I don't know why I picked up In the Mood for Love, I don't know at exactly what age. I know that I was pretty young, and that it was a film I adored almost immediately. That chance pick up triggered a hunt for everything of Wong Kar-wai's I could find; Chungking Express, Fallen Angel, Days of Being Wild. His films were (and are) beautiful, a form of visual poetry so arresting that the specifics of the story became inconsequential. The composition of the images spoke that which the dialogue could not, the attention to color - the saturation of light, the surprising richness that comes from layering shades of black - seemed to elevate the mundane to the breaking point of reality. Wong Kar-Wai's films are works that manage to be both Earthly and ethereal simultaneously, and it's perhaps because of this that he's capable of rendering a love story (even when it turns bad) like no other. Of course, The Grandmaster is supposedly not that. Its framework sets it up as a martial arts biopic: this is the story of Ip Man, legendary master of Wing Chun kung-fu, teacher of Bruce Lee, a man who lived through turning points in China so severe that his not-so distant past feels, at times, like dynastic ancient history.
The biggest problem with The Grandmaster also happens to be its greatest asset: as we watch a film we understand to be about one thing (Ip Man), it keeps breaking away to tell us the tragedy of Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi). Gong Er is a far more compelling character, and through her we are made privy to something less practical, more legend. Through her, Wong Kar-wai makes ideas of honor and reputation resonate in ways that feel far more immediate than any of the genre that I've seen. Gong Er is the daughter of Northern martial arts grandmaster Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang). Her father is retiring, and has traveled down to the South for a sort of celebratory match of skill and wits. Gong Er arrives on the scene as her father is preparing for a bout with Ip Man, and we learn that she is the only martial artist as versed in the Bagua 64 Hands technique of her father. She would be his rightful successor, but she is female and her it is her father's wish for her to devote her energies to become a doctor. As one thing leads to another, we are treated to a beautifully choreographed showdown between Gong Er and Ip Man anyhow. They leave quite the impression on one another, and the feeling lingers for the duration of the film. Their love is impossible, but palpable, made real by the dance of slow motion martial arts (a little too much slow motion, though) and repeated refrains.As the film continues, Gong Er dominates it further. Her quest is the one that Wong Kar-wai appears to be most interested in, and as she struggles with her own sense of what's right we become as fascinated by her as Ip Man is. Leung is infinitely watchable, as usual, but Zhang Ziyi is magnetic. Her face registers incremental shifts in her character's emotions, and her presence seems organic to the mise-en-scene. She is part of it, a key element of the composition of each photograph, and a source of great power for an otherwise barely there story. Basically, the film is best when Gong Er is part of it, and while you could arguably make the claim that she is the Grandmaster of the title, the organizational elements of the film seem to fight against surrendering focus from the life of Ip Man. The result is something that doesn't seem to quite know where it wants to go, and which may have a couple too many elements in play to become a truly pure artistic success. Still, it's a gorgeous piece of work. The fight choreography alone is tremendous, and with Wong at the helm, we see the intricacies of the gestures from unconventional angles. We get the movement of the feet, the subtlest gestures of the hands, a thrilling attention to the precision of the art. I have a strong sense that the 130 minute Chinese cut is a far better film, but if you go for the visuals and not for the story, there's no way even the Weinstein-mandated edit of The Grandmaster will disappoint.