Wong Kar-wai's Motion-Photographs: "The Grandmaster"
“Kung Fu,” Ip Man (Tony Leung) tells us early on in The Grandmaster, amounts to “two words: horizontal and vertical.” If you’re horizontal, you’ve made a mistake.
Blurred lines: searching for clarity in the dense, obfuscated images of Wong Kar-wai's "The Grandmaster"
There’s an ironic knowing obscured by Ip’s aphoristic simplicity of two words with exacting references–vertical and horizontal, the seemingly absolute binary of victory and defeat. But Wong Kar-wai’s film biography of Ip Man, the martial artist from Foshan who lived through war, poverty, and heartbreak before relocating to Hong Kong and became the 20th century’s most renowned kung-fu teacher (Bruce Lee was a student), unspools like the simmering and mysterious filmic embodiment of the stalwart and observant figure played by Leung, reminding us of how powerful a voice–through whatever communicative vehicle–is. The Grandmaster runs over with verbal didacticism, as martial arts masters relay perennial wisdom through speech, but what’s spoken is in preternatural collaboration with Wong’s esoteric visual delivery, a spellbinding and stubbornly independent grammar and style that’s tied to the opening credits montage of ink ephemerally floating through the frame, abstract clouds drifting freely without the commanding precision of a written word. Even if we’re handed life lessons through dialogue, when for example Wong’s most honored film In the Mood for Love (2000) rapturously left the longing between cautious bodies unrequited and unconsummated, The Grandmaster is about how the simplicity of “words,” as with the plain self-evidence of a moment in time, nevertheless masks something elusive and larger than the familiar fields of one’s knowledge. The film is a symphonic whirlwind of visual leitmotifs more than a linear historical narrative, with alternating distinctive frame rates, blinding light glares, obscuring drapes and doorways, windows and mirrors with doubling reflective surfaces, thick explosions of steam, reflections rippled on water, and downpours of rain and snow: the camera, our window to observe action, is struggling to see through the obfuscating morass of time and matter in motion.
One of the great cinema sensualists, Wong’s breathtaking visual approach of hunting through cracks and foggy windows for the secret truth of a moment might be frustrating for some audiences who like their kung-fu a little more cut and dried and out in the open (watching its densely layered images, I remembered studio executives snarking about dailies from a film noir starring Lily Tomlin and Scott Glenn in Robert Altman’s The Player: “I can’t see anything!”). Some of Wong’s motifs, like cutting between very fast and exceedingly slow frame rates, are vulnerable to accusations of gimmickry. But if you surrender to his film, in both its 130-minute Chinese cut (available as an all-regions Blu Ray) or the inferior and more linear (though still entrancing) 108-minute version courtesy of distributor Harvey Weinstein, the repetition is hypnotic and comes to suggest animation, the blurry motion of time as an assemblage of separate photographs moving through the camera obscura–or vivid impressionistic paintings in motion. The collision of forms comes to resemble action combat less than montages of stunning abstraction.
Faraway, so close--vertical and horizontal--intimate and epic: Ip Man (Tony Leung) and Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang)
The form beautifully underscores the story’s sentiments of the unknowability of another person. In combat and in love, Wong’s characters are close but at a yawning distance. Few period epics or action films are so direct with the concentrated use of faces in close-up while being selective of wider shots (Wong’s fellow sensualist Michael Mann and Public Enemies–very frustrating for some viewers–comes to mind). The way Wong orients us through space is a unique sensibility and the viewer must work to adapt to it, our eyes sparring with Wong’s moves through environments as if viewer and film were themselves engaged in a kind of combat which is, as The Grandmaster shows again and again, a beautiful, sometimes erotic, dance (and also why some of those much-discussed explanatory titles in the U.S. cut are distracting–they get in the way of the “surrendering”). Bigger and more reflective world views battle the limits of one’s vision, a theme in the story that expresses Wong’s structural weaving. The aging and undefeated “Grandmaster” of the North, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), counters the expectations of his acolytes by building bridges with the South and looking to pass on a torch. “I’m creating opportunity,” he says. Meanwhile, with a Japanese invasion on the horizon, China–and the world–is also going through revolutions of change. At a crucial point, Ip delivers an insight to the old master, pointing out, “Why limit the world to North and South? It holds you back. Break from what you know and you will know more.”
