News Column

The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn., John Beifuss column

August 30, 2013


Aug. 30--The late Jim Dickinson, Memphis musician and guru, was a master of the memorable quote. In particular, he is credited with what may be the definitive maxim about the vagaries, futility and irony of the industry in which he earned his living. Said Dickinson: "The best songs don't get recorded, the best recordings don't get released, and the best releases don't get played."

The message behind that observation need not be confined to music. "The Grandmaster," the first feature in close to six years from Hong Kong's master movie artist, Wong Kar-wai, suggests the deepest passion may be the one that is never acted upon or even acknowledged. "The Grandmaster" is a martial arts film, but more impressive than its flurry of fists is its sleight of hand, the misdirection that perhaps conceals for some the truth that this is not primarily a decades-spanning historical drama but a romance of unrequited love, more melancholy at its heart than even Wong's acknowledged masterpiece, "In the Mood for Love" (2000).

Martial arts master Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the woman in the new movie's phantom relationship, eventually turns to opium to soothe her pain. This is appropriate, because Wong's movies have an opiate effect: The imagery is sometimes so lovely, so dreamlike, one feels as if tincture of poppy has been dropped into one's eyes. Time slows to a crawl; patterns on fabric and carved wood become more important than the shapes that support them. "The Grandmaster" contains several impressive kung fu fights, but Wong is as interested in the beads of water spinning off the brim of a brawler's hat in the rain as in the thunderous kicks and the lightning punches that will determine the outcome of the match.

Wong's first film since his English-language misfire with Norah Jones, "My Blueberry Nights," which was partly filmed in Memphis, "The Grandmaster" -- structurally, at least -- is a biographical drama about the legendary Chinese martial artist named Ip Man (played by Wong's male muse, Tony Leung). A master of the type of kung fu known as wing chun, Ip Man -- a transliteration that sounds like a comic-book hero's name to English speakers -- is most famous in the West as the teacher of Bruce Lee, but the movie follows him from the 1930s through the 1950s, a traumatic period that included the horrors of the Japanese invasion. Because of Ip Man's popularity, this is Wong's most commercial film in his native China; in fact, "The Grandmaster" is just one of a recent series of Hong Kong action films inspired by the martial artist.

"The Grandmaster" is episodic, focusing to a large extent on the rivalry between the Northern and Southern schools of kung fu in pre-World War II China. Gong Er is the daughter of a Northern master, and her match against Ip Man, the representative of the South, is as close to a lovemaking sequence as the movie gets, even though a high-class brothel, the Golden Pavilion, is a key location.

As in a genre kung fu film (the type of movie referred to by Variety as "chop-socky"), much of the talk involves the various styles and traditions of the martial arts, with their colorful, symbolic names. (One master's signature move is called "Old Monkey Hangs Up His Badge.") Unlike in an action film, however, the plot doesn't concern a quest for vengeance, and the only real murderers are the Japanese. Connecting this auteurist work to its more box-office-oriented counterparts is the presence of fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, a grandmaster of Asian action cinema whose credits include "Iron Monkey" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

If the fights are fluid, "The Grandmaster" as a whole has a somewhat disjointed, choppy feel that may be due in part to the editing imposed on this American-release version by its distributor, The Weinstein Company. (Monkeying with foreign films also was a tradition at Harvey' Weinstein's previous movie company, Miramax.) "The Grandmaster" that has reached America is about 15 minutes shorter than the international version, and has been somewhat restructured, apparently to make the story more linear; captions and explanatory titles also have been added. Critic David Ehrlich of describes the American cut as "woeful," but Manohla Dargis of The New York Times wrote that even this version is "one of the truly galvanizing cinematic experiences of the year." My response is between those extremes; I will say "The Grandmaster" is likely to be appreciated by those more in the mood for an art film than for a so-called martial arts film.

In Cantonese, Mandarin and some Japanese, with English subtitles, "The Grandmaster" is at the Paradiso and Cordova cinemas.


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