Amidst the vast majority of movies that are forgotten after five minutes, every once in a while there is a movie that changes you, one way or another, at least temporarily. Sometimes, even days after you leave the movie theatre a feeling lingers, a feeling that what that movie has conveyed is still inside you. It may be the story, the message, the visual impact, or something else. And then there is the movie that, together with this, also closes a circle. Like Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster.
As many people of my generation, I grew up with Karate Kid and its plethora of sequels, remakes and clones. But even before “wax on, wax off!”, audiences have been accustomed to seeing the martial arts on the silver screen. Take Akira Kurosawa’s and other legendary Japanese directors’ samurai movies that have so extensively inspired filmmakers, notoriously Quentin Tarantino. Decades later, Bruce Lee was amazing fans all over the world with his incredible mastery of Kung Fu. In recent times, Western karatekas Chuck Norris, Van Damme and Steven Seagal, to name a few, filled the screens with kicks, punches, and affordable oriental philosophy. Westerner Daniel-san is in good company in Hollywood.
Indeed it is Bruce Lee’s teacher, Ip Man, the main character in Kar Wai’s film. The other main character is Gong Er, daughter of the great Master Gong Yutian and Wing-sing’s rival (Ip Man’s wife). The story is simple but fascinating and the actors’ performances are flawless, as is photography, settings, costumes, music and effects. As a genre enthusiast and former martial arts student, I was curious of how Kar Wai would depict the story of the Chinese martial arts master, as most martial arts pictures are, by definition, fast-paced, moderately to extremely violent, and moderately shallow too.
However Kar Wai, true to himself, does away with all that. In fact, the director of In the Mood for Love knows the stillness and spirituality of a high rank martial arts teacher; he knows that the master in his daily training performs most exercises at a snail’s pace. Accordingly, The Grandmaster’s pace is exactly that of an artist at the highest degree. Some scenes are so still that the only motion is the wink of an eyelash or falling snowflakes.
Ang Lee started a new style of martial arts cinema with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon — refined and epic. Kar Wai takes this style further as in his movie there is, paradoxically, fighting but no violence. This is a film for people who are not bored by contemplation, elegance or the snail’s pace. This is also a film for those of us who, as teenagers, kept inside the seed planted by the very simple and pre-digested messages previous martial arts movies gave us. Where the seed has grown we long to witness martial arts at a different level, and so the film gives us several important messages, hinted or unspoken. Of course, we can also choose to ignore the messages and just take in the incredible beauty of every frame, of every musical note, of impeccable filmmaking.
Wai’s depiction of Ip Man’s life is the perfect closing of the circle of almost a century of martial arts cinema. It is the performance of a high rank teacher. In a movie so subtle, I suppose there was no room for a real-life martial arts performance. And this is the lesson for us genre fans who were expecting to see at least one martial artist perform a sequence: a different movie requires new ways, new manners. As the movie ends with a quote from Bruce Lee, to the purpose of our lesson, I quote him too (from Joe Hyams’s Zen in The Martial Arts):
“Why do you want to study with me?” Bruce asked.
“Because I was impressed with your demonstration and because I’ve heard you are the best.”
“You’ve studied other martial arts?” he asked.
“For a long time,” I answered.
“Do you realize you will have to unlearn all you have learned and start all over again?