The Grandmaster opens with a spectacular display of Ip Man’s talent as he proficiently handles over a dozen men in a stormy nocturnal street-fight. Wong makes every set-up and cut delicious, savoring Ip’s mastery of space as figures collide with blunt objects. It’s dirty and chaotic, abrasive yet guided with mastery, the precision of Ip Man parallel to Wong Kar-wai. Through the rain and shadows Wong introduces a sequence of circles, including Ip’s distinctive white hat, wheels from a carriage, and the ripples surrounding figures in puddles. The opening concludes with the final foe being knocked against a barred gate, which collapses. The fight sets the ideas and historical complications in motion, the perfect circles representing any number of things: precision and order, boundaries, movement, and spirals. Wong will display circular imagery throughout the film, as spherical omnipresence and hermetically sealed philosophies and landscapes collide with assaulting straight vectors, be it fists, blades, a funeral procession, or, in the film’s most dazzling set-piece (probably one of the most astounding cinematographic constructions I’ve ever seen), a train. Circles bring curve and nuance to the obtuse definitions of “horizontal” and “vertical,” revolving so as to confuse the directions. There is a need to hold on to ancient traditions, as Gong Yutian and his daughter Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang) possess knowledge of the “64 Hands” martial art. Time moves forward, leaving extinction and regret in its wake, altering horizontal and vertical (the Japanese invasion leads Wong to cut to Ip walking up a staircase, the camera turned 90 degrees so as to make his vertical movement horizontal), while circles denote some kind of totality, a transcendent dream space of whispered longings and forgotten whispers, where lost rituals and knowledge keep burning.
Perfect circles in Gong Er's dreams of the forgotten 64 Hands
Though Gong Yutian tries to peaceably pass on his legacy (“to bring things full circle,” he says), plans are foiled as Gong Er wants to challenge Ip Man and retain her family’s undefeated honor, and the old man’s most accomplished apprentice, the unruly Ma San (Jin Zhang), adapts opportunistically to the times, becoming a Japanese collaborator and murdering his master. “There is no turning back” is something we hear from both inheritors of the Gong tradition, whereas the old man realizes that turning back, whether in martial arts or in deep reflection, is key. “Life’s bigger than winning,” he says. “Take a longer view. Past the mountains, the world opens up.” He links it to appreciating one’s adversaries. “Not to see the good in others, not to admit their talent, is to lack generosity. Our high standards in martial arts apply to character as well.”
But as Wong laps up the phenomena under his lens, The Grandmaster demonstrates how difficult it is to have that stratospheric perspective. People are duplicated through reflections and muddled through drapes. The story could go in a few straight directions: Ip Man and Gong Er silently falling in love during their initial–and bloodless–fight, and so his emotional betrayal of his loyal and loving wife Zhang Yoshen; Gong Er’s quest for revenge on Ma San; or Ip Man’s place as the new Grandmaster, a kung fu master who will face off against some prodigious rival, like Ma San, Gong Er, or the equally lethal Chinese Nationalist agent “The Razor” (Chen Chang).
Instead, what Wong has designed (because this is a Wong Kar-wai movie) is a tapestry or chessboard, which has led some critics to accuse The Grandmaster of having a “jumbled plot.” The line of history interrupts the reliable old kung fu tropes, as old codes of honor wither away and desperation spreads. Spring, so Ip describes his life trajectory, goes unexpectedly to winter. Gong Er commits herself to vengeance and is sealed off from history with her vows. Appropriate for Wong, the death blows of vengeance and honor are less impactful than sentiments eluding expression. Mementos (like a button or the ashes of hair) are given as gifts, the simplicity of the offering opening an exponentially more complex maze of meanings and desires that can never be fully understood. A gesture like a letter or even offering a cigarette has a subtext akin to what’s within the wordless martial arts. We’re meant to ask what’s between the spaces and design of an infinite cinema matrix applied to history projected scrupulously and yet romantically. What’s in a photograph? What does it mean when Ip Man airily writes on his wife’s hand something that he can’t bring himself to say? What’s the difference between a word said vs. a word sung?
Shadows, fog, snow, and martial arts in "The Grandmaster"'s incredible train station confrontation between Gong Er and the traitorous Ma San
Every image and gesture, glistening with Wong’s perfection, makes the film somewhat difficult to wrap one’s head around. Concentrated though it is, The Grandmaster moves swiftly, and more rusty intelligences (such as mine) risk falling behind, which may explain an emotional disconnect several viewers have had in watching it. It’s a formidable picture begging for successive viewings, and having seen it three times (the American version once, the Chinese version twice), I think I’m finally touching its sublime fringe layers. The Grandmaster immerses us in its epic story obliquely, much like it orients to characters through space. We’re to fall between the ruffles of its delicate textures.
This ties to a complaint I have with the U.S. version, which pauses in its dance to mute the ineffable aura, as Harvey Weinstein’s cut (though approved and reportedly supervised by Wong) takes us away from temples, where the ancient Buddhas move as shadows chasing the fading light, and instead resolves itself in Ip Man’s Hong Kong schools of kung fu, where Bruce Lee–a special title informs us (not in the China cut)–was trained. This version concludes in the more profane dome of popular entertainment and a great teacher’s biographical legacy, steering away from the reverent long-view of the gods. The split between the two versions is evoked in a line Gong Er has in the Chinese version, as she looks up at the new kung fu training academies in the Hong Kong night: “The Martial World is a street of schools.”
