The Grandmaster

Tony Leung is the Grandmaster

Tony Leung in Wong Kar Wai’s ‘The Grandmaster’

Rains falls. A trenchcoat swishes. A hand gesticulates. A foot twists. A fist slams. A body falls. As Ip Man deftly disposes of his adversaries under illuminated sheets of rain in noiry nocturnal streets, each gesture of body and camera adds one more brushstroke to the opening fight scene. Each motion is a sign to be added to the final choreography, which will weld the art of the cinematograph with that of the Kung Fu master.

As Ip Man strides through cinematic spaces of color, texture, emotion, both the cinematic art and the martial one become symbols for one another, each with its own codes, gestures, and rituals. This cinematic martial art on display here is not so much a form of expression as it is a mode, with each fight expressing another form – Ip Man’s initial Kung Fu displays are an initiation, when he spars with Gong Er they become a flirtation, with her father the Grandmaster Gong Yutian a test of valor. The possible forms of expression are limitless – a challenge for honor, a provocation, a show of strength or love, a requisition of an inheritance.

Wong Kar Wai’s Grandmaster deconstructs the codified ritual of the martial art. A single kick is segmented into the multiple facets which compose it – a precise shifting of weight on the foot’s blade, a bodily realignment to present a smaller target, the shattering reaction of concrete to a blow. And only then, once the fight has been atomized into its smallest possible codified gestures, can then they be reassembled into a single, almost aqueous unity in perpetual motion.

This deconstruction of the martial art echoes a similar deconstruction of the cinematic one. Events are fragmented, storylines minimized, dialogues grinded up. Mere scenes are poeticized by plasticity of time, space, movement and angle, a poetic which dispenses with the authority of narrative-based links of cause and effect.

The camera’s eye, omnipotent and omnipresent catches every angle, every motion, every temporality of a flower, an icicle, a trainman’s lamp, a splash of water, a coat button, a lick of flame, a measured regard, in order to dissolve them into a single entity through a process of liquefaction. The editing then animates this single choreographed ritual, breathing life into the fragments through an act of reassemblage: slow motion shots cut with fast ones, memories with symbols, gestures with words.

The film’s closing quotation of Bruce Lee indicates its visual philosophy – achieving a goal matters less than ‘being’. Both Kung-Fu and cinema draw their strength from the present existence of each movement. The film’s poetic reconstruction is an indication of a preference for the living, breathing moment of cinema itself, sitting on the razor edge of time, even if in The Grandmaster they do not always sublimate as they did in In the Mood for Love (and even here, it is the intimate, lonely, melancholic gestures which echo strongest in our retinas). And it is perhaps this love of motion, of cinema’s ‘being’ which explains why Wong Kar Wai could not resist adding just one more fight-scene collage after the closing credits, as if he could not bear to part with the remaining moments of ‘is’ he had shot, and had to immerse them in his film so they would not disintegrate into moments of ‘never was’.

The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi)
Hong Kong / China 2012, 120 min
Director: Wong Kar Wai
Cast: Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen



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