Because I’m a lucky so-and-so, I recently found myself undeservedly invited to a rather exclusive early screening of Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster last week. The screening was a Heineken® Star Screening, organised as part of the Open Your City, and anyone can be as lucky as me – head to the Heineken Star Treatment Page at startreatment.co/star-access for more information about other ‘Star Access’ events.
In Hong Kong cinema, Wong Kar-wai is not known for his martial arts action spectaculars. The Hong Kong peninsular has produced plenty of action auteurs – your John Woos, your Johnnie Tos – but Wong always stood apart from the crowd. His films, like 1994’s Chungking Express or 2000’s In the Mood For Love, were more thoughtful impressionistic dramas, rather than the wild action stylings of his countrymen.
The Grandmaster is not as wilfully silly or outlandish as other action Hong Kong pics. There’s plenty of slow-motion fight scenes, sure, but they’re resolutely grounded, by a sense of solemnity, a deep and abiding respects for the Chinese traditions, and a tale of unrequited love – a typical Wong trope – which underpins it all.
The film tells the contemporary legend of Ip Man, a martial arts master who revolutionised Kung-fu by bringing together rival schools from the north and south of the country. Among his many achievements, Ip Man trained a certain Bruce Lee.
This is not the first film to recount the Ip Man story – 2008’s Ip Man saw Donnie Yen play the master – but it is surely the most impressive. Wong’s reverence for his subject matter is manifested with a preternatural level of care and craft. (“Kung fu is not a circus act”, as the Ip Man says.)
Nowhere is this more apparent than in lead actor Tony Leung. A veteran of both Wong Kar-Wai and Hong Kong action cinema in general, it’s almost unthinkable to consider anyone else as the titular Grandmaster: every appearance he makes – stalking almost every frame of the film – has gravitas, quiet dignity, and crucially, the physical prowess needed to convince.
The technical ability and precision required to portray such expertise is immense. (Or at least, I presume it is – believe it or not, I know nothing of the intricacies of the Wudang Boxing northern school.)
Leung’s technical mastery is only matched by his supporting cast, and though there are several pretenders to his throne, only one challenger actually manages to defeat him. Zhang Ziyi plays Gong Er, the daughter of a grandmaster who could never hope to rise the Kung fu ranks, due to her gender.
Zhang is superb, but Wong’s third act focus on her, temporarily discarding his title character, leads to a slightly uneven structure, as he jumps around timelines and locations, and we sometimes wonder why a film titled the Grandmaster doesn’t focus on the Grandmaster.
But these are minor quibbles. Overall, it’s an immensely satisfying entry in the crowded shelf of Hong Kong martial arts epics: sumptuously shot, with depth and purpose to all its characters. Here’s hoping Wong Kar Wai stays in this world.