The Grandmaster Screen 31 articles

The Grandmaster


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  • There are shots in The Grandmaster of undeniable beauty; cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd has pulled back the saturation dial from eleven, where Christopher Doyle’d left it. But there are few sequences that actually cohere. Yuen Woo-ping’s choreography is probably damn impressive, but Wong’s action sequences suffer from the same sloppiness of construction that Jim Emerson has analyzed in the films of Christopher Nolan.

  • ...Its visual design is (surprise, surprise) magnificently original, but it lacks Wong's characteristic elliptical approach to storytelling that has won him so many admirers. Pierre Rissient allegedly dissed it as "postcard cinema"—and it hurts to say it, but The Grandmaster might be more impactful as a series of stills than a motion picture.

  • Not exactly impersonal, but Wong can't quite work out how to make the movie he's interested in from the raw materials of these people's lives. You can see it alllllllllmost turn into a proper Wong film about 45 minutes in, when Ip Man and Gong Er start corresponding in the aftermath of their (glorious) battle...but circumstances (read: history) forestall that potential excitement more or less indefinitely...

  • The entire film is composed of similarly odd emphases, which add up to a story so episodic it appears to be starting all over again every 10 minutes or so. Theoretically important characters, such as a number of rival Foshan masters, are abandoned for long stretches only to startlingly reappear for a random update. There are long pageantry sequences—of people walking in the rain, of a woman hunting her father's killer—that are staged with little sense of dramatic context or rhythm.

  • The Grandmaster, five years in the making, feels like a waste of Wong’s talents. Sure, it’s loaded with foot-to-face combat, gorgeously photographed and edited, as the plot leisurely unpacks the true-life tale of Ip Man (Tony Leung), the ’30s-era kung fu master whose style would affect a generation of fighters to come. But there’s only one emotional tone to these impeccably crafted sequences: bone-dry solemnity. Wong’s fans will miss his sophisticated humor, his metaphysical reach.

  • Where Wong's earlier films create a beautiful tension between their characters' outward reservations and internal passions, the visual beauty of The Grandmaster feels disconnected from its characters' emotional inertia. For the first time in his career, Wong's most striking qualities as a filmmaker—his elliptical storytelling, his knack for imbuing tiny moments with great significance—register as a smoke screen for having little to say.

  • The Grandmaster has its partisans. Some of them are Wong loyalists. But he fills me with ambivalence. His lugubriousness can be enervating, and his interest in things left unsaid and untouched is the sexual equivalent of being stuck in traffic: You can see your exit, you just can't get off. His intensely rapturous imagery doesn't come all the way through here and neither do most of the supporting characters.

  • WKW comes off cool and technical but is secretly trying to be emotional - and you know the film's a failure because when it tries for mythic sweep at the end (with echoes of Once Upon a Time in America) it doesn't work at all, yet there's something to be said for his attempt to match the physical intimacy of kung fu to the claustrophobic intimacy of a chamber drama...

  • Though a considerable departure from the director’s characteristically elliptical style, the narrative is the film’s biggest weakness... In aesthetic terms, however, Wong does not disappoint.... The climactic showdown between the Gong Er and Ma San, which takes place on a train platform during a snowy New Year’s Eve, is such a fine piece of cinema that it's worth the price of admission alone. Luckily, it’s in very good company.

  • In his bid for redemption for the nearly unanimously maligned My Blueberry Nights, Wong Kar-wai has crafted a sort of epic that sort of works. Beginning awkwardly with an alternately beautiful and illegible action set-piece, The Grandmaster finds its footing when it retreats to the territory of Wong's wheelhouse: unrequited love, careful, minute gestures, montage flourishes that compress time but expand emotions.

  • It’s a story that has been told several times on screen, but Mr. Wong, an incorrigible romantic stylist, tells it his own way, alternating between languid reverie and flurries of action, lingering on moments out of time, isolating tableaus of piercing beauty in a somewhat scattershot narrative.

  • This isn't the most gracefully shaped of his films, more an off-balance gourd than a symmetrical vase. But an imperfect Wong Kar-wai movie is still a Wong Kar-wai movie. His obsessiveness about romantic details, his devotion to the pursuit of beauty (both the gilt and the unvarnished kind), his sensitivity in depicting close-to-the-vest suffering: All of those are present in this Grandmaster.

  • I haven't seen the 130-minute Hong Kong cut of "The Grandmaster" or the fabled four-hour rough cut but I do sense that the 108 minute version entering American theaters is a mere trailer for something grander and deeper. The film I saw moves, but often as if prodded along, reality television/cop-show style. This artificial propulsion hits several speed bumps of explanatory inter-titles that I suspect were inserted just to avoid including corresponding scenes that ate up running time.

  • [In watching the the Chinese cut,] I now appreciate the brilliance of Wong placing this climactic fight long before the film ends; in a conventional action film, this would seem like poor placement, but here it’s intended as a fatal moment of destiny whose consequences ripple through the rest of the film, and pours out into a larger awareness of all the knowledge and art that’s been lost to history.

  • It’s not surprising that Wong would turn towards the language of martial arts to find a new perspective for his recurring obsessions. Jia Zhangke relied on wuxia tropes and set-ups for A Touch of Sin (2013), and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s next film will be a period martial-arts work; like them, Wong takes martial arts as an agent of cultural memory very seriously.

