Review: The Grandmaster (Wong, 2013)

Still from the movie The Grandmaster

Unlike ilovewongkarwai, my partner here at the blog, I am not even close to one of the world’s biggest Wong Kar Wai fans. As a freshman in college, I enjoyed the whimsy and insistent innocence of Chungking Express, but my viewing of In the Mood for Love a few years later left me yawning, and the much-favored 2046 only puzzled me. But those were my young days. Now I’m a wizened thrity-one. Has my opinion of Wong Kar Wai ripened along with my skin?

I’m afraid not.

The Grandmaster–an artistic, nostalgically shot biopic of Ip Man, Bruce Lee‘s martial arts teacher–is a somewhat disappointing scramble. My husband tells me that twenty minutes of the original Chinese version were cut in the film shown to Western audiences, likely for clarity’s sake. (Reportedly there was much talk of turtle soup, etc., that editors feared wouldn’t translate.) Did these cuts ruin the continuity of the film? Impossible for me to say without having seen the other version. Also, my Chinese is probably not good enough that I’d be able to make sense of the turtle soup talk either, not to mention that I can only understand Mandarin and not Cantonese. (Part of the story follows a north-versus-south, mostly good-natured battle of kung fu artists. The northerners, including Zhang Ziyi, the female lead, speak Mandarin, whereas the southerners, headed by Hong Kong megastar Tony Leung, speak Cantonese.)

As with all of Wong Kar Wai’s movies (that I’ve seen, at least), the cinematography is lush and slow and indulgent. Think Instagram filters before there was an Instagram. It’s entertaining and beautiful and maybe even (cheaply?) poetic. As such, it diverts us from the fact that there’s not much else here to grab onto: impenetrable characters (with the exception of Zhang Ziyi’s Gong Er, whose depth of determination and hidden feeling did somehow move me); choppy, nonsensical jumps in time and plot; the absence of historical import. The Chinese love to make films about World War II China during the Japanese invasion (maybe one of the only politically safe topics to cover in art these days), but this movie deals with that history only superficially. That’s unfortunate, as the war is the true dramatic force behind the film’s events. Instead, Wong Kar Wai chases a love story that is barely there (and even that is done inadequately) while somehow waxing nostalgic about the lost art of kung fu. Ultimately, the picture tries to create an aura of legend that the screenplay just doesn’t live up to.

All that said, I did still enjoy watching the film. Maybe I’m easily entertained.