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The Grandmaster:
A Tour de Force

Yvette Bíró


It is unavoidable: applying the title of Wong Kar-wai’s new film, The Grandmaster (2013), to the author himself. There is truly no way to range Wong with any illustrious group of contemporary filmmakers. His fever and his melancholia; his unparalleled, poetic vision; his refined virtuosity – these set him apart from many currently notable directors. Tradition – both this rich genre’s canon (the elaborate Chinese action cinema’s historical legacy) and his own, deeply ingrained sensibility – unmistakably defines Wong’s style. But the radiance of this abundantly composite movie deserves to be treated as a singular achievement.


This utterly sensorial kaleidoscope, this irregular and oneiric fable, savagely jumps in many directions and follows many different devices. The storytelling is layered, blending – as usual in the work of this poet-director – small islands of marvelously spectacular entities with some (epic) historical events, and speeding up to the vertiginous from dreamy slowness. Here, the real novelty is the amazing unity of contrasting methods. The famous martial arts wisdom: principles of horizontal and vertical are the major directions that define the game.


The bold procedure in which opposites meet in one sweeping gesture (or scene) is physically dizzying, on the verge of perceptibility. The extremely rapid and bewitching, swinging magic cannot be separated, they mingle and live together. We practically lose secure ground. The camera is running faster than the wind, and stops blatantly for an unprepared moment, when suddenly everything is falling apart into pieces. A drop of water detached from the unstoppable rain, the red of blood, white snowflakes dance before our eyes, as if for eternity in an otherworldly empire – but then, immediately, the fight follows at the briskest pace, moving into such a high gear that any distinction is impossible. Current time is trembling from billions of moving, broken actions, tiny details – but then, as if everything has stiffened, we freeze on faces as they stare at us like icons, with their almost divine beauty. We would happily admire the gorgeous splendour; but then we are pushed forward, taken by the overpowering acceleration. The syncopation brings about a bodily fever.


Talking about the overall achievement of The Grandmaster, I do not want to embrace all of the exceptionally abundant story. Sometimes it becomes a bit heavy and didactic, insisting on factual details. However, even if some elements deter from the characteristic style of the piece’s aesthetics, they maintain a spectacular mise en scène, as well as a geometrical order in the setting and the placement of background figures.


The truly mesmerising impact of the non-martial arts confrontations, the emotional approaches or denials, are just as much ritualised as the fights. They radiate a kind of solemnity; we move to the level of the sublime. The extreme close-ups become sacred, especially with the unusually reduced facial mimicry. The protagonists hardly blink; their gaze is so keen and profound that the spectator simply has to follow their penetrating power. The shot/reverse shot technique does not disturb the experience of this immobility. We are in a different time-dimension, dictated by the unspeakable suspense of emotions. Wong reuses, but in an even more subtle way, the excitement of an almost closeness, as celebrated in In the Mood for Love (2000).


At one moment, we see the glitteringly beautiful faces of Ip Man (Tony Leung) and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) so close, their skin, their breath, mouth and nose so joined, so near to physical touch, that the encounter expresses the deepest visceral, sexual attraction. They seem to be unified. Yet, they never cross this border. Thanks to the durée, the whole ‘story’ is far beyond reality. It is not their phantasy but their desire that becomes visible, thus stirring the desire of the spectator. Wong dares to move the image-frame around; he rotates the irreal, imaginary moment. No banal touch or caress could occur in their encounter; they become one and yet distant, both spellbound.


However, one should keep in mind that this is their fateful contest, their do-or-die situation, when finally the invincible Ip Man will be, for the first time in his life, defeated – although we should not overstress this match’s outcome. Wong’s fantastic elegance: this post-moment will never be overly demonstrated. Because here the strange sensuality, the sexually charged, finds its expression beyond any customary mode. This is another mood for love, forever open, never satisfied, exceeding the factual event. We identify with people and with human feelings far beyond the results of an event; therefore it outshines any practical, plot aspect.


Another high point of the solemn ritual confrontation: the hero’s incredible skill, and the patience with which he defeats his partner, the old master Chan Wah-shun (Yuen Woo-ping). The dance is highly choreographed, changing positions rapidly, waiting silently for the next, appropriate moment. This non-fight fight is more suspenseful than any clash; the smallness, the insignificance of the challenge only heightens the deadly seriousness of the stakes. To break a small, round cake held by the old man may not seem to be a serious test. But, according to the real rules of the game, it is a highly challenging task. Elegant, measured, restrained, disciplined actions, clear strategy expressed through a minimalist design, plus unexpected moments of changing rhythm: slow, and suddenly fast, alternate in an unforeseeable beat. It is enough that we recognise the victory, the well-deserved success.


The ambiance of the movie is imbued with poetically rendered emotions. The characters’ inner life, their longing, remembrance, the evocations of their former unforgettable moments, will be the decisive, ‘everlasting’ experience. The cruelty of war, the suffering of so many losses – family, home, well-being and honour – are, of course, grievous, although they are presented in an oblique way: as broken and ineradicably engraved memories. Evoking for a moment even a once-framed family photograph on the wall (this could easily be a cliché, but in its ephemeral appearance it becomes a captivating allusion) as the only blurred copy of a past common harmony; or a moment of joy, when Ip Man presents a beautiful fur coat to his wife, Cheung Wing-sing (Song Hye-kyo) – small fragments which contribute to the ‘musical’ melancholia, a noble mourning over buried, sorrowful wounds.


