Yi dai zong shi / The Grandmaster (2013)

12 08 2014

Wong Kar-Wai is one of only a handful of directors I feel completely inadequate talking about. After all, what is there that can be said or written about one of the most visual, tactile, and sensual filmmakers of all time? To even use words to describe his work seems to be a disservice. Maybe this all seems like a little unnecessary hyperbole, just the author gushing over a beloved filmmaker, but sometimes a work doesn’t seem to benefit from words. All great films should be able to communicate something that’s far more complicated then any possible combination of words, but it seems particularly erroneous in Wong’s case. With all that said, there’s much to say about The Grandmaster and how it fits into the filmmaker’s other meditations on fleeting romance.


Ip Man, a martial arts master of the South, is threatened by the emergence of another master, Gong Yutian from the Northern part of China. It is suggested that the two areas both have their separate “masters” but eventually, the conversation turns to who is the better of the two. Gong Yutian’s daughter, Gong Er pleads with her father to not fight. He does so anyway, and the fight ends in a surprisingly peaceful fashion. Gong proclaims Ip Man the winner, and retreats home. Gong Er is less than pleased with the results, and she makes it her mission to restore the honor of her family’s name. In the process, though, her and Ip Man begin to make a connection.


There’s something infuriating to me about the last paragraph. Perhaps I’ve done a paltry job at summarizing the narrative of the film, but even if I was better at such a thing, I would still feel that it wouldn’t quite do justice to The Grandmaster. I hesitate to call this film “more than an action film” because that suggests there is something about action films that is low-brow or to take that further, that low-brow is something we should inherently look down upon. The Grandmaster is different. Its action is crucial, but its not one of catharsis. It’s one that is just impeccably choreographed and framed, providing the sort of visual stimulation for a story of a lost love. Of course, that sounds just as corny and unwelcoming as a story about rival fighters.


I could say here then that part of Wong’s genius is his ability to make stories that would seem like cheesy Hollywood meet cutes into something endued with his trademark longing and reverie. This is a talent, but it’s not bad writing coupled with a crafty filmmaker to make up for it, but instead just a filmmaker who can handle such potentially shaky content. The proceedings here and throughout the rest of Wong’s career can be described as melodramatic, and I accept such a claim but reject its negative connotation. Here is a beautiful work of melodramatic filmmaking, one whose melodrama is augmented by Wong’s own poetics of cinema. His films wouldn’t work without his aesthetics, yet somehow his films wouldn’t just work if they were “all style” (a frequent criticism, actually) – all the elements of Wong’s cinema need each other.


My thoughts are pretty congested here, but I’ll try to explain how Wong’s frequent meditation on “missed opportunities” or would-be romances work. As a young cinephile, I saw and immediately fell in love with Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto. One of the things that hit me hardest was the fact that the protagonist meets a beautiful girl, one that would be his love interest in any other film. In Olmi’s film though, their spark leads to nothing and she seems to disappear. As a teenager, this struck a chord because in my mind, this was a reality. I might have been deluded, but it seemed real. Wong’s cinema does something similar, but it goes a level deeper. There was a time where I loved his work because I related to these poetic interpretations of missed connections. I still do it, but it registers in a different way now.


Watching The Grandmaster I felt something almost reassuring and calming about the sensual tension of Ip Man and Gong Er and the way it never materializes into a loving relationship. Wong’s way is always far sexier than it is real life, but I use to feel the heartache of such moments because I felt some kind of connection to this type of social phenomenon. Now, it is something perhaps more productive, the idea that these missed relationships aren’t the tragic attack on your aching heart, but instead something that normalizes these lost potential romantic partners. It captures the pain, but doesn’t dwell in it, resulting in a more life-affirming experience. Wong in one moment can sense our anguish, and in a non-condescending way say that our grieving of such a thing is grandiloquent. The rhythms of the world can’t be interrupted just for one’s own desires, the beat goes on even as we lament it doing so in a way that doesn’t favor us. We may never “get over it” but we have to keep moving.