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Kung fu masters Ip Man (Tony Leung, center, left) and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi, center, right) meet at the Golden Pavilion. (Courtesy of China Post/Warner Bros)
There is always more than meets the eye to Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai.
In his latest martial arts epic, The Grandmaster, he is less concerned with the linear journey of good and evil than he is viewing kung fu as a way of life, a necessary anchor to embrace change.
His protagonist is Ip Man, the legendary maestro of the wing chun technique that brought fame to Bruce Lee. The story chronicles his life and the lives of other kung fu heroes with the Chinese revolution at the beginning of the 20th century as the backdrop.
The son of a wealthy businessman in Foshan, Ip (played by Wong’s regular collaborator Tony Leung) is well educated and an accomplished kung fu master. Emancipated Ip sees the world differently to his compatriots.
Regardless of the patriarchal society that shackles women’s freedom, he takes his wife (Song Hye Kyo) to the Golden Pavilion, a luxurious prostitution house that serves as the only place she can watch her favorite opera. He sees her as his equal and is willing to do as much for her as she does for him.
Alongside him are warriors from the Gong family of the North East, who see life as an endless fight. Old tai chi master Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang), a progressive patriarch who wants to rule various schools of martial arts in China, challenges Ip, a southern champion, in an intellectual contest about kung fu philosophy.
A liberated woman who also loves opera, Gong’s persistent daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), falls for Ip.
Adversity constantly counters Ip’s modern values while the Gongs try to resist their innate competitive streak that threatens the family’s existence.
Returning after a six-year hiatus, Wong, a character sculptor who has invented a new breed of romantic flicks (Days of Being Wild, Happy Together) satisfies his dramatic fervor in long, hi-definition opera—soaked in splattering rain drops, burned tobacco sprinkles and recurring group photographs. Not a single scene passes like a walk in the park.
All the questions of liberty and progress come in a tableau of symbols and traditional Chinese dialogues — rich in proverbs and indirect speech. It takes patience and a pair of watchful eyes.
Otherwise, the movie appears as a dreary, slow-motion feast that only stands out for its acrobatic scenes.
A point of note is the tension between liberal and conservative views concerning the roles of the sexes. Gong Er, a feminine warrior who possesses both beauty and kung fu mastery, is involved in two battles that project feminist ideas.
First, she engages in a fight with Ip, the sensible man whose life and kung fu techniques have a high regard for the opposite sex. The battle, taking place over dinner at the pavilion — is a show of intellect and skill. One is considered to have lost if he or she breaks anything in the house.
The fight grows intimate with long gazes and close combat between the two, which leaves them both smitten.
Another battle — a menacing one — is with the new patriarch of the Gong school, Ma Shan (Zhang Jin), the brightest student and the promised heir that takes over the family after killing her father.
Against her father’s wish for her to be married and live a peaceful life, she intends to take back the family’s legacy and honor from him. Ma Shan, who masters the bagua technique, is the other precious half of the coin of the tai chi that her father developed.
Gong Er’s xingyi hits fast and sharp like an arrow, relying on Yin force, while Ma Shan’s bagua is the iron sword that strikes Yang.
On Chinese New Year’s Eve, both duel on a platform of a train station. The running train that passes during their fight resembles the pace of time and change in the revolution, with which all characters strive to cope.
The resolution for our heroine is bittersweet, which perhaps might leave French feminist Simone de Beauvoir frowning. It took a leap of faith for Wong, who has also written the screenplay, to imagine a happy ending for a bold woman in such a conservative society.
Nevertheless, none of the heroes are glorious.
Ip decides to open a martial art school of wing chun in Hong Kong, degrading his ideals to live kung fu only in ethos and philosophy. Another kung fu master, The Razor (Chang Chen), survives by opening a barbershop and leaves the practice of kung fu.
Following the old Gong’s principle, it is always best to keep moving.
(130 minutes, Bona International Film)
Director: Wong Kar Wai
Cast: Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Wang Qingxiang, Zhang Jin, Song Hye Kyo, Chang Chen
Screenwriter: Wong Kar Wai
Producer: Ng See-yuen, Wong Kar Wai