Few directors have a catalogue that rivals Wong Kar-Wai’s – it’s a two decade string of masterpiece after masterpiece, with traditional Wuxia films, dissections of love that lean into the realm of science fiction, and a flamboyant celebration of cinema for every slow-burning, subtle mediation on the minute yet complex. It’s rare to have someone ask for a film recommendation from me without my response including up to four – sometimes five or six, if the mood is right – Wong Kar-Wai films. In short, while the notion of a “favourite director” is a bit too narrow, Kar-Wai definitely sits comfortably among the few who inhabit the category in my mind. My Blueberry Nights – Kar-wai’s 2007 effort -, however, marked a significant change in his approach to cinema. It felt clumsier, cliche, and lacked a sense of the poetic framing that defined his previous films. At the time of its release, the more alarmist Kar-wai fans declared that his “streak” was over (some had even made the same declaration after 2046, however, that film is a debate in its own), that perhaps the filmmaker had run out of steam and was in the process of ushering a new era of tired, derivative and aggressively boring cinema. With The Grandmaster, Kar-wai has asserted that he has no intentions of entering cinematic senility, whilst simultaneously refusing to continue doing the path of a style that defined his output for over a decade.
The plot of The Grandmaster isn’t particularly complex or riveting – but in fairness, plot has never been Kar-wai’s main game. The story of Ip Man is well known in China (and among fans of Chinese cinema), and the Wuxia film isn’t particularly underdone in Chinese cinema. That said, the directors approach to both the story and the genre is fairly refreshing. Time isn’t wasted. The dialogue is concise and constantly driving the plot somewhere, the action scenes of the film – perhaps the central feature of the movie – are always masterfully pieced together and visually astounding, and the acting is no different. The all-star roll call isn’t far from the heart of the film with Kar-wai favourites Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi sitting comfortably at its core. Surprising no one, Leung is cast as Ip Man, continuing Kar-wai’s penchant for recycling actors that would make Wes Anderson cringe, and seeing Leung on centre stage once more. On another level of eerie re-contextualisation, Ziyi is Gong Er – Ip Man’s love interest of the film. The choice of the two actors, however, doesn’t remain cliche throughout the film as their strengths quickly lead the viewer to forget that they were at the romantic centre of a film less than 10 years earlier.
It’s fascinating seeing Kar-Wai re-contextualise his approach to cinema away from the drama films he’s made for the last decade, back into the style he began with. Like Ashes of Time, The Grandmaster is deeply faithful to its genre, but at the same time, the film is no longer a director at the start of his career, but happily positioned as one of modern cinemas most lauded filmmakers. This isn’t a maudlin film, nor is it explicitly something remotely meditative. In many ways, it simply feels like a director – and his favourite actors – having a lot of fun. It’s not trying to be a magnum opus, but it does the dance of a brilliant film; just with a markedly different pace to the directors previous works.
The Grandmaster is a beautifully shot film – the cinematography is flamboyant, bursting with colour and framed by an incredibly vivid spectrum throughout. It looks fantastic, but different. The absence of Christopher Doyle – Kar-wai’s greatest collaborator and former cinematographer – is felt. The subtlety and casual uniqueness of Doyle’s work often felt like it contributed as much to Kar-wai’s early films as Kar-wai himself. That said, in Phillippe Le Sourd the director has found a cleaner image and style without completely sacrificing the complementary beauty of his former colleague. The Grandmaster is punctuated by typical Wuxia film scenes, shot masterfully, without ever betraying the popular elements of the genre by trying to appeal exclusively to an art house audience – in many ways, the film is a move away from that audience. In The Grandmaster, the director seems more aware of his universal appeal
The Kar-wai of Days of Being Wild, Happy Together, and Chungking Express wasn’t the same Kar-wai that made In the Mood for Love and 2046, and it’s no surprise that The Grandmaster unveils another level of Kar-wai that ventures even further from the director that release the former films. That said, The Grandmaster doesn’t fall short on expectations as a film – in many cases, it exceeds them. After My Blueberry Nights, it was difficult to feel any sense of excitement for future films from one of cinema’s most impressive directors. The Grandmaster is a return to form, albeit one that doesn’t reach the heights of Wong Kar-wai’s best works, but a highly enjoyable and remarkably well-rounded film nonetheless. In other words, while it doesn’t measure up to Kar-wai’s best films, it’s definitely an indicator that there are very likely a few in the works that could.
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