Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Grandmaster

I was on an Asian cinema kick a few years ago as I discovered more foreign and authored films. It started with the new wave of talent from South Korea with directors like Park Chan-wook (Joint Security Area, Oldboy, Thirst), Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother), Kim Ki-duk (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring), and Kim Ji-woon (I Saw the Devil). From there I investigated directors from other countries whose American films I was appreciative of such as John Woo's Hard Boiled or The Killer and Ang Lee's Lust, Caution or The Wedding Banquet. Sampled a variety of other films that had won awards overseas such as Tokyo Sonata, Last Life in the Universe, Cyclo, Audition, Not One Less, and many others. When it came to Hong Kong, aside from Woo, I just up, went, and delved into the work of Wong Kar-wai, a director whose cinematic legacy seems to practically have been already written.

His films are foremost beautifully shot and frankly their cinematography (most shot by Christopher Doyle, although this most recent one is by Philippe Le Sourd) is like nothing I've ever seen. All at once lush, dark, monumental, and fluid- he realizes that film is a visual medium. He loves to tell his stories through montage, voice-over, silence, and constant visual trickery (for lack of better terminology). When I first watched In the Mood for Love... something just didn't click. I wasn't sure if I liked it. I grasped at straws about why the film was made the way it was, why the film was presented the way it was, why the story was told the way it was, etc. etc. etc. Then I watched 2046, Happy Together, Chungking Express and by the time I revisited In the Mood for Love... I still may not understand where Wong comes from, but I do really love where he takes me. His work is shocking in an ethereal way. His movies have a certain sensuality to them not just visually, but in how Wong draws you in with all the aspects of filmmaking that a director has under his or her control. In the Mood for Love now stands in my eyes as it seems to stand in the eyes of many others as quite possibly the most definitive film that has captured romantic love onscreen in its bare form for all its good and bad. Upon my second viewing, I already felt a lump in my throat when Tony Leung's character steps up to a ruined wall and rests his head against it so he can whisper into a hole and then cover up that hole with mud.

Now, since I'm done with my usual ranting about the filmmaker, I'm a little troubled to discuss Wong's latest film, The Grandmaster. Mainly because I saw what is seemingly the dreaded "American cut" and maybe something is wrong with me- but I really liked it. I'm sure the Hong Kong cut or the directors cut will elevate the film's quality to me, but I actually really, really, really enjoyed what American producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein presented in theaters here in the States (although I wonder if those expository title cards were in the place of actual footage, but I thought the titles helped with the film's sense of grandiose history). The film is based on the true story of martial arts legend Ip Man (Tony Leung) and touches on his rise to prominence as well as his relationship with the daughter and heir of another grandmaster of one of the many forms of martial arts, Gong Er (Zhang Yimou). Tony Leung is like the antithesis of many American actors whose faces can scream different emotions. Somehow, Leung can tell a story with his acting and yet his face is like a stone carving (the scene in Cyclo where he walks down the hallway to Radiohead's Creep being a perfect example). Leung seems to be much like his character where a motion or word of his never feels wasted or misused. Zhang Ziyi who became famous after her breakout performance in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, handles her role oppositely to that of Leung in that she is very forward with her feelings. 

So this movie keeps moving from fight to fight with historical reference points about war and family alongside talks about martial arts and philosophy. Towards the end when Gong Er is ill and finally reunited with Ip Man at a table, their late confession of love becomes one of the most powerful scenes I've seen this year even though it's handled with such subtlety amongst such a grand plot. The scene features the two tragic characters just sitting there and not moving much and the scene ends with a smile when Gong Er says "To say there are no regrets in life is to fool yourself. Imagine how boring life would be without regrets." With that line of dialogue and with the entire film at that line's back, the film gives me an out-of-body feeling. That feeling that I just experienced art that has somehow contemplated life and all of its ins and outs. These characters find peace, perhaps unlike other characters from Wong's films, and I think that is proof enough that Wong still has so much more to say about his own legacy.

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