The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi, Hong Kong-China, 2013)

Style and substance

I’ll try to ignore the mauling this film has probably been given by Harvey ‘Scissorhands’ (aka Weinstein), in order to make the film commercial, as I’ve only seen the cut version which is 25 minutes shorter than the original. The grandmaster is Ip Man, the teacher of Bruce Lee; I imagine the three Ip Man films (Hong Kong-China, 2008, 2010, 2015) are more straightforward biopics than this Wong Kar Wei production. Wong, as is his wont, focuses on the philosophical, interior lives of his characters which is communicated through an often elliptical voice over. It matters little to Wong whether the protagonist is a cop (Chungking Express, 1994) or a gangster (Fallen Angels, 1995), the almost stream of consciousness commentary we hear is what drives his films. Plus, philosophy and kung fu are ready bedfellows, so although The Grandmaster eschews Confucius (at least I think it does), there’s plenty to think about.

Another link to Wong’s oeuvre is the casting of the great Tony Chui-Wai Leung who, I imagine, is Wong’s alter ego. This is not to say that Wong wanted to be Ip Man.

The great Tony Chui-Wai Leung

Wong’s early indie movies with which he made an impact on the west (to whom he was introduced as ‘Quentin Tarantino presents’ – a form of patronising colonialism) make it somewhat surprising that he should delve into action cinema. He had done so with the wuxia Ashes of Time (Dung che sai duk, Hong Kong-Taiwan, 1994), given the ‘redux’ (whatever that means) treatment in 2008 but there (I’m talking about the original as I haven’t seen the update) the action was rarefied to sort of appear to happen off screen. What I mean to say is I hadn’t a clue what was going on.

I’m wasn’t sure what was going on all time in The Grandmaster however the action is straightforwardly staged by Yuen Woo-ping (who also coordinated the stunts and fights on Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2 (US, 1994) with stunning production design by  Chang Suk-ping and Yay Wai-ming. ‘Straightforward’ doesn’t cover it for the mise en scene and balletic movements are absolutely spectacular; the sequences are on a par with Zhang Yimou’s Hero (China-Hong Kong, 2002). Hero has Leung in common, as well as the Weinstein’s marketing muscle that helped make that film a worldwide hit. Leung apparently broke his arms three times during shooting of Grandmaster; the man is (nearly) my age! Zhang Ziyi graces both films and her fight scenes are the film’s highlights; once with Leung, which is more of a tango, and in the climactic battle on a station platform with a train barrelling through.

It was an expensive film to make and did reasonable worldwide box office but, unsurprisingly, it’s not simply a commercial film; hence Weinstein’s cutting. This version is presented as ‘Martin Scorsese’ presents and it’s disappointing that the doyen of American indie-art cinema should lend his name to cultural vandalism. At least Tarantino was genuinely trying to find a wider audience for a cinema neglected by many in the west at that time.

I enjoyed My Blueberry Nights (Hong Kong-China-France, 2008), Wong’s English-language US set melodrama but found 2046 (Hong Kong-China, 2004) too dense; that was the sequel to what’s widely regarded his greatest film, In the Mood for Love (Faa yeung nin wa, Hong Kong-China, 2004), another beautiful looking film that I found frustrating (I’m sure that’s my fault and not the film’s).

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Red Cliff (Chi bi, China, 2008)

‘This is really really important’

Since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Taiwan-Hong Kong-US-China, 2000) we’ve been, in the west, regaled with a number of spectacular films from China. John Woo, who’s gone ‘full circle’ from Hong Kong to Hollywood and back to China, directs this conflagration of a film.

It lacks nothing for spectacle but maybe I’m getting jaded at seeing yet another shedload of extras being mown down by heroic men. It was Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Takeshi Kaneshiro who kept me watching; I doubt there’s a pair of more charismatic actors operating anywhere in the world. Lueng, in particular, is terrific whether he’s playing one of Wong Kar Wai’s alter egos or in the cut and thrust of wuxia. That said, I’m also getting bored of frowning men who have to go off to fight for justice; Russell Crowe’s wearing this frown on posters for the forthcoming Robin Hood.

Women aren’t neglected in Red Cliff but they are so secondary. A bleat of a complaint really, as I’m sure that’s historically accurate; I should be watching other genres.

House of Flying Daggers (Shi mian mai fu, China, 2004)

Lover’s whisper

One of the most sumptuously shot films in cinema, House of Flying Daggers wears its heart on the screen mixing outrageous action sequences with high octane romance. I saw the film when it was released and thoroughly enjoyed the cinematography and action sequences though failed to appreciate the romance. I certainly noticed the romantic narrative however they are rather de rigeur in action cinema. On this third viewing it moved into the foreground and I could appreciate more the terrific performances from Kaneshiro Takeshi and Zhang Ziyi. The love triangle is convincingly portrayed and the pain of the ‘cuckolded’ Leo (Andy Lau) is touchingly portrayed.

As is Jin’s (Kaneshiro) transition from ‘playboy’ to being genuinely smitten. At first Mei (Zhang) resists his advances but later, when she is keen, it’s his turn to demure; probably for the first time in his life. He’s experiencing conflicting emotions as he matures into someone who genuinely cares for a woman.

Similarly, Mei’s rejection of Leo is shown to be physical: she still loves him but Jin has taken priority in her affections. She tries to make love to Leo but her body refuses. Thus in love it is hard to know our own feelings as we can never be sure what the body might do (which is probably expressing our subconscious).

Daggers is a thrilling film, stunning action and offers a subtle presentation of the vicissitudes of love.