Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai (born in Shanghai in 1956) is unquestionably an auteur and the most critically acclaimed (elsewhere) Hong Kong film director of recent years, and, maybe, ever. There are striking visual compositions in all of his movies, and a saddened but resilient Tony Leung Chiu Wai in most of the Wong films I’ve seen except the one he shot in English in the US (My Blueberry Nights, starring Jude Law) and the first one (As Tears Go By).
Wong Kar-Wai and Leung are masters of mood, especially regret (Happy Together, Chunking Express, 2046, etc.). Wong is not much of a storyteller (though he often has Tony Leung tell stories within his movies). Wong Kar-Wai is not an obvious choice for someone to make a biopic of any sort, or of kung-fu (Wing Chun style) master Yip Man (also romanized as Ip Kai-Man, 1893-1972), in particular. Similarly, though he has done fight scenes, Tony Leung is not an action star with great martial arts skills.
“Grandmaster” has at least two formidable martial arts performers, Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hero; The House of the Flying Daggers) and Le Cung (Bodyguards and Assassins) and fight scene choreography by Yuen Woo-ping, known in America for The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). The fight scenes are shot artily in rain and snow (and inside a brothel) by Philippe Le Sourd (A Good Year), who is channeling or copying Wong’s frequent DP, Christopher Doyle (or the look of Wong Kar-Wai movies is more Wong’s than Doyle’s!).
I’d hazard the guess that ere are too many elaborate fight set pieces for most Wong fans and not enough for fans of kung fu action movies. The last third of “Grandmaster” with Leung and Zhang expressing regret in 1952 about what didn’t happen in 1937 is prototypical Wong (not least “2046” with the same pair).
I came away from the movie wondering what its point was supposed to be. That Wong was forced to cut down his four-hour movie (which I have no doubt will eventually surface as a “director’s [un]cut” version!) to 130 minutes for theatrical release at home and to 108 for US release accounts for some of the confusingness, though Wong’s lack of narrative ability probably accounts for more of it.
It does not help that the voiceover narrator shifts toward the end from Yip to his most famous student. More damagingly, especially for a biopic, Yip is nowhere around for long stretches in the middle of the movie.
On the other hand, the best fight scene is in that part, in what is called (both in Chinese and in English subtitles) “the Northeast” (of China), which was the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo (see “The Last Emperor”) at the time. Physician Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of northern Chinese Master Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) squares off against her father’s renegade disciple (and slayer), Ma San (Zhang Jin), alongside a train leaving a station (with snow falling).
The other great fight involves “Razor Man,” played by Chang Chen (who played Tony Leung’s lover in Wong’s “Happy Together” and Zhang Yiyi’s (the Mongolian bandit chief/princeling) in Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), who disappears from the film (as does Yip Man’s wife, played all but silently by Korean actress Song Hye-Kyo).
The story that is fractured by flashbacks and incoherent construction starts with Master Gong going south before the Japanese occupation, where he loses a match (of wits) with Ip. This enrages his daughter, who challenges Ip to a fight that has no clear winner.
Though seemingly very in love with wife and doting on their two daughters, Ip wants to accept her inclination to visit the North(east), but the Japanese invasion makes that impossible.
The scene shifts to Manchukuo and Gong Er’s conflict with the collaborator (with the Japanese) and traitor (to her father’s code of honor) Ma San.
Meanwhile, back in Foshan, Guangdong, the previously wealthy Ip struggles to feed his family. There is an intertitle that he lost his two daughters in the war. Oddly, neither in Chinese nor in English, does it say he lost his family (specifically, his wife as well as his daughters).
Following the defeat of Japan and the civil war in China, Yip is established in the British colony of Hong Kong, head of a kung fu (Wing Chun) school, wishing to learn the Gong “64 hand” technique, which Gong Er is unwilling to teach him, though acknowledging the feelings of love she had for him before the war.
I couldn’t say what Wong Kar-Wai was trying to say about Yip Man. That he was a man of martial art skills, dignity, and honor does not make for much drama. In the movie, he is never tempted by dishonorable motives. His love for Gong Er is highly sublimated (as I said, this is Wong Kar-Wai territory, see especially with Leung and Gong Li in Wong’s “2046” and in his segment of “Eros,” or Leung and Maggie Cheung in Wong’s “In the Mood for Love”).
In short, there is no character development, no Yip Man backstory, and such important matters as “losing” his wife and daughters occurs offscreen. I admire Tony Leung in general, but kept wondering why he and his character, the supposed subject of a biopic, were around. (I found the seething under her icy surface Gong Er more interesting, not to mention “Razor Man”!).
For telling the traumatic effects of the upheavals in China in the twentieth century on individuals and couples, Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, To Live) and Chen Kaige (Yellow Earth; Farewell, My Concubine) are much more masterful than Wong Kar-Wai shows himself to be… and Zhang Yimou is also a greater master of action movies (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) than Wong (the rather opaque “Ashes of Time,” and, now, “Grandmaster”), as is Johnnie To (Running Out of Time, The Mission, Exiled, etc.).