on 10 September 2015
Could I give this six stars? I am astounded by the reviewers who gave low ratings - I realise we are all different, but it's a bit like the people who give low ratings to Sergeant Pepper or Mozart. I am just so grateful I discovered this movie. It is far from the common martial arts movie - it is art and cinematic technique, for example, rather than some excuse for gratuitous brutality or some hackneyed vengeance plot. It is not just moving and beautifully filmed and atmospheric - and, yes, with tremendously exciting fight sequences - it is something which you can appreciate when you know what you are looking at, because it is just so faithful to the techniques of the systems of wing chun, ba gua, xingyi, hung gar, taiji... It is a million miles away from those 70s movies which might mention a martial arts system and then just use it as an excuse for "Hong Kong Generic Movie Shaolin" fighting sequences, with no technical or historical respect for what they were talking about. This is an absolute gem, and especially if you know what your Chinese martial arts systems look like when they're used properly. But even if you don't, if you got anything at all out of Hero or House of Flying Daggers, or Crouching Tiger etc, then you should still really appreciate this movie. It costs about five lousy pounds! If it went out of production, so I couldn't replace it, I wouldn't sell my copy for two hundred and five pounds!
on 11 August 2015
Kung fu films are popular with many and it's easy to understand why. They are usually stylistic (slick), energetic, show lots of action (especially incredible physical feats), and have simple narrative structures along the lines of comic books (as in good vs. bad). Often I'm not a great fan of them because the formula seems predictable and tedious, and after a while an old tired cliché begins to sour the mind: “If you've seen one, you've seen them all.” But the Grandmaster is different. Or it was for me. I was attracted to it for at least four reasons.
First, I knew a little about Ip Man through some scattered reading references to him over the years. He was an obscure but intriguing figure in my imagination and I wanted to learn more about him.
Second, Won Kar-Wei is the director of the film. His reputation as an auteur, a genuine cinematic artist, precedes him. I respect him and his work.
Third, the actor Tony Leung Chiu-Wai plays Ip Man in the film. There is something about his face, manner and presence (call it charisma, if you will) that exudes calmness, confidence, assurance. He is grounded in his being and if he's afraid of anything, you don't see or sense what it might be. Sizing him up as an opponent is not a confidence booster. You can't picture in detail what will be coming your way but you're disheartened by thinking it will all be bad. He has already beaten you psychologically.
Fourth, history and Sino-Japanese relations interest me. China made Japan. It gave Japan a written language, culture (Buddhism, Confucianism, art, architecture), a bureaucracy, an organized state and a national identity that grew out of such organisation. China was the Middle Kingdom, the grand civilisation, the center of the known world in Asia, its own version of Rome. Independently it gave the world medicine, mathematics, silk, gunpowder, paper (including paper money), and a host of other things which of course included martial arts. Marco Polo could not believe what he encountered when he reached the opulent court of the Kublai Khan in 1274. He had believed the Venetian state he represented personified civilisation. But now what he saw in China changed everything about his understanding of the world.
Japan has always existed in China's shadow and still does. It tried to change the status quo from 1898 to 1945 through invasion, violence, intimidation and oppression (in Korea too). But in the end these efforts came to nothing and it's good they did, as Japan's aggression throughout Asia in the 1930s and '40s was hardly different from that of the Nazi Third Reich in Europe. Japan's traditional twin scourges have been fascism and feudalism, the chronic source of the country's latent fanaticism.
Ip Man (1893-1972) was a Southerner and commoner. So far, two strikes against him, as the seat of Chinese power has always been in the North with the ruling class. His family were well off but he had exceptional determination to improve himself. He had talent too, although it's hard to say sometimes where talent comes from. Perhaps he made that too. Perhaps he simply willed it into being.
The story has four central characters: old Master Gong Yutian (Grandmaster of the Wadang Boxing school in the North), his adult daughter Gong Er (played by the luminous Zhang Ziyi), Ma San (young, ambitious, treacherous and heir to the Wadang school), and Ip Man himself (sometimes called Ye Wen).
