Thursday, 11 December 2014

Grandmaster (4 Stars)

I went to see this film in the cinema today with mixed expectations. It's yet another film about the life of the Chinese hero Ip Man. Haven't we had enough of them in recent years, especially the films made starring Donnie Yen? Is there anything left to say? And Tony Leung is definitely not of the same calibre as Donnie Yen when it comes to fighting skills. On the other hand, this film stars Zhang Ziyi, one of my favourite actresses, and any film she appears in has to be good.

From the very first minutes the cinematography was overwhelming. The film opened with a typical Chinese one-against-ten (or hundred, or thousand) fight, in which Ip Man had no difficulty disposing of his multiple opponents. Unusually for Chinese martial films, the camera showed mostly close-up shots, making it difficult to recognise the fighting moves. While intended to give the fight a unique style, it also covered up any deficiencies Tony Leung has as a fighter.

First a brief summary of the plot. The film begins in 1936 and continues to 1952, with frequent flashbacks. Gong Yutian is a kung fu master from north China who first became famous for unifying different northern fighting styles, then moved to open a school in Foshan, in south China. After 25 years he intends to retire and move back to north China with his family, handing over his school and teaching legacy to his disciple Ma San, even though he says that his daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) is more skilled. But as everyone knows, it would be scandalous for a woman to be a master. That's not right!

Before retiring, Gong Yutian wants to have a final fight with a southern master. The other masters insist on Ip Man representing them, even though he technically isn't a master because he doesn't teach kung fu. He defeats Gong Yutian in a heavily stylised fight which is more of a dance and exchange of philosophical ideas than actual combat. That ought to be the end of the matter, but Gong Er challenges  Ip Man to avenge her father's honour. She defeats Ip, the first battle he has ever lost, but while fighting they fall in love. They agree to have a rematch, but due to the Japanese invasion it never takes place, and they don't meet again until 1951 in Hong Kong.

Many other things happen in the film, but I won't write about them here. Now my thoughts about the film. I greatly enjoyed it, because of its style and atmosphere rather than the fights themselves, but it does have problems. It seems that the director, Wong Kar-wai, who also wrote the screenplay, didn't know what he wanted to do with the film. Was it a biopic about the life of Ip Man? Was it a martial arts epic? Or was it a love story? It ended up as a mixture of all three, although the love story remained in the foreground. Long portions of the film were only about Gong Er and what she did during her separation from Ip Man. The biographical elements of Ip's life were relegated to texts that appeared on screen during the film. Maybe this is due to the long production time? Wong Kar-wai needed almost ten years to make the film. He actually began to make it before the other Ip Man films. He failed to receive financial backing from Chinese studios, so he had to turn to American investors. They probably demanded changes to make it a film more suitable to American audiences. The end result is a film full of beautiful set pieces, but with jerky pacing like it's three films glued together.

Here's a photo of Zhang Ziyi looking more modern. Isn't she beautiful? I've been told by my Chinese friends that this is the correct way to write her name, even though she's usually called Ziyi Zhang, even in the film credits of "Grandmaster".

Sigh..... she's so beautiful and so talented.

You can click on the pictures for other (larger) photos.

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