‘The Grandmaster’ Lacks The Right Moves
Published: Sunday, September 8, 2013
Updated: Sunday, September 8, 2013 20:09
There were maybe 10 to 15 minutes in Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster that had some sense of plot, some vague understanding of character or motive. So what I’m about to tell you may be incorrect.
The Grandmaster tells the story of Ip Man: Bruce Lee’s infamous (apparently) trainer and life coach. Everybody hangs out at this place called the “Golden Temple”—a brothel which hosts an underground network of martial arts experts. The Master of the Temple is retiring, and has failed in his life goal of bringing a certain style of kung fu to the North, so he must find a replacement (though it’s never clear how these people earn a living. It doesn’t seem like they work at all unless smoking opium and making idioms about changing seasons is “work”). When the Master refuses to cede the throne to hot-headed Ma San on account of his hot-headedness, Ma San proves him wrong by killing him. The Master’s daughter vows to avenge his death and pursues Ma San. She has a love affair with Ip Man. That’s about it.
So the question is: how do we get an interminable two hours of film from that? Well, there’s a lot of staring into the distance. A lot of slow-panning shots of pagodas. A lot of “if you take something off the fire before it is ready, nobody wants it. If you keep it on the fire too long, it gets burnt.” Where the RZA-directed The Man With the Iron Fists is a fun, colorful tribute to the genre and uses its cliches to create a spectacle, The Grandmaster is a limp noodle.
Of course, there are only two things people expect from a kung fu movie—absurdly-translated dialogue and fighting. In regard to the former, here is a line from the film: “There is a lot of underwear there. There are a lot of butts. When I first moved to Hong Kong, I only smoked this brand of cigarettes.”
As for the fighting, there is really not that much of it. When Ma Sun kills the master of the Golden Temple, it is done behind a closed door. It’s Shakespearean. Some would argue more civilized. But for someone raised on movies like Rambo, Air Force One, and Commando, my notion of vengeance involves at least one disembowelment, at the very, very least. In kung fu, if the winner isn’t covered in his opponent’s blood, the loser isn’t dead or mutilated. (In fact, it’s not clear how you “win” kung fu—it seems like at some point you just stop throwing judo chops.) The fight scenes even sound different—The Grandmaster abandons the slap of a hard punch for a soft thud and whooshing air. Ultimately, the fighting doesn’t seem justified or satisfying.
Certainly, the film is political. It takes place right before the Japanese invaded China and there are some disjointed scenes of living under occupation. The master stepping down tells his daughter that, even though she grew up watching him fight, she must now see him refusing to stay in a position of power after he is no longer fit to serve—a sentiment that speaks volumes for Chinese politics. If the movie had placed Ip Man’s story into a more historical context, perhaps the narrative would be clearer. The protagonists are trying to protect a legacy that has been built up for generations—generations which have long passed before the events of the film take place—and it’s hard to distinguish a “bad” or “good” guy in a system built around something as intangible as honor.
Oh, and the movie has four false endings. Four.