Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Ashtray of Time

Tony Leung in The Grandmaster

The Weinsteins have a long and ignominious history of cutting the foreign films they acquire--particularly the ones from Asia--and it's sometimes difficult to divorce the film as presented to an American audience from the film that the filmmakers actually made. The ending--and some might say, the point--of Jackie Chan's Drunken Master II was excised wholesale back in the bad old days of Miram-ax, but even highbrow arthouse auteurs are not immune. Zhang Yimou's Hero is subtly different in its American incarnation than it is in its original Chinese version. Wong Kar-Wai's The Grandmaster (2013) has the misfortune of falling victims to the Weinsteins, and given the film's very real problems with its continuity and its habit of eliding huge gulps of exposition with title cards, one has to wonder to what extent the film on the screen is what Wong intended or what he has negotiated with Harvey Weinstein. This question is compounded by the film's international history, in which Wong himself has submitted variant cuts from territory to territory. One of those versions is rumored to be four hours long. The film's provenance makes the task of assigning blame very difficult, because what was on the screen when I finally saw it was a mess.

The Grandmaaster tells the (allegedly true) story of Ip Man, a master of the Wing Chung style of kung-fu. In the early part of the twentieth century, the schools of kung-fu in China are divided between the north and the south. As Gong Yutian, the current northern grandmaster, readies to retire, he looks to the south for a successor who can unite the feuding north and south. He finds him in Ip, who wins the title in a subtle contest of wills at Shanghai's golden pavilion, a brothel where the masters of kung-fu gather to socialize and compete with each other. This doesn't sit well with either Gong's pupil and grandmaster-in-waiting, Ma San, who views the title as an entitlement. Nor does it sit well with Gong's daughter, Gong Er, who is every bit the kung-fu master her father is. Better, actually, because she is young. Unfortunately, she's prohibited from being the grandmaster because of her gender. After Ip wins the title, he faces off against Gong Er in an unofficial duel, and suffers the only defeat of his life. Ip is smitten with Gong Er, but being already married, and very much a man of honor, his attraction to Gong Er--a mutual attraction--remains unrequited. Then history steps in. The Japanese invasion of China tears Ip Man's life asunder, destroying his family and forcing him into exile in Hong Kong, where he remains once the communists take over the country in 1948. Gong Er's story veers off onto a very different path. Still seething from being denied, Ma San becomes a collaborator and betrays Gong Yutian to the Japanese. Gong Er vows revenge, but also vows to never teach kung-fu, guaranteeing that her father's style of the 47 palms will die out once she defeats Ma San, which she ultimately does. Years later, when she eventually meets Ip Man in Hong Kong, she has become a doctor, no longer practices kung fu, and uses opium to dull the pain from the injuries she suffered during her vendetta. Ip Man, for his part, founds a school to teach Wing Chung kung-fu, but he longs for the life he might have had...

This isn't Wong Kar-Wai's first kung-fu film. The last time he ventured into kung-fu, the result was The Ashes of Time, a film that is less about plot or action than it is about the way cinema fractures time and space. The Ashes of Time is a disjointed, disorienting experience. Wong's other films are largely concerned with time, too, and longing, and loss, and a deeply romantic melancholia. The living end of this is In the Mood For Love, with which, The Grandmaster shares a theme of unrequited love. In its broad outlines, The Grandmaster is what you might get if you dumped In the Mood For Love and The Ashes of Time into a blender and hit "puree." But it's an uneasy mix of flavors.

Ziyi Zhang in The Grandmaster

Certainly, the formal elements of the film are burnished to a high gloss sheen. Wong's films have always been formidable exercises in style and this one is no different. This is the director's first film with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, who takes over for Wong's long collaboration with Christopher Doyle. Le Sourd comes to film from advertising, and it shows. This is, if possible, even MORE stylized than Wong's other films. The opening action scene in which Ip Man takes on a crowd in the rain is aestheticized far beyond its function as action into overt abstraction. This is of a piece with The Ashes of Time, in which motion itself was the object of the camera's attention, not the function of the action in the plot or even the meaning of the action to the characters. This film breaks with this later on when the duel between Ip Man and Gong Er functions as courtship rather than as conflict. This sequence is equally stylized, lit with the amber light of the Golden Pavilion and ornately decorated. In terms of their function in the plot of the movie, the most conventional action sequences are located in the story with in a story of the second act, where Gong Er pursues her vengeance. These, too, are highly stylized, set against the snowy north of China and in a rail station of dreams, but they are familiar markers in the revenge-film plot of this sub-narrative. The action scenes in The Grandmaster are choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, the go-to choreographer for highbrow wuxia films. Master Yuen's style lends itself to Wong's visual elan.

The relationship drama--the romance, as it were--is an ill fit with all of this, not just because it separates its doomed lovers from each other across a wide geography, but also because it separates them in to distinct narratives that don't connect with each other. As character types, Ip Man and Gong Er are analogous to Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen in In the Mood For Love, a comparison made even more apt by the fact that Tony Leung plays both Ip Man and Chow Mo-wan. Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen were always in close proximity to each other, though, both in the narrative and in the film's visual space. There's a chemistry in that movie that eludes The Grandmaster because the actors are allowed to interact. That's not the case here, and even in its initial romance, Ip Man and Gong Er don't interact in a way that reveals or is conducive to the kind of longing one sees in In the Mood for Love because their first scene together is a fight scene and a highly abstracted one at that. The film makes up some ground later on by falling completely in love with the image of Ziyi Zhang in a magnificent winter coat, but by then, she's ensconced in another narrative. The film gives her an ending that's tragic, wasting away as an opium addict after forgetting all of her father's kung-fu. At one point, Gong Er puts a Buddhist spin on this fate, noting that all things pass away from the world. This reminds me a LOT of the ending of The Blade, Tsui Hark's underseen remake of The One-Armed Swordsman. Hark got away with it because of the way he framed the narrative of his film from its heroine's point of view. Wong isn't so lucky, but Gong Er's story is the best part of the film, when the style and the substance seem of a piece. It's possible to extract her portion of the film and have a perfect arthouse kung-fu movie unto itself. Unfortunately, it's part of a larger, ungainly whole.

The way this shoehorns its doomed romance into a movie that is drenched in the kung-fu film's usual concerns with styles and schools of martial arts is awkward. Some of its dialogue--delivered in earnest by good actors--about the techniques of their kung-fu are risible in the context of the film's portentous visuals and earnest themes. None of it's a good fit. This isn't helped by the fact that the film resorts to title cards at points during its running time to both illuminate the kung-fu of its characters and to elide the passage of time. This is so ham-fisted that it completely obliterates the mood of the film. Whether this is something that comes from Wong or the Weinsteins doesn't ultimately matter: it results in a film that visibly has a longer, more complete, possibly more unified (though I doubt it) version out there somewhere. Making the audience conscious of that is perhaps this film's biggest faux pas, because The Grandmaster plays more like a coming attractions trailer than as a discreet film unto itself.

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