Look! It Moves! by Adi Tantimedh: The Melancholy Kung Fu of Wong Kar Wai
So the new Wong Kar-Wai movie THE GRANDMASTER is an event. A new Wong Kar-Wai movie is always an event. I bought the Hong Kong Blu-Ray from my local Chinatown shop because I don't trust The Weinstein Company, which has bought up the US rights, not to recut it to shit for its eventual Western release.
One reason this new movie is an event is that it's Wong's first movie for seven years, a project nurtured for 10 years about the life of Wing Chun master Ip Man, the man who introduced the form to Hong Kong after the Second World War and became Bruce Lee's teacher. Wong is known for taking his time when he makes his movies. His last martial arts movie ASHES OF TIME took at least two years to complete, prompting him to make CHUNGKING EXPRESS within six months during a break in that period in order to have a release to fulfill investment obligations. It's ironic that CHUNGKING EXPRESS became not only the film to put him on the international map but one of the defining films of the 1990s with countless filmmakers ripping off its style for the next ten years or so, while ASHES OF TIME remains a difficult cult film that's an acquired taste.
This is not the martial arts movie you expect where the plot is about vanquishing villains and saving the world with kung fu. This is kung fu as metaphor for life, a prism for looking at life, at history, at memory, at love, at pride, at family honour, at surviving. Ip Man here is not a superhero or symbol for nationalist pride as he is when played by Donnie Yen in Ip Man's two IP MAN movies. Here Wong Kar Wai transforms Ip Man into a witness to history and the changing times. Wire-fu is kept to a minimum as authentic martial arts forms are emphasized. Wong even had his stars go through two years of intensive training prior to the movie's three-year period – there's documentary footage of Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Zhang Zi Yi and Chang Chen being pushed beyond normal thresholds of pain and physical endurance during training, no stunt doubles for them in this movie. The film makes it a point of explaining the different forms and philosophies of different schools as demonstrated by several real grandmasters in an attempt to record them for posterity.
The usual Wong Kar Wai themes are still here: the passage of time, the romantic yearning (shot through the prism of Kung Fu), missed opportunity and heartbreak, the recall of fading memories. Kung Fu here is a way of life, a mythical world where philosophy, politics, ethnic pride, family honour and romance are all expressed and heightened through Kung Fu.
The slow, impressionistic moments of lost time are the stock-in-trade of Wong Kar-Wai's main theme, here applied to a lost world, a world that lived in shadow. There's a transition from a golden age of pageantry to the dark years of war and the grey years of exile. The trailers might make you think this is a fast-paced action movie but it's a meditation on Kung Fu, and the world of Chinese martial arts as history changes and moves it. It is not only about Ip Man, but other grandmasters of his generation, particularly Zhang ZiYi as the latest of Wong's romantic heroines: proud, headstrong and tragic, undone by her refusal to compromise.
Every Wong Kar-Wai movie is more than the movie itself: it reflects his themes of barely-glimpsed outcomes, possibilities and missed opportunities. Just looking at the original Hong Kong trailer is to see shots from scenes, subplots, entire action sequences not in the final release version of the movie. That would explain Chang Chen's character, a third grandmaster who stands in sharp contrast to Tony Leung's Ip Man and Zhang ZiYi's Gong Er. Known only by his codename "The Razor", Chang's character is introduced as a nationalist spy actively working against the Japanese Army in World War II, only to end up living in exile in Hong Kong like Ip Man and Gong Er after the war. Wong had said he wanted to make a movie that does for Kung Fu what Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA did for the gangster movie, and later in THE GRANDMASTER, there are visual echoes from Leone's movie and even a version of one of Ennio Morricone's ballads. Wong had already said that the director's cut would be four hours long, though there's no real indication that this version would ever see light of day since he is notorious for changing his mind constantly.
It's interesting to see Wong at a later stage in his career adapting his signature style and personal themes to a different genre from his usual romances, tailoring them not onto to the Kung Fu genre but also to themes of Chinese identity and history – for Kung Fu here is explicitly linked to Chinese culture and pride – to appeal to the Mainland Chinese audience. It's certainly unlike any Kung Fu movie out there, taking a slightly deconstructionist take and recalling every other martial arts movie you might have seen. Where ASHES OF TIME, his last martial arts movie, was an overt fantasia, drawing on Louis Cha's Wuxia novels where heroes have mystical powers, and had a feeling of the mad rush of scenes and ideas having to be endlessly cut out, cut down and revised to a manageable length, THE GRANDMASTER is a more focused, mature and languorous affair, even if you still sense there are hours of footage left out, as is the case with all Wong Kar Wai's other movies.
So this isn't really a review. I was primed to like this movie, so I'm just meditating on it. If you care about movies and action, of course you should see it. It's about a lost world recreated from memory, made better by fantasy and melancholic yearning. That's what Cinema is all about.
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Look! It Moves! © Adisakdi Tantimedh