  • What Wong shows us in these fragments is not just the hit but the movement of air, the fact that a punch that doesn't connect is still a rearrangement of elements, a force. We see water beads, dust particles, even shafts of light take on jagged, differential jabs and parries throughout The Grandmaster, to an extent that actual body contact is almost superfluous. For Wong, as for Ip Man, these anti-matter "impacts" reflect the forces of history we can never see.

  • [The film] gives us compositions filled with slowly, sensually unraveling smoke; fight sequences that are breathtaking in the rhythmic precision of their shot construction and sound design; many shots of feet (because, as Ip Man explains, it's important to remain standing in martial arts, whether you're vertical or horizontal); tableaux so carefully textured and colored that the eyes go mad trying to register it all; and, of course, much slow motion.

  • ...What follows is one of the most sublime sequences that Wong has ever shot, perhaps one of the most sublime that has ever appeared in a kung fu film... Maybe it’s the train, which might very well be the Shanghai Express; maybe it’s Gong Er’s overcoat, with the heavy cuffs and collar of the 1930s; maybe it’s the different planes of steam, snow, and shadow that give the image such depth and dynamism; but here it’s suddenly abundantly clear how much Wong owes to von Sternberg.

  • While contemporary martial-arts pictures tend toward the clearly delineated visual space of long shots and long takes... Wong favors isolating close-ups and a rapid, rhythmic montage style, shifting the focus from physical skill to the splendor of the image. The result is a martial-arts film whose fights, though exhilarating, feel less invested in bare technical proficiency than in the sophistication and sumptuousness of its depiction.

  • [The film] sounds in abstract like a shift of direction for the director in tackling a biopic that’s also a martial-arts action drama. But, as the melancholic warriors of Ashes of Time and the oddball spin on the loner-assassin motif in Fallen Angels portended,The Grandmaster proves rather a dizzying sprawl of images and almost associative storytelling methods that revise how this, or indeed any, kind of filmmaking can deliver. It may be Wong’s most stylistically and thematically ambitious work.

  • For Wong, the film’s action sequences really aren’t the point, or not in the same way as in ordinary martial-arts movies. They’re plot devices or punctuation marks, or tools for extending the essentially poetic and aesthetic manner of “The Grandmaster” into physical space. Martial-arts cinema has always had a lot in common with ballet, and this film almost erases the distinction by deliberately smashing the genre’s veneer of masculinity.

  • Forget the Weinstein cut and opt for the full version available on region-free imports, a cut that makes clear how, for the numerous and jaw-dropping fight sequences, “The Grandmaster” has nothing to do with violence. Well, that’s not true: as in “Ashes of Time,” “The Grandmaster” uses violence as the ultimate separation even as it finds the possibility of unity in kung fu, an unlikely reconciliation evidenced by its own semiotic makeup of “one horizontal, one vertical” character.

  • ...In the U.S. version, the train scene is gone, as is the school scene, but there IS a terrific fighting match between The Razor and Ip Man. To see a version of this movie in which all those scenes fit, that would be something. In the meantime, though, the version of the movie opening this week is exquisitely beautiful and supernaturally exciting, a ravishing movie experience.

  • However much history informs this movie, “The Grandmaster” is, at its most persuasive, about the triumph of style. When Ip Man slyly asks “What’s your style?” it’s clear that Mr. Wong is asking the same question because here, as in his other films, style isn’t reducible to ravishing surfaces; it’s an expression of meaning.

  • “Grandmaster” 3.0 flows beautifully out of Wong’s prior musings on doomed love without sacrificing his old fascination for elliptical storytelling and his new interest in turning the “chop socky” school into a luscious dance for the eyes and ears.

  • Wong Kar-wai isn't known for making martial arts movies; his one contribution to the related wuxia genre, Ashes of Time, is the most experimental thing he's ever done. But he is a master of the physical — of texture and movement. AndThe Grandmaster is rooted in this very physical world.

  • “The Grandmaster”... strikes me as Wong’s strongest film since “In the Mood for Love” and surprisingly credible as an exercise in kung fu stylistics as well as temps perdu. Less narrative than a somewhat elliptical series of situations, “The Grandmaster” is commercial without seeming slick, grave but not fetishistic in its representation of martial arts master Ip Man(Tony Leung), whose students included Bruce Lee.

  • The movie is shot through with scraps of memory: near misses and lost loves, blows and triumphs, all slowed down, extended and nursed in retrospect, the way you can't help tonguing a toothache. To paraphrase critic Peter Brunette, Wong's style, rich as it is, doesn't obscure meaning in his movies — it is the meaning.

  • This utterly sensorial kaleidoscope, this irregular and oneiric fable, savagely jumps in many directions and follows many different devices. The storytelling is layered, blending – as usual in the work of this poet-director – small islands of marvelously spectacular entities with some (epic) historical events, and speeding up to the vertiginous from dreamy slowness.

  • Wong is the modern auteurist’s dreamtime superhero, and what he’s done here... is convert the martial arts saga, with its strange hierarchal struggles and ideas of honor and repetitious matches, into an imagistic opera, a roaring aria of Wongian rue and mourning. None of the epic and wickedly shot-and-cut battle scenes matter in the story so much as a single coat button, representing, as so many innocent but totemic objects do in Wong, a heartbreaking as gorgeous as falling snow.

  • The Grandmaster perhaps earns the dubious honour of being the first martial arts movie that comes across as completely non-violent, like Wong didn't view the cause or effect of the various altercations as demonstrations of power and dominance. It's as if the various styles are modes of articulation and this is a movie about discourse of a more primal variety. It's not a kick-ass action movie, but it's still very strange and beautiful in its own idiosyncratic way.

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