Set in the early 1930s, Wong Kar Wai’s new film, The Grandmaster depicts the collapse of the Kung Fu community during the second Sino-Japanese war. This decline is witnessed from the perspective of Yip Man, a renowned martial arts master whose fate is ultimately intertwined with the fate of that same community.
Though The Grandmaster may be Wong’s most commercially successful movie, it lacks the distinctive, masterful use of form that has helped make his past works so poignant and moving. In past works, Wong has mined his medium for techniques to better help his audiences understand his characters. In Happy Together, Wong pivots between color and black-and-white. This change reflects the mood of his protagonist, Lai Yiu-fai, and serves as a visual representation of Lai Yiu-fai’s mood and outlook. The result is a more intimate look inside Lai Yiu-fai’s perspective. This makes us, as an audience, care more about him.
In In the Mood For Love, Wong rarely lets the audience see any characters besides Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan. We care about Chow and Chan partly because Wong keeps their respective spouses hidden from view. The focus on Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan helps convey their isolation. Even though they are constantly surrounded by other people, these people are mostly faceless and nameless.
While The Grandmaster is a nonlinear narrative, Wong doesn’t play with form like he does in these other films. The result is is less emotionally powerful film that lacks the subconscious cues of Wong’s earlier films.
Grandmaster marks a divergence of theme, as well. Chunking Express, one of Wong’s earliest films, film depicts the lives of residents living in Hong Kong’s Chunking Mansions, a crowded urban project. Despite living in such a high-density housing development, the principal characters of Chunking Express are constantly searching for and failing to find companionship.
This paradox of lonely people constantly surrounded by others is a major theme in many of Wong’s work, including Fallen Angels, Happy Together, In the Mood For Love and 2046.
This subject of loneliness is absent in The Grandmaster. Though Gong Yutian’s daughter, Gong Er forsakes her chance at having a family or getting married, her loneliness isn’t the subject of the film.
Ultimately, the problem with the The Grandmaster lies not so much in how it abandons the traditional themes of the filmmaker, but rather in the length of time it spans. With so much calendar to cover, there’s little time to focus on story. Instead of being shown who Yip Man or Gong Er were as people, the audience gets a rushed succession of plot points.
Wong’s other films are incredibly intimate, and that intimacy gives his movies emotional resonance. In Chungking Express, Faye breaks in to Cop 663’s apartment to redecorate. She wants to cheer him up after a bad break up. The fact that Faye would break into a friend’s apartment in order to make someone feel better tells us, the audience, she’s quirky and weird and sweet. It also makes us care about her. The things Faye finds in the Cop’s apartment-a bunch of large stuffed animals, dirty cups, lots of fish-tell us something about the cop, which in turn makes us care about him.
The Grandmaster has so much plot, it’s hard to be emotionally invested in any of the characters. We’re told that Yip Man’s daughters die in the great famine following the Japanese invasion. However, since they were only shown to the audience in quick flashes, their deaths don’t elicit much, if any, emotional response from the viewer. Similarly, the side characters are so numerous and one dimensional, it’s easy to forget who they are.
Despite its problems, The Grandmaster is more poetic than other recent Kung Fu movies. When Yip Man declares his intention to succeed Gong Yutian in the South, he is put through a series of tests before he battles Yutian. Instead of the same hashed out Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon style of fighting that has plagued other films (RZA’s The Man With the Iron Fists, for example), Yip Man’s fights are quiet and meditative. When Yip Man finally faces Yuitan, the two engage in a philosophical battle instead of a physical one.
The Grandmaster has garnered a lot of attention and grossed a great deal of money, but, though beautiful, it seems out of place in Wong’s body of work. The distinction is not necessarily a positive one. Let’s hope the commercial success of Wong’s latest does not indicate a permanent departure from his exploration of the themes that have, up until now, defined his past.
Director: Wong Kar Wai
Writer: Kar Wai Wong (story); Kar Wai Wong, Jingzhi Zou, Haofeng Xu (screenplay)
Starring: Tony Leung, Ziyi Zhang, Chen Chang, Cung Le, Hye-Kyo Song
Release Date: Aug. 23, 2013