The U.S. cut still marvels with its performances and show-stopping aesthetic, but the retreat at the conclusion–including a mid-end-credits razzle-dazzle wink that audiences in love with Marvel movies would dig–trivializes the original version’s chessboard of romance, art, and religion. Like Gong Er or the villainous Ma San, the U.S. version forcibly limits its vision, adjusting to the times. An attempt to clear up a film whose radical approach is there in the photography becomes something of a hindrance, muzzling the crushing emotional chords in the mandala’s center.
The disparity in richness between the two versions is most blatantly exemplified in Wong’s characterization of the enigmatic “Razor,” the Nationalist befriended (silently) by Gong Er on a train during a Japanese inspection, who is (as I recall) omitted from the American cut. The omission makes sense on a practical level. The Razor has no bridge to Gong Er or Ip Man (some viewers have mistaken him for Gong’s fiance). He’s a kind of texture, a component to the story against whom we compare the principal characters. While the fights featuring Ip Man, Ma San, and Gong Er are notably bloodless (even the chief Gong defender, an executioner of the old Republic accompanied memorably by a monkey, slices away at enemies and only sheds white fabric from their coats), the Razor reminds us of the corporeal reality of combat. His first appearance gives us a close-up of blood on his hands, and when he fights his former Nationalist allies, whom he is leaving, the sequence is meant to juxtapose against Ip Man’s opening battle, the camera now focusing on the deep red dripping in the rain. As we’ll see after Gong Er’s monumental train station confrontation with Ma San, there are consequences to blows landing on flesh and bone. The Razor’s enigmatic presence enriches the film, and points to the story’s inscrutability and sensual mysteries.
Character as texture: the enigmatic "Razor" (Chen Chang)
In an invaluable piece about Wong and the other great film sensualists of the ’00 decade (Mann, Malick, Lynch, Hou), Matt Zoller Seitz addressed such unique approaches to character and plot. “The point is to inspire associations, realizations, epiphanies–not in the character…but in the moviegoer.” He adds that “we experience life not as dramatic arcs or plot points or in-the-moment revelations, but as moments that cohere and define themselves in hindsight — as markers that don’t seem like markers when they happen.” The story is not a straight line, but more like a tapestry in which we lose ourselves, a chessboard of 64-squares (like the 64 Hands) in which we interact and play within the film’s maze, making our moves with each viewing (or post-viewing contemplation).
The Grandmaster exemplifies Wong’s fascination and longing for the eternal, to cross boundaries and be conjoined to another whom we’ve known for years and yet are strangers upon encounter. In a world that loves to preach No Worries and Carpe Diem, Wong Kar-wai is one of our chief saints of Regret, heralding and adorning it. The incredible train station fight, which feels like kung fu spectacle has been wedded to Tolstoy, is arranged with shadows and reflections in strobing light and snow as a vector of sharp accelerating metal crashes through a collision point, steam breathing through alternating figures and lights like vaporous ghosts. The cinematic execution is absolutely startling in its perfection, but what it captures is the sense that time and phenomena in space can’t be captured or controlled. The Grandmaster has these chapter-book moments centered around photographs being taken, the live action cinematography of posing characters fading to a framed black and white picture frame. One particularly eye-catching photograph occurs after Ip’s emotional betrayal to his wife. The parents pose with two children, an empty chair in the middle of the frame. The image cuts to the final framed picture–and there is no empty chair. It’s a different image. Then it cracks to pieces under the explosive assault of the Japanese invasion.
The final photograph: Ip Man with his students
IMDB lists this discrepancy as a goof. But excuse me as I lay my balls out and say, “Nah, it’s not.” As with the allegedDark Knight Rises flubs of Christopher Nolan (whom Wong greatly admires), there’s a method to the continuity gaps, linked to the elusive hidden meanings within images and art, from photographs to propaganda films to cordial letters to martial arts. What’s the meaning of that empty chair? Does it have something to do with Ip Man’s feelings for Gong Er, as he here plays the role of good family man and honorable warrior, his nuclear household now invaded by a haunting specter? The obliterated family photograph is representative of what’s in every set-up of The Grandmaster, a secret and an unread wish or prayer that wants to be deciphered but can’t be rendered as language. “Father, can you read what’s in my heart?” Gong Er prays to the departed in a temple as she mulls over revenge, eventually losing herself in a role like an opera character that Ip Man is watching as an applauding spectator. She chooses to remain in her era, “the times when I was happiest,” the 64 Hands now a snow-dust memory. Her tragedy is aesthetically perfect, a downfall played as a beautiful ballet incensed with opium smoke. The Grandmaster is a rapturous descent into the mystery of mementos and movement with a deep sadness in its appreciation of an iconic figure, whose teachers and lovers pass away too soon with only the closure of futile though sincere rituals, like photographic technology vainly trying to establish permanence. In heavenward victory there is moribund regret, the vertical and horizontal intersecting within the wheel of time that unspools through a cinema temple’s ever-burning bulbs.