Last night I dragged my 15-year-old son and a friend of his to see Wong Kar-wai’s latest film, The Grandmaster. I’m not super into the somewhat-recent kung fu flicks, although I loved Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But to me, anything by Wong Kar-wai deserves a cinema screening.
I do enjoy Bruce Lee movies and was curious to know more about his shifu, Yip Man, the main character in The Grandmaster. Yip Man was born in the late 1800s and died in 1972, but the movie centered on the mid-1930s and early 1950s.
The first part takes place in Foshan, a city in southern China where Yip (played by Tony Leung) lives with his wife and children. As Yip becomes the kung fu grandmaster, he meets and battles with Gong Er, the daughter of the former grandmaster from up north. Yip loses to Gong Er (played by the elegant Zhang Ziyi) on a technicality, and hopes for a re-match (mainly to see her again) in her northern China hometown.
Before that can happen, war breaks out with the Japanese and Yip’s two daughters die of starvation. The years after WWII are difficult what with the Chinese civil war, and in 1950 Yip leaves for Hong Kong to better provide for his wife and remaining children.
That’s where he runs into Gong Er again. The Hong Kong-China border closes and Yip cannot return to his family. And due to circumstances surrounding her father’s brutal death, Gong Er takes her vows in a Buddhist nunnery and cannot marry or have children.
The Grandmaster is classic Wong Kar-wai in several ways like slow motion camerawork, unrequited love, melancholic cello music and old Mandarin songs. But what this movie reminds me of more than anything are early-1990s Hong Kong and Taiwan movies set during WWII, minus the melodramatic synthesizer soundtracks.
This movie has been hugely popular in mainland China, and runs about 15 minutes longer than the US version. I did think that it ended a bit abruptly. Also, I’d read that the movie was in English, so I was worried about dubbing. Thankfully that wasn’t the case; some actors spoke Cantonese, some Mandarin. (It was two hours of heaven!)
Although the theater was quite empty, the audience was diverse: from teenagers to older folks, Asian and non-Asian alike, families and couples on dates.
I was excited to see the 1950s Hong Kong scenes, but what really stuck with me were the wintry northern Chinese parts. Zhang Ziyi was amazing in her role as a Manchurian aristocrat. Tony Leung was his usual strong and silent type, and convincing as a kung fu grandmaster.
The Grandmaster isn’t my favorite Wong Kar-wai movie, but I’m glad I saw it on the big screen. If you’re at all interested in seeing it, I would definitely recommend doing so in the theater. I’m curious to know what others think about this movie.