung fu movie, it is a beautifully unruly work. The director imposes his sumptuous stylisation onto the B-movie narrative, creating a curious clash of sensibilities. The plot jumps and staggers, but Kar-wai’s expressive camerawork brings it all together. While the temptation with such erratic filmmaking will be to nitpick; it’s a film that prompts an overwhelming emotional response as it weaves its dark magic.
Set in the first half of the twentieth century, The Grandmaster follows Chinese kung fu expert Ip Man (Tony Leung). After the Japanese invade the country in the 1930s, he moves to Hong Kong where he struggles to get by, waiting tables and teaching martial arts on the side. His story is simply the thread that connects the film’s disparate elements together; the cipher through which the turbulent recent history of the country is drawn. The heart of the story is Ziyi Zhang’s Gong Er, daughter of Northern grandmaster Gong Yutian (Quinxiang Wong). Ip Man notes that a master’s perfect opponent is his mirror; this is what Gong Er is to him. Their lives intersect over the decades, but it’s clear than his story is there to propel hers.
While Ip Man is a charismatic craftsman, he’s resigned to the burden of the times, whereas Gong Er pushes against it. She’s easily his equal as a fighter, but she also has the drive to correct the perceived injustices of history. The Grandmaster’s scenes are self-contained, but Kar-wai expertly implies scope and scale; so much so that there are elements of the swooning, sweeping classical Hollywood epics present in the picture’s DNA. Beneath the bone-crunching fights and modernist visual embellishments, there are palpable shades of David Lean. The fights themselves are, by turns, exhilaratingly visceral and handsomely arresting.
The choreography has a balletic structure, with the corps and principals ebbing and flowing perfectly in time with Kar-wai’s enchanting rhythm. This is not to say that the sequences are bloodless; the exquisite sound design and flinching close-ups make you feel every punch. The director has it both ways; his fights are as unsparing as they are beautiful. With sequences this good, one often forgets the controversial involvement of Harvey Weinstein. But, the condescending explanatory title cards aside, The Grandmaster still feels like Kar-wai’s film. It may not have the nuance of his previous work, or indeed be the art house martial arts picture many were expecting, but it is a chaotic triumph of theatrical artistry; a romantic epic to fall in love with.