Last week, I attended a screening of Wong Kar-wai’s latest film, The Grandmaster (Aug. 23, limited release), starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai as Ip Man, who’s most well known for popularizing Wing Chun and training Bruce Lee.
Leung showed up after the screening to answer questions, and I’ll include some of the highlights after the review.
The movie opens with a dramatic fight scene at night in the street in the rain, during which Ip takes on many men. I don’t have to tell you the outcome, do I?
Ip then takes on a challenge by Gong Yutian, a grandmaster from northern China, who thinks the South should have its own grandmaster. Ip also ends up fighting the grandmaster’s beautiful daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), and an attraction develops, though Ip is married with children.
The story follows Ip through the late 1930s and Japanese occupation of Foshan, and Ip’s eventual exile in Hong Kong, where he starts teaching Wing Chun. The film also shows how Gong Er won back her family’s legacy, after her father’s protegé, Ma San, betrays Gong Yutian.
I’m still not sure what to think of this movie overall, because its parts are more than its sum. (Leung said this version is about 10 minutes shorter than the one released in China.) The acting is fine, with Leung doing his charismatic thing, and Zhang infusing every frame she’s in with grace and fire under the surface stoicism. The actress doesn’t have to move a facial muscle when she can convey so much with her eyes. And when she fights, her lithe frame belies her strength.
The cinematography is lush, and Wong’s trademark melancholy and atmospheric shots are present, with longing, In the Mood for Love-type looks between Zhang and Leung. But perhaps there are too many shots in which the director lingers on something, as if determined to impress us with its beauty.
The action scenes are fraught with tension and impressively staged, but often we’re not allowed to see the whole spectacle. Wong keeps cutting to close-ups of feet shuffling along the ground, or rainwater sliding off the brim of a hat in slo-mo, or Ip and Gong Er’s faces coming within kissing distance while fighting. I wanted to see the entirety of the fights, but would only get bits and pieces.
The movie’s narrative also jumps around a bit. There’s an extended section when Ip disappears so we can see how Gong Er restores her family’s honor. No disrespect to Leung at all, but I didn’t miss Ip during these scenes. When Zhang gets that determined look on her face, I was just waiting for the sneering Ma San to get his butt kicked.
I’d recommend the movie because of the magnetic leads, and a fantastic fight scene on a train platform while a train is moving through it, but it’s not quite a fast-paced action movie, or a relationship drama, or a biopic. So it leaves us with a feeling it’s neither here nor there, like a man in exile.
Nerd verdict: Grand style, medium impact
- Leung knew no martial arts whatsoever, and started learning it for this movie, at the age of 47. He trained with one of Ip Man’s students.
- He practiced kung fu for 3-4 years, starting about a year before production and continuing until the end of the job.
- He read books about Bruce Lee and Lee’s knowledge of kung fu, and realized this form of martial arts was not just a way to train your body, but also to train your mind and a way of life. Leung discovered that Lee was more than an incredible martial artist; he was a great philosopher as well.
- Leung broke his arm twice, and his first fight scene back after his arm healed was the opening fight sequence, in which he took on 15 guys, the last opponent being a real-life MMA champion (the others were stuntmen).
- The fight scene in the freezing rain—the most difficult of his acting career—took 40 overnights to film, during which he was often sick. He finished it in 10 days at first, but then Wong decided he wanted Ip to wear a white hat during the sequence instead of a black one, and it took 30 more nights to reshoot. Below, in the video clip I recorded, he talks a little about the physical toll this took on him:
Photos: The Weinstein Company