If The Grandmaster was competing in one of the martial arts-style bouts it depicts, it would be a rank outsider. For a start, it is billed as an ‘epic action feature’, yet its only recognised ‘action’ star is Zhang Ziyi, who Western audiences won’t have seen since 2005’s decidedly non-combative Memoirs of a Geisha.
Then there’s its director, Wong Kar-wai, an auteur most widely known for his meditative, sensual films about love. Art house audiences who remember classics like Chungking Express and In The Mood For Love will likely look at The Grandmaster poster and exclaim: “Wong Kar…why?!”
This slightly schizophrenic approach spills over into the film itself. On the one hand, it wants to be a martial arts epic in the same vein as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers. It even drafts in Crouching Tiger’s choreographer, Yuen Wo Ping, for added kung fu credentials.
As impressive – very impressive – and as well-staged as The Grandmaster’s fight scenes are though, their slo-mo grace now seems a little long in the tooth compared to the bone-breaking kineticism of new blood like the Ong Bak or The Raid films. It may be inspired by the life of Ip Man, the Wing Chun master who taught Bruce Lee, but the sight of him fending off hordes of would-be attackers without breaking a sweat, combined with a lot of dense martial arts dialogue (“the old monkey hangs the seal” anyone?), could test the patience of Kar-wai fans and kung fu film lovers alike.
But still, but still. While all of this might bog The Grandmaster down somewhat, it is still most worthy of your attention, especially as we are unlikely to see a more exquisite looking film this year. The frame is filled with such deep, earthy tones that it’s like watching a Caravaggio or Rembrandt brought to life, if Caravaggio or Rembrandt had existed in mid-twentieth century China and painted in super high definition.
A simple scene of Ip Man sat conversing and smoking at a table with an associate is pure Edward Hopper, captivating in its muted simplicity. Indeed, every single character looks like they have been dressed for a sitting with a master of art – no martial required. It comes as little surprise that the film was nominated for both cinematography and costume design at this year’s Oscars.
And the sublime performances of leads Tony Leung and Ziyi are ones to savour. Leung is one of the finest actors that, shamefully, the majority of English-speaking cinema goers have never heard of, and his graceful portrayal of Man does nothing to undermine that. Ziyi is as enthralling a screen presence as ever, simultaneously possessing innate sensuality and steely will as Gong Er, the daughter who alters her life’s course to seek vengeance for a murdered father.
For all that The Grandmaster might appear to be about martial arts, the obvious desire between Er and Man, kept chaste by separation after Japan’s invasion of China, is the narrative strand that provides its beating heart. The subdued final scene between them packs more power than all the punches and kicks that have come before, and harks back to the romantic yearning of Kar-wai’s earlier work. It’ll certainly make you appreciate the film a lot more. But you’ll still want to get home and watch In The Mood For Love again as soon as it’s over.
The Grandmaster is released in cinemas today.
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