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Poster of the movie. [Photo: douban]Opium dreams in Technicolor narrated by your favorite grandfather
After 14 years in production, with shooting alone accounting for three of those years, The Grandmaster by director Wong Karwai finally had its general release in the Chinese mainland on January 8. Stories and rumors sparked by the constant delays have filled gossip columns since 2011.
One staff member of Wong's crew, who wants to remain anonymous, told the Chinese Business View that there are three main reasons behind Wong's delays: there is no script, he repeats the same shot again and again, and he often gets strange ideas that negatively affect progress.
Indeed, much of what took so long to film may never be seen by the public. Wong's official website, wongkarwai.net, reveals that "the film's rough cut was four hours, and finally he cut it down to a 130-minute version."
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What remains is certainly worth the wait. Wong's ethereal style using thousands of shots, each one meticulously crafted - tight close-ups of faces, fabrics or fixtures, and his dramatic use of slow motion - produces a rich tapestry in this latest work.
The Grandmaster is a period piece set primarily in China's Republic period (1912-1949) with a plot loosely propelled by an old kung fu master's ambition to spread his style of fighting from his home in the North to the South part of China. The old master, Gong Yutian (played by Wang Qinxiang), practices two forms of kung fu: one, Baguazhang, he taught to his daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) and the other, Xingyiquan, he taught to Yixiantian (Chang Chen) with the hopes that together they might spread his ancient knowledge, but this hope is dashed when Yixiantian turns to the dark side. Thus, the film has its conflict.
Meanwhile, Gong and his entourage meet up with the film's title character, Ip Man - the legendary martial artist who taught Bruce Lee. In The Grandmaster, which critics argue should be the plural "Grandmasters," the iconic character is called Ye Wen and played eloquently by Tony Leung in his seventh collaboration with Wong. The quietly charming family man, whose wife is played by South Korean actress Song Hye-kyo, begins a quest to establish which school of martial arts is superior. Slow motion ensues.
And narration - for the first half hour there's hardly a scene with dialogue, but the voiceover by Leung accompanied by a pulsing score suggestive of an elevated heartbeat and images imbued with history and ancestry surreptitiously place the audience in a hypnotized state.
Quickly establishing the film in the genre of kung fu flick, the opening fight scene in the rain is incredibly satisfying. But why rain? Water shows motion. Put kung fu in the street, and you have a street fight. Put kung fu in the street in the rain - then slow it down to where it nearly stops - and you have art.
Also, the portrait-worthy faces of Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi are together again, but they are certainly not reprising their nocturnal wrestling matches seen in Wong's 2046 (2004). Here, they inhale each other's breath during a kung fu sparring match that takes on special significance for both and gets memorialized by a simple token - a button - reminiscent of something out of Christopher Nolan's Inception(2010).
But then, the overall design of this film is very much like a dream - an opium dream in Technicolor narrated by your favorite grandfather.
That surreal quality is precisely why moviegoers coming out of the film are hard-pressed to say exactly what happened: the plot is practically inconsequential. What moves the film forward, other than some clunky silent-film-era graphics that proclaim the date, are the moods generated moment by moment and the powerful themes carried on the smoke.
This observation is seconded by Wei Junzi, movie critic and director of planning department of ent.sina.cn, who wrote on his Sina Weibo, "The plot is pushed forward by the developing of moods."
Most of the cast can be given credit for helping Wong sustain his hypnotic effect. There is, however, one notable exception. Through no fault of his own, every appearance by Zhao Benshan, who plays Ding Lianshan (the elder master in Gong's inner circle), generates spontaneous laughter.
Are we suddenly watching a comedy? Not at all. It's simply that the vast majority of the audience is conditioned to laugh at this extremely popular TV comedian - in spite of the fact that he delivers a deeply resonant performance and has arguably the best-written monologue in the film (his mianzi/lizi speech). It's enough of a distraction to question the wisdom of such casting. If Wong's intention is to painstakingly guide the viewer's eye and imagination by zooming in on a veritable slideshow of the subconscious, then isn't he at cross-purposes with himself by giving the audience a quick poke in the ribs?
Action there is, but an action film this is not. What comes through after such meticulous perfection are themes of tradition, family, longing, revenge and unity. The values one develops from the relentless pursuit of physical control are not idealized here, but actually reveal human frailty and vulnerability.
Take for example, Zhang Ziyi's character. As director Wong told the Beijing News, Gong Er does not represent a single person, but a combination of many people of the Republic of China era.
This parallel is articulated by Gong Er in her last conversation with Ye Wen. By recalling a lesson taught by her father, she confesses that she saw herself, she saw the world, but she did not see the people. It was that third and final part of a kung fu master's journey that she was simply too tired to undertake.
"If you are a fan of Wong Karwai, you will like The Grandmaster, but if you are not, it might be a challenge for you," Wang Siwei, a freelance movie critic in Chongqing, told the Global Times in a phone interview.
A word of advice: Don't go to see The Grandmaster until you're in the mood for it. Through the right lens, Wong's long-anticipated work delivers the most gratifying collection of images produced in China for years.
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