Master of None
The '30s-'40s martial arts giant who combined styles and galvanized future practitioners and fans has already been treated in two eponymous films. But Ip Man (Tony Leung) remains so little celebrated that Kar-wai Wong’s The Grandmaster/Yi dai zong shi seeks a promotional hook by dragging in the teacher’s ultra-famous student Bruce Lee, inserted as a smiley child aspirant for a couple frames and credits scrawl at the end.
Too quickly chopped by over one-half from four hours, the five-years-in-the-making (ten years all told) project uses print and narrational voice to bridge gaps or explain the unfamiliar like the Second Sino-Japanese War, Tokyo’s invasion of the mainland and devastation of Foshan, and mass exodus to exile in Hong Kong. The cinema confusion that nevertheless persists would be acceptable, for this is after all chop-socky with pretentions, but the deadpan solemnity makes for too weighty a load.
For exterior sequences, just as heavy is the incessant downpour that mutes colors and leaves fighters’ embroidered slippers kicking puddles as much as opponents. Carved wood screens and furnishings consign the indoor ones to murkiness, as well, while insistent cropped close-up photography kills off any distance overview. Prostitutes’ plumage is washed out brief, while martial artists themselves favor head-to-toe black with the exception of Ip’s gimmicky cream-colored fedora. When precipitation turns to white snow, the all-black produces one or two nice chiaroscuro individual combats, no more.
As luck would have it, the Queens, New York, Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI) is currently hosting a retrospective of the director’s work, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) is celebrating its fortieth anniversary with six relatively little-seen martial arts full-lengthers, including the last one actually completed by Bruce Lee, Enter the Dragon. That young star had himself choreographed and directed his fight scenes, which, besides an impish self-effacing humor, are notable for their lack of impossible flights and leaps and overdone genre sound effects. In contrast, for director and story- and co-screen-writer Wong’s newest, one hundred twenty-five names are listed under “visual effects by.”
Plot conflict is set against the split between south and north China fighting styles, plus variants ancient or modern within each. Retiring northern master Yutian Gong (Qingxiang Wang) cannot and will not bequeath his position and school to a woman, even fantastically skilled daughter Er Gong (Ziyi Zhang). Fatally in error, he appoints star disciple San Ma (Jin Zhang) as his successor and crosses the Yangtze to Foshan, for a ceremonial face-off send-off.
Ip is selected to uphold the honor of his region. In often slow-motion friendlies, he bests foremost exponents of the different fashionable fighting schools and even gets the advantage over, and blessing of, father Gong in something to do with breaking a small hand-held cake, which is significant or silly, depending. He then fights daughter Er to what looks a standoff that is chalked up as her victory and leads to mutual assurances of a return match.
Despite his scarcely seen beloved wife and two children, Ip and Er have fallen in unspoken king-fu love, interrupted for many years by wartime circumstance and later opium addiction in Hong Kong.
The stoic hero stays true to the wuxia code, neither war nor loss nor exile wiping from his face the frozen trace smile that is to indicate spiritual cool. Opponents like the storied Baji Razor (Chen Chang) and an elderly cigarette-smoking tai chi expert recognize it. But the viewer may not not care who is vertical or horizontal.
(Released by The Weinstein Company and rated PG-13 by the MPAA.)