Master Gong is nearing the end of his long supremacy as Grandmaster of the Wadang school. He is a great artist in the arts of self-defence but has no son to pass the torch along to. His daughter Gong Er wishes she had been born male to fill the void in the family legacy of these precious arts. As a little girl she watched her father perfecting his moves in the snow of their winter garden. She watched with awe and pride, and later admits as an adult to Ip Man that they were the happiest times and memories of her life. She reveres and adores her father for the great man he is. He is also wise. Gong Er is fiery and tempestuous. She seethes with ambition, loyal and devoted as she is to the family name and legacy. Her father sees this. He tries to calm her. When she first meets Ip Man with her father's contingent of fighters she sees Ip Man as an impudent upstart. To curb her emotions her father says:
“I once had a temper like yours: winning was everything. But life's bigger than that. Take a longer view. Past the mountains the world opens up. Not to see the good in others, not to admit their talent, is to lack generosity.”
As time passes she will understand that her father was correct, that Ip Man's greatness is real, that she had to look past the mountains to see it, and that through seeing it she could open her mind and therefore her heart.
A key point early on in the film is the meeting of these four central characters. Master Gong, his daughter Er, and the master's disciple and heir Ma San go to southern China to meet Ip Man and members of his Wing Chun school for the first time in 1936. The rich North has ruled in practically every way in China, including in the martial arts traditions. The poor South has little to recommend it. Wing Chun (the martial tradition of Ip Man) is not seen as a legitimate art in the eyes of the Northerners. It lacks complexity, artistry and a long lineage of famous practitioners. It is hardly to be taken seriously. Ip Man, modest and honest as he was, admits the greatness of the Wandang school and says to Master Gong that it's an honour to be allowed to confront his school's tradition in combat. He means it truly and Master Gong comes to realise he does. In many ways, as gradually becomes apparent in the film, Ip Man was the son Master Gong never had.
Ip Man fights all three of them. First, he battles Ma San to a stalemate, or perhaps Ip Man wins. Later, in a beautifully choreographed display of martial arts dance, he fights Gong Er. There is something almost erotic in the grace, beauty and power of their display as they spar. The camera slows the action down and we linger over their expressions. In them there is awe, respect and the glimmerings of desire, a desire that will haunt both of them as time passes. Master Gong is the third opponent of Ip Man. The master confesses he is too old to take on the robust skills of Ip Man. But he says they can compete in a different way — through philosophical reflection. They will spar, but at every turn Master Gong will want to observe the meaning behind Ip Man's moves. In other words, why does he fight? What makes the man? What is his essence? To know this is to know more than just skill. Anyone can copy moves. What is the depth behind them? Why live? Art, in other words, should be an expression of what you value most.
Master Gong holds out a flat cake to Ip Man and says:
“Our union [between North and South] was founded 25 years ago. A man from the South came and offered a challenge. He held out a flat cake and asked our Master to break it. Our Master wasn't offended. He even named the man our chairman. It wasn't because of his kung fu but what he said: 'Kung fu divides North and South. Must the country divide as well?'”
They spar. The cake remains intact. Ip Man smiles and says:
“The world is a big place. Why limit it to North and South? It holds you back. To you, this cake is the country. To me, it is much more. Break from what you know and you will know more. The Southern arts are bigger than just the North and South.”
With that, the flat cake breaks, a third of it falling to the floor from Master Gong's hand. He has never been defeated before. He says:
“My technique has never failed me. I never thought I'd see the limits of my own vision. Mr. Ip, today I have made you famous.”
The Japanese invade. They will have China, or so they tell themselves. The year is 1937. They conquer and occupy the South and threaten the North. The South suffers heavily. Foshan, Ip Man's hometown near Guangzhou in Guandong Province, was once a prosperous and peaceful city. No more. It is reduced to poverty and starvation. Three million Chinese in the South will eventually die during the Japanese occupation and by 1943 another three million in the North will be dead. Among those who starved to death in the South were Ip Man's two daughters. The family refused to collaborate and paid the ultimate price to the unforgiving Japanese.
Ip Man lives in internal exile for his refusal to collaborate. When the world war ends China is in understandable chaos. Eight years of continuous warfare with the Japanese have exhausted the Chinese. A power vacuum opens up and is exploited by the Communists. After the civil war they seize power in 1949 and Ip Man, an ardent nationalist, is forced to flee again — this time to Hong Kong. He has lost everything: his family, homeland, fighting school and profession.
