Friday, August 30, 2013
The Grandmaster (一代宗師)
The four major Chinese martial arts styles portrayed in the film are Wing Chun (詠春拳), Bagua (八卦掌), Baji (八極拳), and Xingyi (形意拳). Each style is taught and practiced in certain geographic regions in China. While Wing Chun style is practiced in Southern China and Ip Man is known for being its 4th generation master, the other three styles are mainly practiced in Northern China. The film elegantly illustrates each style through fights and matches among its characters.
The film begins in 1936, right before the Japanese's invasion of China. Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang 王慶祥), a grandmaster of Bagua style in Northeastern China, plans to retire from his chairman post of the martial arts association. In order to select the best as his successor through a few matches, he comes to Foshan (佛山) in southern China, where wealthy Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu Wai 梁朝偉) happily lives with his reticent wife Zhang Yongcheng (Song Hye Kyo 송혜교) and their children.
The fantastic opening match in a pouring night rain shows Ip Man's exceptional skill. At a brothel where martial arts masters frequently gather, Ip Man exchanges a few more matches with other masters, including Gong Baosen's daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi 章子怡). These exchanges demonstrate Ip Man's solid character and admirable integrity, and reflect his straightforward philosophy in practicing martial art: "Kung fu: two words. One horizontal, one vertical. If you're right, you'll be standing. If you're wrong, you'll be lying down. Only the ones who stand have the right to talk."
After the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, Gong Baosen's student Ma San (Zhang Jin 張晉), a master of Xingyi, becomes a traitor and is disowned by Gong. Gong Er is determined to revenge on Ma San's misdeed, and finally she challenges him in a thrilling fight at a snowy train station in Northern China.
The war tears China apart, disrupts Ip Man's passion for martial arts, and destroys his family. Eventually Ip Man escapes to Hong Kong, where he has a chance to have a match with Razor (Chang Chen 張震), a master of Baji. Despites thousands of miles apart from Gong Er, he still longs to meet Gong Er again and keeps occasional contact with Gong Er by writing letters. However, Gong Er dedicates herself to her father's martial art teaching and to defending her family's honor.
Director Wong Kar-wai superbly balances the stillness and motion during every fight in the film. He allows us to see what exactly is happening with each stroke and each kick. The slow motion technique frequently used in the film never seems pretentious, only creates breathtakingly beauty, especially when he combines rain or snow in making his imagery. These are no high wire or jumping on tree tops in this film, and everybody is grounded and fights with solid kung fu skill.
Although this is primarily a martial art movie, Wong Kar-wai seamlessly blends in a story about longing and desire between Gong Er and Ip Man, which echoes his previous works such as "2046" (2000) or "In the Mood for Love" (花樣年華 2004). Even the music indicates his trademarks. It's a pure joy to experience some small touches that are attached to the name Wong Kar-wai.
After the film was released in China in January 2013 and opened the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival, this US release cuts its running time short by 22 minutes. That probably explains why the most famous comedian (Zhao Benshan 趙本山) and his student (Xiao Shen-Yang 小瀋陽) have minimum screen time in this US release. Yet, both are still credited as main cast, while you can hardly notice a credit for Zhou Xiaofei (周小飛) who plays a bound feet opera singer and puts up an enchanting fight with Ip Man.
A big problem with this US release is that its characters talk in both Mandarin and Cantonese, while the release in China is dubbed to either Mandarin or Cantonese. Despite the fact that Cantonese is just a regional dialect in Chinese language, when Tony Leung Chiu Wai talks in Cantonese back to Mandarin speaking Zhang Ziyi, it sounds worse than one person speaks in English and the other replies back in Russian. That's just plain weird.
The film has plenty poetic and philosophical one-liners that are short enough within the limit of a tweeter post. Unfortunately, some get lost in translation. For example, in one scene, Gong Er tells Ip Man that a kung fu master must go through three stages: "See yourself; See the world; See life." ("見自己, 見天地, 見眾生.") But the subtitle takes a leap to show these three stages as "being, knowing, doing." Although that might be stretchy, the next example is inexcusable. In another scene, when Gong Er actually says she "liked" ("喜歡") Ip Man after she first met him, the subtitle displays what she is saying is she "loved" him. It would be completely out of Gong Er's character if she indeed said she loved Ip Man.
Understandably, even I thoroughly enjoy this splendid film in its US release version, I am eager to see the full length dubbed version in which either Tony Leung Chiu Wai speaks Mandarin or Zhang Ziyi speaks Cantonese.