Rival schools of kung fu vie for supremacy amidst the Japanese invasion of China and the Chinese civil war.
Directed by Wong Kar-wai
Starring Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi
Review by Jon Kissel
An actor as charismatic as Tony Leung isn’t one to get a movie stolen from him, but Ziyi Zhang rips it right out from under him. She co-stars as a fictional character and while she and Leung are of similar talents, her character is vastly more compelling than his. Her Gong Er, the daughter of another kung fu master, makes choices and forces action as opposed to Ip Man who is so placid as to be passive. Gong Er is so passionate that, of the film’s mythic characters, she’s the only one who drops her impassive mien, even for a second. After her father is killed by Japanese collaborator Ma San (Zhang Jin), Gong Er refuses to heed her father’s dying words about moving on and dedicates herself to revenge, destroying her marriage, her career, and her body in the process. Most cruelly, the kung fu style she so jealously defended dies with her, untaught to the next generation. This tragic arc is driven by Zhang, an actor who’s repeatedly worked with Leung but who never got the better of him as much as she does here.
As great as Zhang is and as reliable as Leung is, this is a director’s film first and then a cinematographer’s. Shot by Phillippe Le Sourd, The Grandmaster is stuffed with incredible frames and shots. The centerpiece train fight between Ma San and Gong Er is an all-timer as fog and smoke and breath fill the cold night air and the combatants battle each other in furs whose each strand is visible through crisp backlighting. Wong makes the different kung fu styles coherent and distinct, and films action without the rapid editing that renders so much modern action unwatchable.
A film with this much of a historical sweep doesn’t reach its credits without having something to say about its choice of setting, and The Grandmaster gets there with an oddly pacifist statement for a film about martial artists. The wars of the 20th century displace all the characters in the film, causing mass death and misery, and, for the purposes of a film about teachers, leads to the extinction of an entire school. That death of knowledge is treated as greater than the loss of Ip Man’s daughters, doubly so because it needlessly comes to pass thanks to Gong Er’s vengeance obsession. These kinds of reprisals run rampant in places where social order breaks down, only leading to further alienation and violence and extinction. Ip Man was also ill-served by the events of the period, but he put vengeance aside and lived, while Gong Er dies in an opium den. For them, peace and war are choices to be made, and though the culmination of Gong Er’s choice is an incredible scene, the film makes no compunction about which character chose wisely. History is littered with people who refused a loss of face and reaped their deaths when a good-faith compromise might’ve sufficed. The Grandmaster makes violence look incredible, but it knows its limits. B