Gong Er also flees China after the Communist takeover and becomes a doctor in Hong Kong, a profession her father always hoped she would undertake.
They meet again by chance, or perhaps Ip Man has intentionally sought her out, having heard she too was living in Hong Kong. It's clear what their regard for each other is and may have always been from the very first meeting in 1936. This isn't stated openly but by glances, silences, atmosphere. Ip Man once said of his wife that “she was a woman of few words because she knew their power.” The same applies to Gong Er.
Regard, love, respect, adoration, yet it was not to be. Gong Er was a proud and honourable woman. She vowed before an icon of the Buddha that she would protect the Gong family name and legacy by not marrying and having children, and by giving up martial arts for good. This was her penance, she thought, for the betrayal of her father by Ma San, his disciple. San had been a poor orphan boy whom her father took pity on, raising him, providing for him, teaching him the secrets of his family's tradition of martial arts. But his character had always been self-serving and imperceptive. He learned the techniques of the arts but not the humane philosophies behind them. Gong Er later sought revenge for the betrayal and death of her father, and this she achieved but at considerable cost. In 1940, she defeated Ma San. This sequence is beautifully filmed on a snowy train station platform somewhere in the north of China. She nearly kills Ma San, but he inflicts great internal damage on her as well. It's said in the film that she never recovered from those wounds, turning to opium as a painkiller. Through time she became addicted to it, and her last days in Hong Kong were marred by her almost complete dependence on it.
Two broken lives could not come together to form a union, as much as each clearly wanted it. The farewell scene between them is heartrending.
Gong Er died first (in Hong Kong) in 1952. Ip Man lasted 20 more years, but died there too (in 1972), just seven months before his greatest protégé — Bruce Lee — who also died in Hong Kong. Lost lives, yet their legacy lives on, as Wing Chun is known all over the world as a great martial art.
Finally, a quiet word about the look and sound of the film.
One word for the cinematography (Philippe Le Sourd) — breathtaking. Frame by frame you see the mind of an artist at work (colour, form, design, light, shadows, perspective), his compositions beguilingly beautiful.
The music (percussion based with occasional strings and soft piano interludes) is brilliant as well, a collaborative effort between Shigeru Umebayashi, Nathaniel Méchaly and the renowned Ennio Morricone who by now is timeless and a part of all our cinematic lives.
on 27 June 2014
THIS IS A REVIEW ON THE ORIGINAL CHINESE UNCUT (130 min.) VERSION!
It was finally time for the great iconoclastic Hong Kong director to turn to martial arts action in his intense and atmospheric telling of the great grandmaster teacher, Ip man, and he doesn't disappoint.
Wong Kar-wai brings the poetic beauty of his cinematic genius displayed in such works as "In the Mood for Love" to martial arts action executed with a precise rhythmic heightening reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah at his best, bringing out the sensations of living through the Japanese invasion of China during WWII. The cast is magnificent, especially Tony Leung as the Ip man, and Ziyi Zhang as Gong Er perfectly embodies a kungfu mistress trying to avenge her father. A masterpiece by Wong to put on a level with his finest work.
My only gripe about this Blu-ray release (which looks stunning in its clarity of picture and color, highlighting Wong's penchant for rain and darkness) is that the special features (unlike the feature itself) do not have any English subtitling -- so unless you read Chinese you won't be able to know what Wong or his crew and cast are talking about. The feature does, however, have full subtitling.
A worthy addition to your Blu-ray library.
PS: One other reviewer criticized the editing of this film which, to me, smacks of putting down the film for not being more conventional. Sometimes it is difficult to put aside expectations of what one wants a film to be in favor of what the actual film on the screen is. "The Grandmaster" is, in fact, brilliantly edited. Wong is, if nothing else, a perfectionist in taking years to mold his assembled footage into his own personal rhythmic poem, idiosyncratically emphasizing downbeats and rests as precise as a great composer. What you see here is Wong Kar-wai's personal vision, take it or leave it. But let's not denigrate it for not being a conventional action picture or someone else's Ip man film. I wouldn't change a frame, or a single edit. It strikes me as a perfect diamond for this exceptional, if eccentric, cinema artist.