Take a look at this. Get a load of all that talent and all those fight scenes. Looks like an awesome time, doesn’t it? You’d expect the movie to be a great action-packed kung fu thrill ride, based on that trailer.
But that would be a mistake. An impossibly huge fucking mistake.
The Grandmaster is a film loosely based on the legendary Ip Man, best known as the kung fu master who went on to train Bruce Lee. I understand that the proceedings have close to zero historical accuracy, so let’s forsake all of that and treat this film as a work of fiction, shall we?
The film’s opening text card (the first of many, I’m sad to say) sets our stage in China during the 1930s. Up until this point, the martial arts experts in China had been fiercely divided by the Yangtze River into northern and southern factions. However, as Japan starts threatening to invade, northern grandmaster Gong Yutian (Qingxiang Wang) works to unite all the various northern styles so they can parlay with the southern faction and unite against their common enemy to the east. And the unification goes along swimmingly, up until Yutian announces that the time has come for him to retire.
For his final act, Yutian challenges the southern martial arts experts to elect their own grandmaster. Someone universally respected among them and skilled in the martial arts, worthy to prove himself in competition with grandmaster Gong. Old rivalries being what they are, the south is eager to respond by sending Wing Chun master Ip Man (Tony Leung).
Meanwhile, Gong Yutian has appointed Ma San (Zhang Jin) as the student who will succeed him. Unfortunately, San has a massive chip on his shoulder that tends to slip when Yutian isn’t around. Naturally, that makes him a very poor candidate to take charge when Yutian steps down. San’s exile naturally leads to a massive power vacuum, which manifests as a two-way feud. On one side is San, who still considers himself the grandmaster’s star disciple and carries himself as such. However, it bears mentioning that San still genuinely loves and respects his teacher (even if the two hardly see eye-to-eye), and that counts for a lot. The other side is led by Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the grandmaster’s own daughter, who of course takes her family’s legacy very seriously.
But then the Japanese invade during WWII, and everything hits the fan.
From a thematic viewpoint, the film appears to be about change. The narrative is about one man’s attempt to preserve tradition against an imminent threat, though of course WWII was too big for any one man to stop. So despite his best efforts, north and south split again to go their separate ways. One side had knowledge that was squandered, wasted on petty feuds and powerful arrogance until it was finally lost forever. The other side adapted with the times, persevering until it could survive until the present day. It may have changed along the way, and a great many sacrifices were made, yet the knowledge and skills were carried through so that kung fu could live on.
The story is good, the themes are good, and the cast is good. But all are wasted on this director.
I seriously wish I had done more research on Wong Kar Wai before going into this movie. I didn’t find out until much too late that Wong is primarily known for his eccentric and surreal style of filmmaking. If I had seen a single one of Wong’s movies before, then maybe I would be in a place to understand his unusual style. As it is, however, I thought that the film looked awful from start to finish.
First of all, at least 80 percent of this film is comprised of extreme close-up shots. Not just faces, either: The camera gets up-close looks at fists, feet, weapons, collateral damage, etc. And that’s almost the entire movie. Additionally, the vast majority of shots in this movie were also done in slow-motion. Even when nothing was going on, we saw it in slow-motion. I have no idea why. Of course, the editing tended to cut from one shot to another without any rhyme or reason, so that didn’t help matters either.
To be clear, close-up shots aren’t inherently a bad thing. Slow-mo shots aren’t necessarily bad, either. Even split-second editing has its place as a filmmaking method. But when the whole film is loaded with close-up slo-mo shots that only last for a few seconds apiece, it’s going to look like atrocious.
This is especially true of the action scenes. I don’t care who choreographed the fight scenes, and I don’t care who’s throwing the punches. If the fight scenes are shot and edited to look like incomprehensible shit, then it’s all for nothing. Though to be fair, there are some rare scenes when the film cuts the crap and shows us a fight scene in a way that’s easy to follow. There are also rare times when the film plays to its weaknesses, using close-up, slo-mo, and voice-over to explain exactly what’s happening. When the fight scenes are understandable, they’re great. But since most of them aren’t, it all just looks like a huge goddamn mess.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about the pacing. To be specific, it’s totally leaden. The film spends so much time building up Ip Man as our protagonist that the whole Gong Er storyline seems to come totally out of nowhere. Similarly, the threat of Japanese invasion is barely mentioned after that initial title card. This makes it hard to know where the narrative is going until the invasion finally happens nearly 45 minutes in.
And all throughout the film, we bear witness to scenes and characters that barely have any relevance to the overall plot (Razor, anyone?). Oh, and it doesn’t exactly help that the actors all deliver their lines with the speed of a kindergartner just learning how to read. Even worse, the film shows a crippling reliance on voice-overs and title cards to convey exposition. Not only is that distracting, but it’s lazy storytelling.
With all of that said, however, I have a hard time calling this film “bad.” The pacing may be sluggish and the visuals may be ugly, but both appear to have been done intentionally. I get the strong sense that Wong Kar Wai knew exactly what he was doing (whatever that was) when he made this. This leads me to believe that some aspects of the film were lost in translation, or maybe the artist had a style that simply doesn’t appeal to me. In either case, if someone told me that the film is secretly a masterpiece of some kind, I’d be willing to believe it.
I don’t feel adequately qualified to pass judgment on The Grandmaster. Maybe I’d feel differently about the movie if I knew what to expect going in, or if I had any prior experience with the works of Wong Kar Wai. But as it is, I thought that the visuals were borderline unwatchable and the story was so bogged down that not even the (poorly-delivered) fight scenes could stave off boredom. However, the director’s unusual reputation and the film’s foreign origins both give me room for doubt.
If nothing else, I can say with absolute certainty that I didn’t get this movie. Those who think they might enjoy this film would be well-advised to wait for a rental. And if you walk into this one expecting an action-packed spectacular, take a big step back and FUCKING DON’T.
P.S. Before any of you ask, I have not yet seen Ip Man or its sequel, both of which are semi-biographical films about the same historical figure. I’ve heard nothing but good things, though.