YI DAI ZONG SHI (The Grandmaster)

As dazzlingly shot, sumptuously presented and breathtakingly romantic as it is, Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster sees the Hong Kong filmmaker, now working well within the mainstream Chinese system, come dangerously close to self-parody. Though on the surface an incursion into martial arts films under the guise of a loose biography of 20th century martial arts master Ip Man, who would later become known as the master under whom Bruce Lee studied, The Grandmaster is in fact yet another one of Mr. Wong's melancholy tales of unrequited love, another moodpiece of silences, brooding longings and fleeting moments of passion.

     Here, that comes through the unspoken and never admitted romance between the unassuming, married Ip Man (Mr. Wong's regular accomplice Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and the impulsive, haughty Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), daughter of retiring kung fu master Gong Baosen. The love story is channeled into the precision-tooled art of martial arts moves, its flowing gestures and ritualised elements, lovingly and stylishly photographed and edited for maximum effect, becoming in effect a sort of courtship between equals.

     But for all the exquisite technical work (Philippe le Sourd's cinematography is never less than a wonder to behold), The Grandmaster reveals Mr. Wong is seriously treading water, devolving into a series of enthralling but ultimately hollow set pieces only lightly threaded together. The biographical aspects take a backseat in the narrative to the impossible relationship between Ip Man and Gong Er, suggesting that the director is in fact remaking once more the masterful In the Mood for Love; the narrative, in the meantime, is yet again treated by Mr. Wong as a mere clothesline, an excuse to let loose his unique, by now trademarked visual stylings, as visible in the fact that some of the supporting characters seem to have no real justification for appearing in the film. Ultimately, The Grandmaster becomes a mere perfectionist, decorative application of the formula Mr. Wong has been working with since In the Mood for Love, and it's a damn shame that it is.

Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Ziyi Zhang, Chang Chen, Zhao Benshan, Xiao Shenyang, Song Hye-kyo
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Screenwriters: Zou Jingzhi, Xu Haofeng, Mr. Wong, from a story by Mr. Wong
Cinematography: Philippe le Sourd  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Shigeru Umebayashi, Nathaniel Mechaly
Designers: William Chang Suk-ping, Alfred Yau Wai-ming
Costumes: Mr. Chang
Editors: Mr. Chang, Benjamin Courtines, Poon Hung-yiu
Martial arts choreography: Yuen Wo-ping
Producers: Mr. Wong, Jacky Pang Yee-wah  (Jet-Tone Films and SIL-Metropole Organisation in association with Annapurna Pictures, Block 2 Pictures and Bona International Film Group)
Hong Kong/China/France/USA, 2013, 123 minutes 

Screened: Berlin International Film Festival official out-of-competition screening, Cinemaxx 7, Berlin, February 7th 2013; distributor advance press screening, Medeia Monumental 1, Lisbon, November 29th 2013

Nominated for two 2013 Academy Awards (Cinematography; Costume Design)


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