FilmJuice have my review of Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, an art house kung fu film based on the life of Bruce Lee’s trainer Ip Man.
I think I like the idea of kung fu films a lot more than I like actual kung fu films… In my early teens, I worked my way through much of Jackie Chan’s back catalogue but I have always struggled with films that did not recreate that particular style. Well… I say ‘style’ when what I actually mean is ‘competence level’ as being able to direct extended scenes of hand-to-hand combat requires a constellation of skills that surprisingly few directors manage to acquire. Every Frame A Painting has a truly excellent video about Chan’s directorial style but what has always drawn me to Chan’s direction are his clarity and his spatial awareness. Chan is first and foremost a performer and he directs in a way that emphasises the grace and skill of the performer rather than trying to compensate for it in post production as has become the norm in Hollywood where it is always much easier to add a bit of CGI or do a bit of extra editing than it is to keep re-shooting the scene in the hope of getting it just right. While action films are generally considered a lot less ‘worthy’ than the films I tend to write about on this blog, a good action director will have just as much skill, vision and sensitivity as the most celebrated Cannes winners. Hollywood may have created a generation of action directors whose logistical expertise outweighs their technical competence but that is a failing of the contemporary Hollywood machine… not the action genre.
I was intrigued to see The Grandmaster as Wong Kar-wai is undoubtedly one of the most highly skilled visual directors in world cinema. David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film dismisses Wong’s films as cold but this is the result of focusing on the actors rather than everything that Wong chooses to put on the screen. When I think of Wong Kar-wai’s films I think of characters whose muted emotional tones are radically and deliberately at odds with the colourful complexity of the worlds they inhabit. Wong’s foregrounds are always cold, still and immaculately controlled but his backgrounds are rich and almost overwhelmingly evocative. Somewhat unsurprisingly, this means that Wong is an absolute natural when it comes to shooting kung fu as his characters are the cold, controlled centre to a world that is filled with beauty and movement:
Like many of Wong Kar-Wai’s films, The Grandmaster sets up a tension between the stillness of the characters and the churning chaos of the world that surrounds them. Unable or unwilling to acknowledge their own feelings, Wong’s characters feel deliberately out of place as every set and every shot hints at the passions they keep chained up inside them. While the tension between Ip’s physical mastery and emotional backwardness is beautifully realised thanks to a cast and crew at the absolute peak of their respective games, you cannot help but feel a bit frustrated by the shallowness of Wong’s character study. Ip was a fascinating man who lived at a fascinating time and while action directors like Winston Yip and Herman Yau have been content to present the man as little more than a generic action hero, Wong breaks with this tradition only to strip his subject back to the equally simplistic lines of a generic romantic lead who struggles with feelings that would not overly bother a teenager.
In hindsight, this is almost certainly unfair to the romance genre as I suspect most characters in romance novels have a good deal more emotional complexity than Wong’s Ip and Gong. As I point out in the review, this cut of the film is significantly shorter than the version that was released in China and I suspect that much of the film’s connective tissue was left on the cutting room floor by Western distributors with one eye on the action market. This perhaps is the problematic legacy of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as you can also see it in the Western release of John Woo’s Red Cliff: The Chinese action genre is desperate to grow up and to use bigger budgets and action sequences to draw big audiences to weighty themes but the West has little time or interest in 3 hour action epics that contain 2 hours of mood-setting and characterisation. Not for the first time, our debased palette seems to have prevented us from sampling the dishes served by cultures that have not followed the same reductive cinematic path.