Once upon a time in China
Watching this one wants to ask: why would Wong Kar Wai want to do a film on Yip Kai-man (also known as Ip Man)--the famed martial-arts master who taught Wing Chun to Bruce Lee--in the first place?
Think about it: Wong's protagonists are often passive dreamers too naive to toe the conventional line on romance or too burdened by memory to want to resolve their present circumstances. Even Ashes of Time, based loosely (extremely loosely) on Jin Yong's wuxia novel Legend of the Condor Heroes (and possibly the closest Wong has come previously to tackling the subject), featured characters who are constantly searching--not for someone to love, but for reasons not to love.
By contrast Ip Man's is a life of quiet if steady ascension and integrity, to the point that he steps off the ascending slope onto the kind of divine plane reserved only for the very famous (at least to Western audiences): Wong Fei Hung, Fong Sai Yuk, the aforementioned Lee. He's a confident go-getter, a doer, a literal and metaphorical action man where the typical Wong protagonist is paralyzed into inaction.
The Grandmaster for the first forty minutes or so is almost unrecognizable as a Wong film--is a fairly fast-paced, fairly straightforward telling of Ip's (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) story from early life and training to confrontation with northern master Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) and later, with said master's beautiful daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi). The Second World War strips Ip of his fortune and two daughters, but this is a more or less temporary (if cataclysmic) setback; he ends up fleeing to Hong Kong ahead of the Communists, there to establish a school and his undying legend.
Most of this is narrated in voiceover, with beautifully photographed imagery--arguably the laziest way to tell a story or most efficient, if you're trying to cram a lot of plot in a short amount of time (or if you don't really care one way or another).
As Yip Tony Leung is handsomely grave, but not much more; we don't dive into his character the way we usually do in Wong's films. Don't get me wrong, Leung is wonderful--charismatic and compelling, with a physical eloquence that convinces you that yes, he is a master of Wing Chun. But what goes into that mastery, what drives the man, what motivates him in his decisions beyond an intense lifelong work ethic--all that remains largely unexplored.
As for the fight sequences--I'm reminded of the sword duels in Ashes of Time, which annoyed me no end: they were blurry, fragmentary affairs, barely comprehensible and if Wong's comments about the film are to be believed, deliberately so. There's a marked difference in The Grandmaster's action: part is still edited chop-suey fashion using blurry handheld (sometimes slow-motion) footage; part is shot and cut in a more traditional, more gracefully comprehensible manner (the influence of action choreographer Yuen Woo Ping, perhaps?)--and no, perversely, I'm not happy. The action seems compromised, muddled somehow--in Ashes I've come to see the sequences as having been pushed to such a disjointed extreme it becomes its own unique impressionist style, something Tony Scott must have aspired to his entire career but which Wong achieved at a fraction of the money; here the sequences are caught between the two states (of being fragmentary, of being classically coherent) and the end result feels watered-down, wishy-washy. Me, advocating palsied camerawork and ADHD editing? But I suppose if one must endure this particular style then Wong's is the most vividly lyrical, most aesthetically acceptable out there--in Ashes, not in this film.
The film starts to make sense when the focus shifts, from Ip Man to Gong Yutian's daughter Gong Er. Suddenly we're in classic Wong territory, the story of a beautiful woman suffering regret several times over--regret for being born a woman (in a culture where a man's authority is more easily recognized), for her father's poor choice of a successor, for being good at martial arts but not good enough to score a decisive victory in a crucial duel.
Suddenly we realize that she is the film's true protagonist, and it's in her story that Wong's interest lies. Unlike Ip we understand Gong Er's frustrations, we're totally, sensually inside her skin the way we are inside the protagonists of all Wong's best films: Happy Together; Chungking Express; In the Mood for Love / 2046 (I bundle the last two together because I'm actually not a big fan of In the Mood; it's only in 2046 (the ostensible sequel) that I feel we realize the magnitude of the not-quite-lovers' loss). Wong, arguably the master of unrequited desire, makes Gong Er's physical, romantic, existential longing--for Ip, for the love and approval of her father, for control of her father's school and legacy--sexy.
Why the misshapen story structure? I don't know; I can only make guesses--that Wong truly (and misguidedly) wanted to bring Ip's story to the big screen (which he does, Comics Illustrated fashion); that after the debacle of My Blueberry Nights he needed to produce a reasonably commercial feature (the gambit worked, more or less: the film in nine months grossed over $63 million worldwide on a $38.6 million budget); that perhaps he's getting old, and feels he needs the crutch of a run-of-the mill historical drama to draw an audience in. One can say that he did his best under the circumstance, that he stitched together two emotionally incompatible storylines, possibly to the detriment of the film as a whole, that this is at best an interesting failure.
But then there's David Ehrlich's Film.com article, which gives us a glimpse into an alternate Grandmaster, a longer cut Wong approved for international markets. From descriptions the longer cut appears to integrate Ip and Gong Er's stories better, give the stories a more consistent (and more recognizably Wong) tone.
Can't say; haven't seen that longer cut. All I can say on initial viewing is that this shorter cut, ostensibly for unsubtle, more ADHD American minds (but Wong often fiddled with his films after release, shortened them or clarified the action or added expository titles!) works well enough--is I submit Wong experimenting with form yet again, not plot chronology or point of view or perceived time no but expectation: starting with a run-of-the-mill biopic he gradually, magically folds and creases and tucks the picture's many corners into the unmistakeable profile of a Wong film.
Nutty? I suppose, but not something beyond Wong's mind to conceive, and definitely not beyond his capabilities to pull off. By way of proof I offer the one major sequence Wong added to the American cut, of Gong Er practicing in snow under her father's watchful eyes (Gong Er's story has by this point in the film almost completely played out, and this was probably added as a kind of punctuation): the father's gaze directed at the young Gong, the older Gong's gaze directed at the younger, the younger's turned back to peer at the older. Watching this one can't help but feel the sharp pang of nostalgia, the bitter bloom of lasting regret--classic emotions found in Wong's films. Gong Yutian looks at the impossible potential of his daughter, Gong Er looks at the lost promise of her younger self, younger self looks at the darkened horizon that is her older self--if that isn't Wong and I say it is, I wouldn't want to know what's right.