From this viewpoint, the two basic principles – of horizontal and vertical expansion – gain a deeper meaning. The full power of the horizontal movement gains its force from the weight of the vertical: as if the ‘search of lost time’ was the heart of the movie.


A seemingly small, astute motif: the role of a button from the fur coat which receives later, surprising importance, poignantly revealing the Master’s destitute situation. During the Japanese occupation, he has to take the coat of his beloved wife to the pawnbroker, who reminds the seller that one button is missing. Much, much later, while daydreaming of Gong Er, the once victorious ‘64 hands’ beauty, Ip brings the button back to her – not to the deceased wife it belonged to, but to the secret, unrealised love (who refuses it). The free yet composite unravelling of the emotional story returns to its origins; their hidden love-story runs full circle.


The scene is totally irrational. In whose imagination are we this time? We started with Gong, the woman who could never have knowledge of this detail, but then suddenly we shift to Ip Man, who stares motionless at her, imagining that she sits across the table … The duality is also spelled out by Gong when she confesses that Ip was always in her heart – and, although he does not respond, he is looking at her with profound emotional passion, and so we understand that he (although not physically present) shares the feeling, the unspoken love is mutual … Fantasy, empathy, desire create a wished-for reality, far beyond the factual, physical truth.


We constantly admire the unusual beauty of the film, which appears at first glance to be merely a riveting action movie. However, the intense exploitation of its vertical potential, the courage to unravel the hidden level of human destinies, places it far beyond this. The grand, epic tradition did not exclude sensitive, lyrical elements; but Wong has interwoven the most modern procedures into it.


It is worth looking back at the arc preceding the artist’s most recent work. His classical films, his Hong Kong blues – Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express (1994), Fallen Angels (1995) and In the Mood for Love – already fascinated the spectator with their stirring, poetically heated tone and extravagant structures. In these films, the ongoing present, everything which occurred in the moment, became sensual – an inner experience. In the course of the narratives, painful memories and melancholic imaginings were always depicted as normal actions, with an identical intensity. The destiny of his heroes has always been the outcome of their turbulent selves, shaken by desire and deception, defined at once by past, future and the potential, the would-be: they are all parts of an indivisible reality, working as an interior time.


We can ask which aspect is most overwhelming in the overall impression: the jam-packed, thickening space; the unruly environment’s density and speed that frames existence; or the nuanced design of human feelings? Surely, in this tumultuous field of actions, where people had to live their time, it is fully understandable that fate is troubled, always interrupted. Therefore, we could reverse the question: is it not the accumulation of time, its intensity, which carries people along in an ever-changing space – a speedy time that pushes them forward for new constraints and trials? Rhythm and tempo move in extremes, contesting and living next to each other, revealing the incongruence of elements.


The inner order of existence is never transparent. It accumulates not one layer of time but countless layers that collide and clash with each other. In Wong’s vision, each moment brings about a new form. The anomalous outcomes of actions are surprising, but never contingent. This density and swinging nature of the chaos-sphere is grounded, as modern physics describes it, in the ‘fragility of initial conditions’; this is what determines its erratic behaviour. In this manner, Wong does not pay the same attention to cause and effect but, within this constant motion, he wants to feel the connections between things, these uncertain consequences that alter continuous actions. Which explains the dense complexity of the film’s texture, with its unpredictable aftermaths, surprises, and the intrusion of ‘foreign’ elements. Like in the work of Jorge Luis Borges or Italo Calvino, the otherness of the various components is not concealed; they are all disturbingly evident.


Is this uncertainty the basis of his famous nostalgia? ‘According to me, time irremediably deprives us of our innocence. In the way we are moving ahead, we must turn back, remembering things we were dreaming about, and have remained dead letters. It is upsetting to think about the fact of how much we could have lived through, things we have left undone’. (1)


We have to bear in mind that Wong’s personal biography has contributed to his loss of ‘innocence’. In his first films, he clearly voiced his alienation from Hong Kong’s new customs and language. Something was lost in the change of home, lifestyle, the broken familiarity of the ‘old’ period. But, despite this visceral feeling, his vision is more complex, based both on horizontal (historical) and vertical (emotional) experience. For his melancholia does not stem from regret over any lost past. It is the present that becomes more and more unfathomable, troubled, driving us to a deeper comprehension; he has perhaps realised that one cannot simply become part of the surrounding world. The haunting speed that causes people to drift makes it impossible to fully embrace one’s own existence. Wong is not an exponent of Nietzsche’s ‘gay science’; his special mood expresses an existential melancholia.


1. Jean-Marc Lalanne et al, Wong Kar-wai (Paris: Dis Voir, 1997), p. 85.





from Issue 4: Walks


© Yvette Bíró and LOLA August 2013.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.