The Grandmaster, film review: Wong Kar-Wai's martial arts epic is a lovingly staged dust-up

(15) Wong Kar-Wai, 108 mins Starring: Tony Chiu Wai Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Cung Le, Qingxiang Wang
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The Independent Culture

The Grandmaster is an anomaly – a mournful and delicate kung-fu movie with hardly a trace of machismo about it. The director Wong Kar-Wai cites Bruce Lee as his original inspiration (the film's main character is based on Lee's teacher Ip Man) but we are in a very different world to that of Lee's Fists of Fury or Enter the Dragon. The gorgeous visuals may rekindle memories of Zhang Yimou's equally picturesque period martial arts movies Hero and House of Flying Daggers, or of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but Wong's approach is a long way removed from these predecessors, too. This is as much a love story and an elegy for a lost world as it is a Hong Kong Phooey action movie.

The least graceful aspect of The Grandmaster is its structure. The cut being released in the UK close to two years after its Berlin Festival premiere has a very jerky narrative, heavily reliant on intertitles and voice-over to bridge the gaps in a story that leaps from 1930s mainland China to 1950s Hong Kong under British rule. One moment we seem to be in medieval times, the next we are hurled into the modern world. The director may have been forced to tamper with the film to keep his US distributors happy. Then again, plotting matters less to Wong Kar-Wai than music, atmosphere and character.

Wong's approach is stylised in the extreme. Snow flakes are falling or light is bouncing out of rain puddles as fights take place. The film is full of fetishistic close-ups. In one sequence when the hero is practicing moves with a veteran female fighter in a 1930s brothel, we can't help but notice the beautiful filigrees on the woman's slippers. The slow-motion used so abundantly gives us time to pay attention to the meticulous costume and production design – the shape of the buttons on the women's coats, the engravings on the wooden banisters, the colours of the costumes.

Tony Leung portrays Ip Man in the same aloof way as he played the police agent Yee in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution. Whether he is taking on a dozen opponents in a street fight or exchanging philosophical asides in what passes for dialogue, he has the same detached and slightly mournful manner. He doesn't exult in his victories. He also wears a broad-rimmed white hat, which makes him look like Humphrey Bogart in an old gangster movie.

Somehow, Wong manages to turn a martial arts movie into a romantic melodrama with some of the same flavour as his earlier In the Mood for Love (2000), also starring Tony Leung. Ip Man is ostensibly happily married but we are very well aware of the feelings that he has for Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of northern grandmaster Gong Yutian. She is Ip's equal, possibly even his superior, in martial arts and she is as fascinated by him as he is by her. Their fight is one of the highlights of the movie, a stylised, brilliantly shot sequence which is closer to an Astaire/Rogers dance routine than to the Shaw brothers-style mayhem found in most kung fu movies. Ip Man will lose the fight if so much as a floorboard is cracked.

Zhang Ziyi stars as the daughter of northern grandmaster Gong Yutian

Wong shoots the antagonists in full frame so we can see their every movement. They seem to glide across wooden floors and over bannisters. Whatever blow they receive, neither loses their balance. At certain points they come face to face, as if they are about to kiss. Neither shows any overt emotion but there is an obvious undercurrent of eroticism.

This scene follows on from another equally remarkable tussle between Ip Man and Gong Yutian. The northern grandmaster has set the southern pretender a very strange challenge. To win the fight, Ip must break a small cake that Gong is holding in his hand. Instead of hitting each other, Gong and Ip exchange gnomic one-liners. They seem to shadow dance around one another. They are brilliant exponents of their craft: so much so, they can see the extreme skill each puts into movements that might seem simply innocuous to onlookers.

This is a very intimate film, almost entirely set in interiors. At the same time as the northern and southern kung-fu experts are vying for supremacy, huge upheavals are taking place in the world around them. They are anachronistic figures. The old ways are disappearing. When the Japanese invade China during the late 1930s, the old masters' martial arts skills are no help whatsoever. These immensely courageous and well-trained fighters, with their ancient traditions, can do little to help themselves when the historical tide turns against them. The only one who even tries to adapt is Gong Yutian's protégé and chosen successor, the treacherous Ma San (Zhang Jin), who becomes a Quisling-like collaborator with the occupying Japanese army.

It is hard to work out what precisely Wong is driving at in The Grandmaster. When the martial artists leave China for Hong Kong, where they eke out an existence as teachers or in menial jobs, it is as if they have been expelled from some magical kingdom where their powers counted for something. At the same time, Hong Kong represents modernity and a much freer, less class-bound world than on the mainland.

For all its obvious flaws, this is a very special film. In an era of industrially made, CGI-driven action movies, Wong's martial arts epic has a handcrafted feel. He may skirt close to kitsch at times but his style is utterly personal. He spent a small eternity in making, editing and re-editing a movie that is destined always to seem like a work in progress in whatever cut it is shown. But you won't ever see any other kung fu movie quite like it.