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30 Jan 2013

The Grandmaster

Love it or hate it, The Grandmaster is a masterpiece that goes beyond the cartoonish legend of Ip Man.

Original Title: 一代宗师

Director: Wong Kar-wai

Language: Mandarin

Screenplay: Wong Kar-wai

Cast: Tony Leung, Ziyi Zhang, Song Hye-ko, Chang Chen, Zhao Benshan

How do you make a biopic about a historical figure who didn't have much actual impact on history? We're talking about the Wing Chun master Ip Man, whose is rightly credited for saving his school's martial art tradition and teaching it in Hong Kong following his escape from the mainland during the second Sino-Japanese war. But the man's actual claim to fame? He was Bruce Lee's childhood martial arts teacher.

It's no surprise then that over the last five years, all three other films about Ip Man were works of pure fiction, portraying him as an action hero in the Steven Seagal mould. That is to say, an action hero who is so collected and competent, he overpowers all opponents without breaking a sweat and overcomes any challenges with elan that there is essentially no dramatic tension in these films. We don't know what Ip Man did during the second Sino-Japanese war, but it'll be good entertainment to show him patriotically taking on an entire battalion of the Japanese army. We have no clue what Ip Man did before he turned 40, but it's good entertainment to show his early life as the secret history and inspiration behind Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury.

I'd like to think Wong Kar-wai came to the same conclusion as I did about Ip Man in his 12-year-long production of The Grandmaster: that Ip Man as a historical personage left no records of his life or even martial arts career before his arrival in Hong Kong, and that to sensationalise and fictionalise his life and career as a Grandmaster would be to make a very boring, if superficially entertaining film.

Wong's antidote to Ip Man, Ip Man 2, and The Legend is Born: Ip Man is a film that ironically questions Ip Man's grandmaster status. Wong asks: Who were the acknowledged grandmasters of Ip Man's youth in China? What happened to them? Why is Ip Man acknowledged today as a grandmaster?

In grounding his film in these questions, Wong makes a film that is fundamentally sociological in nature as he attempts to recreate the milieu of the really-existing martial arts fraternity in early 20th century China. During the course of the film, we are inducted the rivalries between various schools and masters, and the philosophical and political positioning and position-taking that add or subtract to their cultural capital or 'honour' in the eyes of other masters.

Who is the Grandmaster of the title? Perhaps it is one of the many wizened old men with their numerous disciples and hangers-on. Perhaps it is that proto-feminist heroine that Ziyi Zhang plays, who dedicates to upholding her father's honour of being the last Grandmaster and sacrifices herself in order to exact vengeance when he is betrayed and humiliated by a turncloak. Or perhaps it might be Ip Man, whose modern hagiography wilts on screen when Wong parades old and young masters after another, as if to say that if not for the vagaries of luck and fortune and the caprices of history, he could well be one of those better skilled grandmasters and martial arts experts who faded into history and took their traditions with them.

What is certain though is Ip Man beats a grandmaster retiring at the end of his career in a battle of words and ideas, that his daughter (Ziyi Zhang's character) beats Ip Man in a revenge match that leaves Ip Man pining for the rest of his life for another encounter with her, and that even in the streets of Hong Kong, the grandmaster Ip Man passed by without recognition ageing experts who would have given him a fight in their heyday and young experts who blended into the modernity of Hong Kong.

Wong's film subverts the wuda (武打) martial arts film genre typified by gimmicky martial arts fighting and weapons and old men calling out each others' martial arts moves and tricks and turns it into an elegy to an artform and a community which has faded into the mists of history and obscurity.

Reader's Comments

1. 2013-02-09 22:48  
this is perhaps the worst film I have ever seen in my life after Warhorse. Affected contrived trite trivial nonsensical Stylised postured hyperbolising about irrrelevencies with no redeeeming qualities and nothing to inspire the audience's curiosity or interest. All the characters taking themselves far too seriously for no apparent purpose or reason, & certain historical facts- Ip Man having been a lifelong Opium addict completely ignored in this film. Nice costumes and sets, nothing else. The rest of the audience members in the cinema at the time were joking about how they'd like to get their money back, and how this film is would only be good, to cure constipation or to induce vomiting. I'm really glad I saw this film so I can spare everybody else the indignity of doing so. So sad I'll never get these 2 or so hours back which may well have been better spent asleep or drunk.
2. 2013-02-10 19:08  
I did not see "The Grandmaster" yet, but if you consider "Warhorse" as a worst film, then I better run to see "The Grandmaster".
"Warhorse" for me was one of the best movies of the last few years. And Wong Kar-wai did not disappoint me with his works so far... BTW, he is apointed as a Jury-President of the Berlin Film Festival 2013.
Comment edited on 2013-02-10 19:15:39
3. 2013-02-13 18:08  
@ lpm: you liked Warhorse? You're being sarcastic.
Pitiful pathetic sentimental inatngible unfeasible drivel with no credibility & even worse than Titanic
Here's hoping Pedro Almodovar will make yet another masterpiece soon.
Happy Chinese New Year
Valentine's Day this year also Wealth God Day in Chinese Calendar
Wish you lots of Love & Great Wealth.
4. 2013-02-26 08:11  
What was Chang Chen doing in "The Grandmasters"? What's with all those close-ups and minimum wide, cover shots? What's with all those slow talks? I get "In the Mood for Love", "Ashes of Time", "Days of Being Wild", and other classic WKW's. But this is style over substance at best. It's painful to endure this script-less presentation that has no structure in storytelling at all.
5. 2013-03-06 21:45  
dear vehandojo, this film has neither style or substance, a few nice costumes and scenery, nothing else, I would have prefferred to have had a migraine or even diarrhea for the 2 hours this film took than ever seeing it at all.
6. 2013-03-09 09:30  
Dear hsnikeram, the film must have left a huge impact on your life if you feel compelled to continue talking trash about it so as to dissuade others from wasting their time. Well thank you very much for your feedback, but really, checking back once so every often to monitor other people's views on the film depict a very pathetic obsession over the film. It's touching that you have opinions, but please don't go imposing them on others. Titanic was brilliant. Tsk.
7. 2013-03-16 23:20  
Dear Evianelle,
Many thanks for setting an example of how not to give unprompted unsolicited unsusbtantiated opinions about things on a public forum where people are invited to give opinions on whatever they wish. Hardly imposing my opinion on others if expressing myself somewhere where you are at liberty to do exactly the same. Seems cowardly and hypocritical to enjoy having somewhere to express your opinions yet to complain when others opinions are divergent from yours.
What is there to like about Titanic?
Making a condescending demeaning pathetically patronising sentimental sensation trivialising a tragedy as a backdrop to a predictable fictitious cloying romance between Jack and Rose.
What does it reveal about you that you found it appealing?
Please refrain from education, law or politics as a profession- you'd only cause yourself embarrassment as well as causing more problems to those that otherwise you would be meant to be helping.
Of course I mean it all in a caring way, exactly as your feedback was, you've given me the biggest laugh all evening, Thanks so much!

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