The Grandmaster | Movie Review
Wong Kar Wai, the internationally-renowned auteur makes a triumphant return to Chinese cinema after five years of hiatus – the last feature film he directed was My Blueberry Nights, released in late 2007. With much beauty and grace, Wong’s latest period film, The Grandmaster (PG13, 130 minutes), should capture the hearts of both art-house and commercial filmgoers.
After spending eight years of research and filming, the Hong Kong director is eager to impress. He begins the movie with his trademark mesmerising voice-over – in this case, Yip Man (Tony Leung)’s philosophical take on the Chinese martial arts world, that will soon sum up the entire 130 minutes you are about to watch…
“Don’t tell me how good your skills are, how brilliant your master is or how profound your school is. Kung Fu – two words, one horizontal stroke, one vertical. If you’re wrong, you’ll be left lying down. If you’re right, you’re left standing. Only the one who is left standing has the right to talk.” – Yip Man
This is followed by a lengthy and beautiful fight sequence choreographed by the legendary Yuan Woo Ping (The Matrix Trilogy and Kill Bill). Five minutes into the action, and you know Wong means business and that you won’t be disappointed.
In his romanticised version of the Yip Man saga, Wong tells two parallel stories: the transition of Yip, from a young Wing Chun master to a grandmaster, and also the struggles of China’s martial arts community through the decades – from its heydays to its brink of collapse during the Japanese Occupation, and finally to its revival in Hong Kong after World War II.
At the same time, the movie explores other prominent martial arts clans and their respective masters. One of them is the Bagua Zhang Clan, led by Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi). Gong is in a quest to avenge her father’s death and reclaim the clan’s honour. Baji Quan is led by Razor (Chang Chen), who struggles to leave his past behind. Surprisingly, Gong’s arc story is more concretely established than Yip’s arc, taking up almost half of the screen time.
Most of the themes from Wong’s previous films, such as nostalgia, regrets, time and space, fit perfectly into the context of the martial arts world. The director also pays homage to his past works, In the Mood for Love (2000) and Happy Together (1997), including similar scenes like Gong whispering secrets into a hollow in a temple wall and Yip accompanying Gong for a stroll down an empty street in the night.
When moviegoers first heard about this film, their first thought was “not another Yip Man movie.” After three Yip Man films over the past four years, such concerns are natural. But 20 years ago, moviegoers would say the same thing about Wong Fei Hung, another popular Chinese martial artist. Thanks to Hong Kong cinema and popular culture, Yip has transcended his real-life achievements as a grandmaster to be elevated to an even higher folk-hero status.
Wong and his great cast cannot take sole credit for the success of this film. The director’s partner-in-crime and unsung hero, William Chang, who serves as the film’s art director, costume and production designer and editor, deserves to be mentioned too. He is responsible for the beautiful visual colours and extravagant set design in the film. Another frequent collaborator is the composer, Shigeru Umebayashi, who provides a great variety of music for the fight scenes and for enhancing the moods.
Overall, The Grandmaster is a breath of fresh air and immensely enjoyable to watch. It’s been a while since an action film has such great depth and style. It joins the ranks of other martial arts classics, like Hero (2002) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), in keeping the genre alive.
Text by: Lan Hao Yong
*Images sourced from Google Images
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