A new kung fu

Updated: 2013-01-12 07:26

By Elizabeth Kerr (HK Edition)

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 A new kung fu

Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) readies to take back the Gong Family honor, even if she has to do it in a train station

 A new kung fu

Ip Man (Tony Leung) proves the Wing Chun tenet that martial arts is all about who remains vertical in the end. Wong Kar-wai's long awaited The Grandmaster

 A new kung fu

Northern martial master Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) accepts defeat and resign to allow fresh blood to lead the martial world in Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster

Wong Kar-wai's heavily anticipated spin on the kung fu film finally takes a bow. Elizabeth Kerr reports.

When a filmmaker known for a specific type of work branches out and tries their hand in an unexpected genre, the results can be quite exciting. Sure, they're often misguided (really, Martin Scorsese, The Age of Innocence?) but just as often new blood means a new perspective. Literary auteur type Sam Mendes delivered the best James Bond film in years with Skyfall. Quentin Tarantino's upcoming spin on a Civil War western, Django Unchained, is as clever as it is challenging. So after a decade of thinking about it, multiple reshoots, reedits and delays, Wong Kar-wai's much talked about The Grandmaster is here. Wong has dabbled in martial epics in the past (Ashes of Time), but The Grandmaster is a classical kung fu film as interpreted by Hong Kong's most modern, new wave-y director. Did it work?

Yes and no. The Grandmaster (at one time "Grandmasters") truly is Wong's entire oeuvre crammed into one film. It's got the longing and melancholy of In the Mood for Love, the kineticism of Chungking Express and the stately martial nature of Ashes. Kung fu aficionados and Wong fans will both be enraptured by the fighting in all its minutiae (choreographed by the legendary Yuen Woo-ping), beginning with a stunning rain-drenched pre-credit sequence. But all the rumors about the sprint to the finish line (to meet its release dates and Berlin Film Festival opening night slot) appear vindicated.

The story is familiar: it was seen in 2008's Ip Man starring Donnie Yen. The Grandmaster follows Wing Chun legend Ip Man (Tony Leung) from his Foshan home in the 1930s to Hong Kong in the 1970s, from a challenge to the martial arts throne by the north's Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) to the death of two children and an unrealized romance with Gong's heir, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), most of it unfolding within the confines of the brothel/kung fu headquarters the Golden Pavilion. The film ends with Ip's school getting a foothold in Hong Kong before going on to global glory.

More than anything The Grandmaster feels undercooked, like Wong only needs a few more weeks of tweaking. The story, such as it is, zigs and zags all over the place and never settles down to let us get to know any of these characters, effectively blunting Wong's sharpest weapon: the way we relate and how we define "home". The non-starter romance is never tangible enough to believe, making the infrequent meetings between Er and Ip come across more like board meetings.

The first hour is devoted to Ip but the story detours half way through to follow Er's quest to retake her family's martial honor from disgraced disciple Ma Shan (Zhang Jin). Elsewhere, Er saves mysterious martial master The Razor (Chang Chen) from the Japanese during WWII and he later winds up working at a barbershop in Hong Kong. The film's original plural title suggests some sort of kung fu summit - each is a master of a specific discipline - is on the horizon but the three characters drift apart and never meet. Who The Razor is remains a mystery and it's a criminal waste of Chang. Ip's wife, Zhang Yongcheng, may as well be invisible.

But of course, this is Wong we're talking about, so that moment Er retakes the Gong legacy is awesome, as are all the fights. The atmosphere is rich and the period production design is impeccable. Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd's (standing in for the usual Christopher Doyle) close-ups are flawless, as is the slow motion that's de rigueur for Wong. Zhang is radiant and Leung is perfectly restrained. The Grandmaster feels like the beginning of a great film; a grand work in progress that only needed a little more time.

The Grandmaster opened in Hong Kong on Thursday.

 A new kung fu

Alone with his own regrets, Ip Man (Tony Leung) is a Wong-esque picture of period melancholy in In the Mood ... erm, The Grandmaster

A new kung fu

(HK Edition 01/12/2013 page4)