Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Can I Kick It? or Being, Knowing, Doing

It seems only appropriate for me to get back to work on here by reviewing a film I have been looking forward to for quite some time.  I feel like this movie had been in production forever, and I remember being interested in this film long before I had even heard of the other Ip Man films.  In fact, the project had taken allegedly fourteen years to culminate, with six years in production and at least three years spent filming.

Now, my interest in this film was as such that I deliberately avoided any of the other Ip Man films, to which I believe there are at least four others; the last of which, also released in 2013, was directed by Herman Yau, who, if you don't remember, also directed such films as the 1992 martial arts masterpiece, Best Of The Best, starring Eric Roberts, and Phillip "god-bless-his-soul" Rhee
So, moving away from the cynicism for a moment, I really enjoyed this film.  It's hard to say objectively what I like sometimes when I am such a fan of someone's work, but I feel like putting Wong Kar-Wai's past aside, I can truly appreciate this film on it's own merits.  Admittedly though, it is more difficult to forget one's past mistakes than successes, and My Blueberry Nights (this is the last time I will mention that film here, I swear) was maybe the worst film someone could make in between two of the best, so one could easily say that while I was very excited about this film during it's production, it was with more than a little trepidation that I pressed play and began watching The Grandmaster (一代宗師).

To give a little more background on this film before I dig in with my thoughts, The Grandmaster is Wong Kar-Wai's telling of the story of Yip Kai-man, the martial artist/teacher who was said to have been the one to make Wing Chun famous, and who even more famously taught Bruce Lee.  Sort of.  Though the film is initially billed as the story of Ip Man from the early 1930s to around his death in the early 70s, The Grandmaster reflects on not only his life, but the lives of those around him, so much so that the film's title could have easily survived a pluralization.
In contrast to the more action oriented Ip Man films, The Grandmaster is a more reflective piece, and focuses on the more philosophical aspects of the martial arts and the times in which these martial artists lived.  The film spends equal time on Gong Er, the daughter of Gong Yutian, a martial arts master from northern China, visiting Foshan in the south.  Gong Er, played by Zhang Ziyi, commands probably at least half of the film's attention, and is in excellent contrast with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai's portrayal of Ip.  The only slight disappointment is that the character of "Razor" Yixiantian, played by Taiwanese actor Chang Chen, isn't given more time on-screen; though a peripheral character and not central to the story, The Razor was interesting enough in his brief moments to have many fans of the film claiming his character was underdeveloped.

This film reminded me very much of Wong's previous film, 2046 (which I consider to be Zhang Ziyi's standout role alongside her once-again exceptional co-stars Leung and Chang) in how it continues Wong's meditative examination of loss in a long-form narrative.  The Grandmaster is less a martial arts film and more a film, as Gong Er could be paraphrased as saying, about a certain time in which she chooses to stay.  It is almost as if one can only measure loss once it is lost, and sometimes the memory of love is as strong as love itself; and the film becomes two things, one horizontal, one vertical.
As a post-script, apparently both Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi spent three years training for their scenes in the film, and both have mentioned in interviews that the experience has more or less put a period at the end of their martial arts film sentence, so savor this film, as it will probably be the last time you see either one performing such elaborate fight choreography (Leung allegedly broke both of his arms and contracted a bronchial infection during the month-long shooting of the film's opening fight scene).

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