Born in the Chinese province of Guangdong in 1893, Ip Man has recently emerged as one of the most significant figures in Chinese popular culture. Aside from being a master of Wing Chun kung fu and the man who trained the immortal Bruce Lee, Ip’s career as a martial artist coincided not only with the birth of modern China and the Japanese occupation of Manchuria but also with the democratisation of Chinese martial arts and their emergence as a truly global phenomenon. Since 2008, Ip Man has been the subject of no less than five films and a Chinese TV series but while all of these projects purported to be biographical in nature, Ip’s status as a renowned kung fu master made it almost impossible to resist the temptation to imagine the man’s life as a series of genre clichés and spectacular fist-fights. Equal parts martial arts film and brooding art house drama, Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster keeps the genre trappings to an absolute minimum resulting in a moving and atmospheric portrait of a man whose physical precision and control seem forever out of step with the chaos and passion of the world.
The film begins with Ip (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) already forty years of age. Born to a wealthy family, Ip spent the first forty years of his life studying the martial arts and hanging out in an exclusive brothel where rival martial artists jostle for position and prestige. One of the most interesting things about this film is that while most films try to suggest that excellence at a particular activity is somehow an end in itself, Wong goes out of his way to present the world of traditional martial arts as both decadent and pointless… sure these people are amazing physical specimens who have pushed their respective techniques to the limits of human possibility but at the end of the day, they’re just a bunch of athletes in a snobby fraternity and nothing they do actually matters to the outside world. This decadent idyll is disrupted when Gong Yutian (Wang Quingxiang), the grandmaster of northern martial arts comes south to announce his retirement and issue a challenge to the southern martial artists camped out in the brothel. Despite Ip’s privileged indolence making him one of the less visible members of the martial arts community, his fellow masters decide to elect him grandmaster in an effort to save face and respond to Gong’s challenge. Needless to say, Ip defeats Gong in a battle of poise and wit but winds up being defeated by the man’s beautiful daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi).
This opening act is very much that of a traditional martial arts film, albeit one with superlative cinematography. The film opens with an unexplained fight between Ip and a bunch of other guys before transferring to the inside of the brothel where Ip fights a selection of masters with radically different styles in the hope that their unorthodox techniques will prepare him for the fight with the northern grandmaster. Refreshingly for a director who is not known for action, Wong does incredibly well with these sequences as he finds a way to combine the rigorously choreographed exchanges you would expect of a Chinese martial arts film with the more conventionally artistic sensibility you would expect of an art house drama. This is a film of deep shadows, oppressively luxuriant colours and an absolute emotional stillness shattered by a fight that simply should not have mattered.
While Gong Er winds up defeating Ip Man, her victory is deemed meaningless as the misogynistic world of Chinese martial arts does not allow the participation of women. While the fight between Gong and Ip is an exquisitely controlled affair, Wong somehow allows us to glimpse the raw animal passion that joins the two fighters together. Sensing that there is more between them than the pride of two martial artists, Ip finds himself trapped between the visceral need for a rematch and his more comforting and familiar duties as a husband. The letters between Gong and Ip speak of a meeting and a re-match with all the passion of parted lovers but Ip proves so reluctant to travel north that war with Japan intercedes before he can meet with Gong.
At one point, Ip says that while his years in and around the brothel were the spring of his life, what followed was the coldest of winters. After refusing to collaborate with the invading Japanese, Ip is stripped of his position and forced into poverty before escaping to Hong Kong where he takes over a local martial arts school and begins rebuilding his life. However, just as things start to settle, Ip discovers that Gong is living in Hong Kong and working as a doctor. Desperate to reconnect with the woman who inspired feelings he is now ready to own after more than a decade, Ip makes his way to Gong’s surgery only to find her a shadow of her former self…
Like many of Wong Kar-Wai’s films, The Grandmaster sets up a tension between the stillness of the characters and the churning chaos of the world that surrounds them. Unable or unwilling to acknowledge their own feelings, Wong’s characters feel deliberately out of place as every set and every shot hints at the passions they keep chained up inside them. While the tension between Ip’s physical mastery and emotional backwardness is beautifully realised thanks to a cast and crew at the absolute peak of their respective games, you cannot help but feel a bit frustrated by the shallowness of Wong’s character study. Ip was a fascinating man who lived at a fascinating time and while action directors like Winston Yip and Herman Yau have been content to present the man as little more than a generic action hero, Wong breaks with this tradition only to strip his subject back to the equally simplistic lines of a generic romantic lead who struggles with feelings that would not overly bother a teenager.
Part of the problem may be that while The Grandmaster was 130 minutes long upon its original Chinese release, the international edition of the film is nearly half an hour shorter resulting in a film that seems to lack the kind of connective tissue that would allow human complexity and thematic depth to gain some purchase. For example, when Ip finally meets up with Gong Er, he learns that she spent most of the previous decade trying to wrestle her family’s reputation away from one of her father’s students who decided to collaborate with the Japanese. While this sub-plot has obviously been included for the sake of the epic fight between the two heirs to the Gong legacy, no attempt is made either to connect Gong’s story to the rest of the film or to explain why she would devote herself to winning back her family’s reputation only to then turn her back on the martial arts. Was it that success in the martial arts brought her no happiness? Was it that she came to see the pointless and destructive nature of inter-school rivalries? Quite possibly and yet the film never bothers to either explain Gong Er’s existential collapse or relate it back to what we know of Ip’s life.
The Grandmaster is an absolutely gorgeous film that contains some amazing action sequences but the lack of psychological depth and thematic complexity merely invites us to speculate as to how much of the film’s soul was left on the cutting room floor. Ip Man deserved better and Wong Kar-Wai can definitely do better.