Sunday, September 8, 2013
"The Grandmaster" is the latest film telling the story of martial arts legend Ip Man, best known for being the master to Hong Kong superstar, Bruce Lee. "Ip Man" is probably a perfectly normal name in China, and rather unfortunately in English it sounds like a superhero themed around intellectual property laws* or around Internet Protocol addresses. In the West here, Ip Man is probably best known for being the basis of a kung-fu film coincidentally called "Ip Man", where Bruce Lee's master beat the crap out of several Japanese invaders during World War II. That film was a fairly straightforward action movie, clearly dramatizing and inventing interesting adventures for Ip Man to have. Hardly one of my favorite kung-fu movies but a decent enough watch. "Ip Man" sparked off an entire mini-genre of Ip Man films, "The Grandmaster" is something like the fifth of sixth of such things, and it seems to be trying to do something more dramatic than just using some history tangentially related to Bruce Lee to frame fist fights, so how successful is it?
The version of "The Grandmaster" that's been released by the Weinstein Company in the United States is some twenty minutes shorter than the original two hour, ten minute cut. Perhaps in those twenty minutes something crucial to the film's soul was lost, because the movie I saw was terribly meandering and almost plotless. Ip Man himself barely has much of a presence in this particular movie, its hard to say there's much of a character beyond a knowing smile - his soul expression. Rather "The Grandmaster" seems to be more of a movie about Gong Er, a female heir to the Grandmaster of Northern Chinese martial arts. She's not a bad character, and she's well-acted, but her story takes up the second half of a movie seemingly about a far less interesting character. There's no villain, there's really no love story, there's no particular conflict that holds the whole movie together, except in Gong Er's extended side plot.
Maybe I'm particularly missing the point, but "The Grandmaster" feels strangely bloated and plodding for a kung-fu film. Many characters are underdeveloped, walking right in for a single scene, fighting Ip Man briefly, then leaving forever. Director Wong Kar Wai brings a fantastic visual flair and even manages to craft wonderfully moving scenes occasionally, managing to bring more excitement into simple conversation scenes than his massive rainswept kung-fu spectacles. But the whole movie never really amounts to anything. Without ridiculous Japanese villains to fight, its hard to find why Ip Man really matters, or even what kind of story they're trying to tell about him. The lead is so vaguely developed that narration from Ip Man's actor, Barack Obama look-alike, Tony Leung, is the only way to force any humanity or drama into this film. Who would have thought that a damn kung-fu movie end up just as confused and dull as last week's "Lee Daniels' The Butler"?
Neither Wong Kar Wai or Tony Leung have ever made a martial arts movie before (and not coincidentally, I've never seen any of their previous work before) so its probably not by accident that much of "The Grandmaster" is filmed like an Academy Award darling. It even comes with an Oscar-bait soundtrack full of slow piano bars and string instruments. Tony Leung does an excellent job keeping up with the action scenes he's been tasked to take part in, especially for a man without much martial arts training. The fight scenes are actually pretty solid for the most part, even if there is a tad too much Westernized cinematography. A typical Hong Kong kung-fu movie will just have the camera film the actors moving, the natural beats of the physical prowess fill up 90% of the excitement, without any need for many tricks or special effects beyond some acrobatic wires. The point really is that kung-fu is fast, and stays fast. "The Grandmaster" is suffused with slow-motion, which makes a few fights somewhat lame. Wong Kar Wai adds green screen and CG effects. It looks fine in some cases, but it also breaks the realism in what is effectively the climax fight of the movie.
Well, using the term "climax" is somewhat inappropriate for a movie like "The Grandmaster", since it really has no three act structure, or any kind of structure at all. I don't know if this is somehow more typical in Hong Kong dramas, or something, but it really does hurt the overall flow of the movie. I cannot express enough how weak of a lead Ip Man actually is in this movie, and its not Tony Leung's fault. He's never given anything to do. He's either in a fight scene or reciting some Fortune Cookie line of wisdom with a slight Barack Obama smile. Ip Man's major relationships are never developed, his wife is in two scenes, his family's ruin and difficulties in WWII are completely glossed over, and he has no real antagonist. His deepest relationship is with Gong Er, and they are only vaguely romantically connected, its never consummated. We still could have had an interesting movie about two forlorn lovers who could never meet, but its not really there.
Curiously, Gong Er around the two-thirds mark simply steals the show. I don't mean like her actress captures the audience sympathies, I mean Wong Kar Wai just hands the movie over to this character. In an extended flashback Gong Er survives the Japanese occupation, and fights a rival martial artist who took over her father's school. She's even given an awesome bearded sidekick who fights with a scimitar and a monkey on his shoulder. Here we have rising action, falling action, villains, plot twists, etc. Everything you could want. So why isn't this a movie aboug Gong Er? The answer: I HAVE NO IDEA.
Maybe the movie's slowness, structureless-ness, and confused and confusing nature wouldn't be so bad if it weren't the fact that this is probably the most austere and serious kung-fu movie I've ever seen. There is nothing that happens during this film that possibly justifies its ever-present and bitter seriousness, utterly lacking in any kind of fun. "Lee Daniels' The Butler" at least had Terrence Howard acting like a slutty drunk, this has no comic relief. It doesn't even have a single smile, or very much whimsy. I'd take the absurdity of "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame"'s battle against a CG deer or puppeteer monsters over "The Grandmaster"'s demands for high drama. YOU WILL BE MOVED, the movie demands, shouting over and over with every speech. And every time it shouts this, I check my watch and sigh a little.
Frankly its a shame that "The Grandmaster" is so utterly lost in its own material. This is probably the only non-English action movie which will receive any kind of a wide-release in 2013, and I always think its good to go out and see a diverse variety of movies. Its definitely better-shot, better-acted, and even better-paced than "Lee Daniels' The Butler", but again, "The Grandmaster" proves that even if you have excellent actors, excellent cinematography, a brilliant use of space, and two dudes smashing a car into a pancake with high kicks, if you don't have a plot, you aren't going anywhere. We need to remember the most basic elements of story.
* "Citizens, fear not, I, IP MAN, have defeated the dastardly Captain Pirate Bay and have preserved the rights of copyright holders for decades. Hollywood is safe from nefarious villains stealing the rightfully-earned dollars from the smiley hands of studio execs. Remember children, piracy is a crime! IP MAN, AWAY!!!!"