Kung Fu Master: The Grandmaster

08/14/2013 4:00 AM |

The Grandmaster
Directed by Wong Kar-Wai

The martial-arts film, in its conspicuous formal elegance and emphasis on bodies in motion, is often characterized as balletic. You imagine lithe, nimble figures engaged in an orchestrated dance, limbs intertwined in a ritual of graceful physicality in which the aesthetics of violence matter more than its consequences. With The Grandmaster, master visual stylist Wong Kar-wai proves himself similarly interested in the aesthetic qualities of action, but here it seems the mechanics of kung fu owe more to the fine arts than the applied: Wong renders the film’s half-dozen wuxia set pieces as lavish, almost painterly displays, spectacles of such inspired decadence that it’s a treat just to luxuriate in their beauty. Fists smear across the screen like the stroke of a brush through watercolor, a stuttering slow motion leaving a faint halo of light to trail behind. Every kick lands with the thud of a bass drum, chests made concave in turn, arms swinging back in streaks. The only blood in the movie drops with a splash into puddles of pouring rain—because red, of course, is just another color in the pallet.

The film’s most compelling sequence, in which Ip Man (Tony Leung) and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) find themselves locked in a battle of regional honor, develops into a physical display of otherwise unarticulated passions; the depth of feeling implied in this encounter recalls the waltz-time meetings of In the Mood for Love, if Leung and Maggie Cheung had exchanged blows instead of glances. While contemporary martial-arts pictures tend toward the clearly delineated visual space of long shots and long takes—the better to convey the virtuosity of performers of the complexity of fight choreography, principal metrics of modern kung-fu—Wong favors isolating close-ups and a rapid, rhythmic montage style, shifting the focus from physical skill to the splendor of the image. The result is a martial-arts film whose fights, though exhilarating, feel less invested in bare technical proficiency than in the sophistication and sumptuousness of its depiction. The Grandmaster, in other words, is a decidedly “artisanal” wuxia, a genre film with high-art aspirations crafted with a near-peerless eye. 

Opens August 23