THE GRANDMASTER (2013, Wong Kar-wai)
Wong’s other martial arts film is called ASHES OF TIME, and that title would have been fitting for this entry as well — a meditation on what in life lasts and what doesn’t; how history is written in action, and while regimes change and humans die and lands are restructured, devotion to honor, morality, love, and principal somehow puts an everlasting stamp of permanence on something that should only be ephemeral.
There’s a lot to chew on in this bold historical epic, and I’d love to see the original Chinese cut (20 minutes longer than this American version), which is why I snap-ordered the Blu-ray as soon as I got home. I have a feeling I’ll love this thing even more when that present comes in the mail. But there’s a lot to be said for initial pleasures, and THE GRANDMASTER is an overwhelming experience — [insert non-cliched version of the phrase “feast for the senses” here] what a gorgeous, luscious blend of sound and imagery: the audio track sings with the noises of water splashing, bones crunching, metal scraping, and cloth whipping. Every composition is more beautiful than the last — it appears Wong’s DP came equipped with a 10-foot-tall tripod and nothing more, for he frames dialogue scenes at a ludicrously high angle, placing his characters like chess pieces observed from above, slightly off center and in narrow depth of field. There isn’t a single frame of this picture that couldn’t be a work of art hanging in a gallery.
But none of that beauty would elevate the film to anything beyond a formal exercise in cinematic bravado if it weren’t for the emotional gut-punch it packs. The weight of its impact builds very slowly — the first third is a dry history lesson, then it becomes a streamlined narrative, and finally it explodes into tear-jerking melodrama, but every step of it is earned and I was a sucker for it. Leung is as cool as ever, looking barely a week older than he did 13 years ago in Wong’s best film, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. Zhang Ziyi has aged into a tremendous actress, replacing the teenage instability and physical showmanship that carried her through THE ROAD HOME and CROUCHING TIGER with a restrained wisdom, quiet power, and of course a retained ability to kick some ass. There have been dozens of Ip Man biopics and every prestige Chinese director has done period wuxia films with the country’s biggest stars, but Wong Kar-wai is too good a filmmaker to lose his personal stamp to a genre. This is every bit as dinstinctive and intensely earnest a picture as anything he’s done, and holy shit does it look great.