Aesthetic Indulgence Limits ‘Grandmaster’

A scene from 'The Grandmaster,' a film about the legendary martial artist Yip Man. (Photos courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

“The Grandmaster” premiered with the burden of expectations. Not only is the much-delayed film the art house auteur Wong Kar-wai’s first feature in five years, it also brings forth the story of Yip Man, or Ip Man, an iconic Chinese martial artist who may be most widely known as Bruce Lee’s kung fu instructor. He also trained many other notable names in the martial arts cosmos including Leung Ting and Wong Shun Leung.

The film’s focus on a martial arts figure has also given rise to expectations for Wong to underplay his artsy flourishes in place of a friendlier, crowd-patting exploit. And in a way, “The Grandmaster” does bridge accessibility with the ruminative tonality often found in Wong’s creations — but in doing so, the film loses resonance in both its action-oriented jaunts and in its more sonorous moments.

Most obvious are the fighting sequences, which aim for both emotional unrest and poetic timbre, but in doing so Wong trims down the battling sound effects usually dominant in such scenes. Instead, voice-overs or atmosphere-settings take the focus — which makes for beautiful aesthetics but draws out the film’s much-needed sense of momentum.

Still, Wong’s particular aesthetic works better in different circumstances.

His mainstay actor Tony Leung Chiu-Wai embraces the protagonist’s tranquil conviction with the same dramatic playfulness he has executed so well in his other works with the director. Leung is as convincing when he falls for Gong Er (a rather cliche-ridden Zhang Ziyi) as he is when pummeling opponents. Leung and Ziyi’s mannequin-like beauty and expressions lend themselves to Wong’s emotive slow-motion captures.

Wong is obviously intrigued by the decaying purpose of a kung fu grandmaster — and others like him — whose physique-driven existence must suffer the wrath of age and time. It makes for a thoughtful approach that means trying to balance the momentum of the fighting sequences, which Wong can’t leave well enough alone, for better or worse.

Yip Man’s particular style of kung fu is known as the Wing Chun, which bodes well for Wong and choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, as it involves plenty of fast-paced close combat. The action and elegance of Wing Chun is easily captured by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, which makes it additionally frustrating when Wong won’t let these moments play out without aesthetic fanfare.

“The Grandmaster” is a film whose failures are due to its maker’s reputation alone. Taking out the Wong Kar-wai association, it is still a gorgeous-looking art house flick with vulnerable dashes of disconnect. Well worth a viewing or two, it is at the very least very different from more mainstream takes on the martial arts genre.

The Grandmaster
Directed by Wong Kar-wai
Starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen
130 minutes
Mandarin and Cantonese with Indonesian subtitles