Tuesday, January 14, 2014

I'm way behind #11: The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-Wai)

I'm a massive fan of Wong Kar-Wai's sensuous, sumptuous films about memory, time, love, the end of love, and the ways our memories change and rearrange time. In my view, Kar-Wai has directed four masterpieces (Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Happy Together, and In the Mood for Love), two near-masterpieces (Fallen Angels and 2046), one film I can't quite wrap my head around (Ashes of Time), and one gorgeous, interesting failure (My Blueberry Nights). (I haven't yet seen his first film, As Tears Go By.) Breaking his work into separate entities may be a mistake, though. They're connected, even in ways other strong, highly personal filmmakers' bodies of work aren't. These films talk to each other, and the more of them you see, the more of the conversation you hear.
Kar-Wai generally works without a script, just a rough outline, and he writes the film as he shoots it, getting ideas about where to take his characters and story from his actors' performances and the visual possibilities of the locations. He then spends months editing and re-editing different versions, finding the film's structure in the editing room. It's a lengthy, expensive process that has frustrated and frightened producers and actors, but the results speak for themselves. 
The Grandmaster has a more conventionally structured screenplay than his previous work, but there's no mistaking it for anyone else's movie. Or three movies, to be specific. Kar-Wai made three different versions of the film for Asian, European, and American audiences, and each cut has different scenes, more or less historical information based on cultural common knowledge or the lack thereof, and different narrative structures. The Asian cut played in a few theaters in New York City's Chinatown, but otherwise, the American cut was the version playing on U.S. screens and is the version I'm writing about here.
His last movie, the English-language, American film My Blueberry Nights, was a rare misfire, though not without moments of brilliance, but Kar-Wai is on sturdier footing here in his return to Asia. A Chinese and Hong Kong coproduction in Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese, The Grandmaster finds Kar-Wai infusing his personal style into a couple of established genres, the biopic and the martial arts action film. Ostensibly the life story of Wing Chun grandmaster and teacher Ip Man (famous in this country for being Bruce Lee's mentor), Kar-Wai plays with the facts by including several elaborately choreographed (by Yuen-Woo Ping) fight sequences and a fictionalized tragic romance that dominates the second half of the film.
Tony Leung is his usual charismatic self as Ip Man, but the film belongs to Zhang Ziyi, despite the title. Kar-Wai barrels through the early-to-middle age years of Ip Man's life, with some thrilling, if occasionally spatially confusing, martial arts sequences, but he slows down and changes focus in the second half. Though this part of the film is invented drama, it carries more emotional resonance. Ip Man becomes a supporting player in his own story, and Kar-Wai turns his attention to Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi). A former rival of Ip Man's who hated him for taking the grandmaster title away from her father and who struggled with having to hide her prodigious martial arts skills because of the place of women in Chinese society, she becomes his best friend. The two fall in love but refuse to act on it because of Ip Man's marriage and Gong Er's self-imposed vow of celibacy. The way Kar-Wai depicts this relationship calls to mind some of the best moments from In the Mood for Love, and the film's narrative becomes dreamier and more impressionistic, which is simpatico with my personal taste. The film's greatest fight scene also occurs in this half when Gong Er battles a family enemy next to a moving train.
This is a lush, beautiful movie. I don't think it's one of Kar-Wai's best, but I could change my mind about that. It's very easy to like.

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