Film reviews: The Grandmaster | St Vincent

The grandmaster is beautifully shot but its look seems more important than its storyline. Picture: Contributed

The grandmaster is beautifully shot but its look seems more important than its storyline. Picture: Contributed

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THE GREAT Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai tends to favour mood over narrative, which is why it’s often easier to fall into fits of reverie over the gorgeously designed sequences in his films than it is to get swept up in their stories.

THE GRANDMASTER (15)

Directed by Wong Kar Wai

Starring: Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Chen Chang

Star rating: ***

Exhibit A? The Grandmaster, his sumptuous but stagnant biopic of Bruce Lee’s legendary teacher Ip Man (played here by frequent Wong collaborator Tony Leung). Marking the director’s first foray into martial arts since Ashes of Time 20 years ago, the film is a visual wonder, but it’s so obsessed with the minutiae of every Yuen Woo-ping choreographed fight sequence – right down to the way individual raindrops bounce off flying fists mid-rumble – that the wider story becomes opaque.

The Chinese Civil War, the Japanese invasion, and the post-Second World War spread of kung fu to the rest of the world are the great swathes of social history through which Ip moves. As the film delves into the many intricate regional variations involved in martial arts, however, it becomes difficult to hold on to the impact these momentous events have on Ip’s life. The loss of his family to starvation, for instance, is dismissed with a cursory line of narration – and yet the imparting of an obscure life lesson via an exquisitely orchestrated battle over a cake is dwelt upon at greath length. It’s as if Wong is willfully trying to remove his protagonist from his own story, denying us the human details in order to chart how the real person behind a legend is necessarily obscured as that legend takes shape.

Indeed, Ip almost disappears from the story altogether as the film switches focus to Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), a ravishing female rival whose one-time defeat of Ip precedes a lifetime of tragedy and heartache. There are other deviations that appear even more meaningless and it’s difficult to work out if Wong really had some biopic-subverting purpose in mind or if he just found himself unable to tell the story in a way that gelled with his sensibilities (Harvey Weinstein’s insistence that he re-cut it for western audiences can’t really be blamed this time). On the plus side, dedicated fans will doubtless find more to love here than in his last film, the misbegotten My Blueberry Nights. As for kung fu fans, the suspicion remains that in attempting to put the cinematic art in martial arts, Wong has ignored the primal beauty of the chopsocky films for which Ip’s greatest student would become famous. The spirit of Bruce Lee lives on not in The Grandmaster, but in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films and Gareth Evans’ The Raid movies.

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