10 October 2013

The American Grandmaster

I'm not interested in kung fu. I am interested in Wong Kar-Wai and, until Terrence Malick makes his own kung fu movie (not inconceivable!), WKW might be my only entree into martial arts films.

I thought my newbie status would make the spectacle fresher but I was not terribly impressed with the opening fight sequence of The Grandmaster--the most charming thing about it is that it was reshot in its entirety because WKW thought Tony Leung's Ip Man ought to be in a white hat (it makes the slow-mo raindrops really pop). 

As an out-and-out WKW cheerleader it saddens me to report that the film is not great, though I might have seen a lesser masterpiece. David Ehrlich does god's work cataloging the changes between the Chinese and American releases of the film--in short, there was no Chinese Harvey Weinstein to ruin everything on the overseas cut. As an ardent maximalist I was startled by all the scenes trimmed for American version, including this:

REMOVED: Everything involving Gong Er’s marriage, including a wonderful Wong Kar-Wai touchstone in which she whispers her most personal secrets into a hole in a wall.

Are you kidding me!? The WTT is enraged. This Slant interview is also dispiriting--WKW says that he felt obligated to cut the American version of The Grandmaster to under two hours...if only every action blockbuster and Oscar drama filmmaker were under the same set of orders we'd save so much time this fall. 

To add my own bit of bile: the title cards are a disgrace. The most hilariously explicit statement comes at the end of the film, where the preternaturally talented boy Ip Man begins training turns out to be Bruce Lee. Who, having read even a two-sentence capsule of The Grandmaster, would be unaware that the kid would go on to star in Enter the Dragon? WKW's wink was not terribly subtle in the first place.

The volume of title cards is astonishing, laying out a North-South history of Chinese martial arts conflict that is never narratively relevant. Their consistently misguided narrative is dwarfed in memory by a single, intentional WKW intertitle following a signature pen-over-the-page freeze frame: "I dream of seeing 64 Hands again in the snow." Man writes these words to Ziyi Zhang's Gong Er, a woman from a rival school of kung fu with whom he has a bitter feud that covers for his intense attraction.

The touchstone in this film is a button from the heavy winter coat Man planned to wear on a visit to Er.
When war intervenes and Man is forced to sell the coat, he keeps a single black button as a talisman of what could have been. While he does not whisper any secrets in its small concavity (at least not in the American version!), when it hangs a mouth-level from a nail on the wall, it's a distant cousin to the aperture in an Angkor Wat tree trunk.

It is well to focus on Leung and Zhang. I found their individual fight scenes far less inspiring than the idea that the two masters might get together and "merge their two styles," if you know what I mean. The slo-mo stylization of their combat only engages me at the level of Leung and Zhang posing for each other, just as ritualized as their arch movements playing the rake and the whore in rooms 2046 and 2047.

WKW casually inserts actors he's used in previous films as practitioners of different martial arts. The Razor (Chen Chang) is recognizable as the metaphorical bird who could not land in 2046 and Happy Together. The director's personal cosmos is extended when Ziyi battles a Japanese collaborator, Ma San (Jin Zhang wearing a pencil mustache that makes him look evil where Leung would look dapper). He is dispatched alongside a very long train that seems to stretch far into the future...

Although it fails to establish any rhythm in the first hour, the American Grandmaster is redeemed by the closing movements where the not-exactly romance between Gong Er and Ip Man is not-exactly consummated. The overexplained historical background falls away and it's Ziyi Zhang and Tony Leung across from each other at a table, not on the successive Christmases of 2046 but on New Year's.

The war has left them exiles in Hong Kong--Zhang is wrenching as a doctor who has given up the fights, Leung placid but also hugely emotional as an estranged father sending money back home to children he hardly knows. They share the feeling between Bergman and Grant in Notorious, the wide damp eyes and the subtlest quiver in the corner of the mouth.

The pair agree that "life without regrets is boring." It's a classic piece of WKW dialogue, somewhat unartful, completely true. Zhang is slightly shaken, a Richter photoportrait. She has turned to opium--her mouth is unfocused, a blood vessel mars the roundness of her iris. Her picture will be in the paper, a speia-tinted freeze frame.

The button goes back across the table, another concave vessel in which Man may speak to her across time. For me, it also represents a relationship that continues between the actors, stretched across films in fevered imagination of WKW. We see Zhang  wending through the snow a final time along with the words: "The tiger never quits the mountain."

At the end of the night, there's only one thing I wish they had done: found a cab together.