The Grandmaster (Annapurna Pictures/The Weinstein Company, PG-13)

The-Grandmaster 75The Grandmaster is a lot like Spring Breakers. Not on the surface, of course.

The-Grandmaster 500

In what might be the least likely comparison I make all year, The Grandmaster is a lot like Spring Breakers. Not on the surface, of course, but if you go back and reread my review of Spring Breakers, a lot of the arguments I made there are applicable here; not least of which being the fact that both films were produced by Megan Ellison, whom I previously said I idolize and will double down on that statement now. But aside from her linking the two films together, both are films that are not really what they look like on the surface, and both are films that I’m expecting a lot of their audience to not “get,” in that it requires a certain amount of preexisting knowledge of their respective directors to “get” them. Also, both Spring Breakers and The Grandmaster are great films.

The Grandmaster is the new Wong Kar-wai film, and is about Ip Man, the real-life historical figure who is most famous for having trained Bruce Lee, and is the subject of the 2008 Wilson Yip film Ip Man as well as its sequel, 2010’s Ip Man 2: Legend of a Grandmaster, both of which have been met with their share of success. It may seem like The Grandmaster is some sort of cash-in and/or rip-off of the Ip Man films, but in actuality, The Grandmaster went into production before even the first Ip Man did, so if anything, it’s the other way around. That’s where pre-existing knowledge of Wong Kar-wai comes in handy first—he is known to take absolutely forever (often as much as 5-10 years) in the production of his films and is a fairly extreme perfectionist.

Wong regular Tony Leung plays Ip Man here, and he is most notably supported by co-2046 alum Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er, who is Ip Man’s growingly-preferred sparring partner/rival/source of romantic chemistry. (wkw note #2: aside from being a perfectionist, he is widely viewed as being one of the most romantic filmmakers in the world.) The Grandmaster is not structured at all like most action or martial arts movies, and the fight scenes in the film are pretty front-loaded; it isn’t leading up to any major boss battle in the end or anything. That is to say, the best scenes in the film are the ones where Ip Man and Gong Er go at it, and they come relatively early in the picture. It’s probably also worth mentioning here that Zhang Ziyi made her name in most of the world for her role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which The Grandmaster bears some resemblance to, in its combination of martial arts and aesthetic beauty (wkw note #3: he’s known for producing some of the best looking films ever made; I’d personally put him at the top of that list, ahead of even Terrence Malick), and also in the fact that they share the legendary fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, who is the dude who did the fight choreography for the Kill Bill movies, the Matrix movies, Kung Fu Hustle, and countless other modern classics of the genre.

Other Wong Kar-wai mannerisms come into play here, too, but they’re relatively minor: he’s still obsessed with rain, he’s still obsessed with time, he still is getting great work out of longtime collaborator William Chang, who does the production design and edits his films (which is a weird combination of jobs indeed). Here he’s working for the first time with French cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, as opposed to his more notable collaborations with Christopher Doyle (whom he parted ways with years ago) or his recent work with Mark Lee Ping-bin or Darius Khondji. He manages to get reliably great work from all of these cinematographers, though, while it’s easy to mourn the fact that Chris Doyle no longer wants to work with him, it isn’t too hard to get over when you see the work the new guys are doing.

If you haven’t gathered as much already, I’m a huge nerd for Wong Kar-wai; he’s very likely my single favorite filmmaker of the past twenty years. I imported the blu-ray of The Grandmaster from Hong Kong when it was released there months ago, because I’m impatient, but I have no regrets about this, as the U.S. release of this film is slightly different from the original Hong Kong release. The most noticeable difference between the two is the addition of some explanatory intertitles throughout the film, which at once help the viewer keep up with what’s going on (it was fairly easy to get lost in the original version, which again is a reasonably common attribute of Wong’s films) and also seem kind of artless. Still, I’m guessing most Americans seeing this film for the first time will benefit from their presence. And while in the end The Grandmaster is nowhere near the best Wong Kar-wai movie, it’s worth noting that the worst Wong Kar-wai movie is better than the best movie most other filmmakers will ever make in their life, and since The Grandmaster isn’t Wong’s worst movie, you can imagine how great a film it really is. | Pete Timmermann

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