Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Grandmaster

"A well-matched opponent is as rare as a good friend."

You may have missed it, but Wong Kar-wai, the man who gave us the rapturous In the Mood for Love (2000) as well as the playful (yet filled with longing) Chungking Express (1994) and the emotionally gripping Happy Together (1997) -- all featuring his screen alter ego Tony Leung Chiu-Wai -- has finally brought his long-gestating romantic martial arts epic based on the legend of Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man to the screen. And fill the screen with intense visual poetry he did. The version that was released this week on Region A Blu-ray is just one of three alleged cuts that Wong personally supervised of the film. This one, running the shortest, is not without faults. It feels a little compromised at times; episodic. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, you shouldn't let anything dissuade you from experiencing the immense artistry the film has to offer.

The Anchor Bay Blu-ray is quite exceptional and the on-screen English subtitles compliment the elegiac story beautifully. If I were looking for another Cinematic allusion to compare this visual feast to, I might use the oft-quoted adage from John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." If you're looking for a straight-forward (though loose) retelling of Ip Man's life (better known as the man who mentored Bruce Lee), you may want to see Donny Yen's Ip Man (2008). Wong had something else in mind than acclaimed martial artist Yen, and he fashions a stirring minor-masterpiece, pulling many cinematic references out of his hat -- in such a way that Quentin Tarantino wouldn't have the ability nor the balls to execute. The secret to using a cue from another film or filmmaker is: subtlety.

Much of The Grandmaster (2013) is infused with this kind of shrewd awareness to other films. There are moments (especially the train station sequence) that recalled David Lean's Doctor Zhivago (1965) for me as well as the classic Spaghetti Western filmmakers that Tarantino so blatantly plunders on a regular basis. When the music cue from Leone's Once Upon in America (1984) finally arrived in Wong's film, I almost felt like crying. Ennio Morricone's music is just as beautifully moving now as it was then. But without the story elements that Wong was composing, it would have amounted to far less. And kudos to Wong for keeping the Morricone temp track (as I believe it was originally intended) in the final film; or at least in the version of it I was fortunate enough to watch.

This film will likely divide viewers, especially those unfamiliar with modern martial arts films or Wong's inimitable style (including heavy use of slow motion). Just as Tarantino's latest films seem to capitalize on trend as well as clich├ęd comic book or manga appeal, Wong's pallet is far more distinguished. I always felt that Wong Kar-wai's movies owed a substantial debt to the Nouvelle Vague; specifically: Godard, Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Melville. Just as Kurosawa's samurai epics were inspired by the Westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks, the martial arts film genre is in a way the spiritual heir of the same logical progression. Wong somehow manages to infuse all of this with a genuine love and appreciation for classic American Film Noir (and if Tony C. Leung isn't the modern successor of Humphrey Bogart, I don't know who is). Is The Grandmaster nothing more than a triumph of style over substance? Not in the least. There's substance to match the style.

And what a beautiful triumph it is.

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