“Keep the light burning”
I think 一代宗師 [The Grandmaster] loses something in its translation for an American who couldn’t spot the differences between Kung Fu and Karate if his life depended on it (besides the former being Chinese and latter Japanese, of course). There’s the significance of the dark rain beating down on multiple fight scenes I’ve read provides the “white noise” for one’s “sense of touch”; the honor in accepting one’s actions to seek vengeance by taking vows to forever be alone as compensation; and the history of a war-ravaged China ripped apart internally and by an invading Japanese force. It’s north versus south, master against master, intellect contrasting might, and four martial arts experts taking their lives onto disparate paths which diverge and overlap atop the landscape of a self-defense discipline that’s become synonymous with a nation.
This is what Wong Kar Wai‘s film is about: Kung Fu. Yes, Bruce Lee‘s Wing Chun master Ip Man is at its center with a life spanning the Imperial Age, Sino-Japanese Wars, and exile to Hong Kong, but his past is portrayed only as it adheres to the art form he’s perfected. There’s also Gong Er, the last practitioner of the 64 Hands; her adopted brother and first heir to their lineage Ma San aligning with the enemy for personal gain in defiance of master Gong Yutian; and the brutal Razor, a barber proficient in Bājíquán who escapes the law to teach on the same block as Ip during the 50s and 60s. Are they real? Did they actually cross paths with Ip Man? Does it matter? More than character biography, The Grandmaster shows the beauty, precision, and strength of a lasting, important culture.
The question begging to be answered is whether someone unversed in it could allow the story onscreen to truly captivate. Sadly, I’m not sure it did for me. Don’t get me wrong, the film is gorgeous to behold whether with fighting sequences cutting from rapid-fire fisticuffs to extreme close-up slomos, beautifully rendered costumes, or the idea of Kung Fu surviving whether every style does or not. There’s something rather poetic about a family line ending in bloodshed directly coinciding with the extinguishing of an art form—that choice to either pass along knowledge or reclaim stolen honor so your name can live on in legend if not flesh. In that regard Kar Wai has crafted a unique history lesson sprinkled with exhilarating battle scenes serving more as examples of the disparate maneuvers than plot points inside a generic three-act structure.
But what about story? We go from flashbacks of Ip Man (Tony Leung) in youth to his forties when he’s chosen as the Southerners heir to Master Gong (Qingxiang Wang). They spar after Gong’s Northern heir Ma San (Zhang Jin) is sent away to hone his temper but before daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) decides to vindicate her family name once her father throws his battle of wits with Ip as a lesson learned. War soon breaks out with the Japanese, brief details of Ip’s family are glossed over through title cards and his poverty cuts sharply to Er’s tale of betrayal and revenge. The Razor (Chang Chen) arrives in a blink-and-you’ll-miss him moment before returning in a larger role still with little bearing on Ip and Er’s plots and we eventually move forward along this Cliff Notes account.
In all honesty, it was tough not to hope there would be more to Ip and Er’s tales. I didn’t expect them to be tiny pieces along an abstract, all-encompassing timeline of Kung Fu itself. I’m not saying it was a mistake nor that I didn’t like it, I was simply taken off-guard. A second viewing devoid of these intimate expectations might serve me well to let the history and technique rise above its characters, but right now disappointment is unavoidable. And not in the movie itself, but in the knowledge I might have enjoyed the Weinstein’s butchered version better. Such an idea makes me shudder, especially in thinking Harvey was on to something when he decided the 130-minute Hong Kong version was too much for American audiences. I admittedly felt adrift while watching.
There’s such unparalleled professionalism at every level, though, that I’m not sure I could feasible accept anything getting cut despite wading through its enormous amount of content I think might have needed more time to truly work. A description I read of the Weinstein cut seems to have removed Razor—which I get because he’s an outlier from the rest—but his violence is a welcome inclusion. It’s one thing to watch Ip Man beat people up seriously on the streets or with a smile on his face against friends and mentors, but it’s a complete other when Razor viciously attacks to the point of cracking necks and pools of blood. You need that escalation of stakes to see the physicality of the profession—how it’s abused or perhaps used as a final, finishing resort.
To therefore achieve what I believe was Kar Wai’s goal, 130 minutes is necessary to show what it means to be a Kung Fu master. When you allow the film to live beyond Ip Man you can’t deny the power honor and dignity (or the lack thereof) holds in everyone’s interactions. The contrast of selfish fame against selfless duty is paramount to putting Gong Er and Ma San together at a train station to work out years of differences. Watching that encounter, Tielong Shang literally cutting the stuffing out of foes, or Ip versus Gong Er on the staircase of a brothel are awe-inspiring things of beauty that do more towards understanding the art’s evolution then where they’re all going. In the end they’re just faces in a vintage photo, masters to be revered and remembered for what they’ve done above who they were.
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