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" Corpsicle "
— Kathleen Quinlan, Event Horizon

MRQE Top Critic

The East

The East emerges as an exciting piece of filmmaking from the independent scene’s hott —Matt Anderson (review...)

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Ip Man — Bruce Lee’s martial arts teacher — appeared in a pair of action biopics not long ago. You almost have to wonder what Wong Kar-wai, known more for his romantic and lush period pieces, was thinking when he took on such a story so soon after it had been done. But halfway through The Grandmaster, you’ll realize that Wong has found a way to make the life of this martial arts master into a lush, period romance.

Wong turns martial arts into a lush romance
Wong turns martial arts into a lush romance

Before the War...

The film, like its characters, is split in half by World War II. Before the war, Wong’s China is still very traditional, closer to the 19th century than the 21st, more inward looking than outward. It’s a class-based society with the well-to-do playing a game of thrones, as they have for generations. After the war, many of those traditions are broken, and for some people it’s hard know what to preserve of the old and what to embrace of the new.

In this China Wong focuses on a man and a woman, Ip Man (Tony Leung) and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi). She is the daughter of the grandmaster in northern China, Gong Yutian (Qingxiang Wang) who is getting ready to retire. Being a woman, Gong Er can’t ascend to her father’s position, even though she’s mastered the “64 hands.” Unfortunately, his best pupil and heir apparent, Ma San (Jin Zhang), is a violent thug — good at the fighting component of martial arts but lacking in character and grace.

The idea of graceful retirement is one of the film’s more interesting themes. Gong Yutian doesn’t seem to want to retire, yet he understands that sending the ladder back down is a matter of morality and grace. He calls this last martial arts move, “old monkey hangs up his badge.”

Gong Yutian sees change coming and hopes to unite the north and the south against their common enemies. There isn’t a single grandmaster in the south, but Ip Man has a strong claim to be its representative. He’s an exceptional martial artist in a style with only 3 moves, and also a player in society at large. He is married, which for Wong Kar-wai doesn’t preclude a romance.

Postwar

The war with Japan (World War II) practically destroys life as our characters know it. War inspires opportunism and desperation, lasting nearly a decade and destroying the old social and cultural boundaries in the process. Ip Man goes to Hong Kong to earn money to send back home. But after the war, Hong Kong gets sealed off from the rest of China and he is displaced, a stranger in a strange land who has to get by teaching martial arts to a new crop of kids who have no sense of the traditions of martial arts.

The film’s last act really belongs to Gong Er, who had been living in Hong Kong when the war ended. Ip Man finds her and she is interested in rekindling their friendship, but family duties take priority. Zhang Ziyi has a flaw in her right eye that makes her absolutely magnetic when she’s shown in closeup. Between her performance and Wong’s camera, she conveys a hell of a lot with just a little. She steals the show — actually, she is handed the show — at the end, including an impressive fight scene on a train platform followed by a grief-stricken convalescence.

There are probably more people who buy a ticket to The Grandmaster because it’s a martial arts film than because it’s a Wong Kar-wai film. Hopefully they’ll realize they got more than their money’s worth. Wong fills the screen with lush and elaborate costumes and sets, captured by Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd. It’s not just the choreographed fight scenes, but also rain-soaked courtyards, a brothel that acts as a community gathering place, and people’s homes too. Maybe they look so good because they are contrasted with the post-war part of the film, which seems modern, concrete, and clinical in comparison.

I’ve seen many of Wong Kar-wai’s films and probably liked them all. However, I’ve read other critics who are positively ecstatic about them, including The Grandmaster. I don’t think The Grandmaster can live up to the expectations some critics are setting, which I mention only because I’m usually disappointed when a film gets so much hyperbole.

That said, The Grandmaster is a very good movie, blending the excitement of martial arts with the thematic depth of an art film and the visual richness of a lush romance.