Friday, September 06, 2013

The Grandmaster and the Ip Man poly-narrative

When you visit eFilmCritic to read the rest of the review of The Grandmaster, take a moment to select Peter Sobcynski's review and read that one, in part because Peter's a fine writer who arrives at roughly the same conclusion I did but also because he gets there from a somewhat opposite direction, basically looking at it as "The New Wong Kar-wai Movie". There's a lot of that in my write-up as well, but I can't help but look at it as "The New Ip Man Movie".

Ip Man, after all, has been a staple of my festival-going for the past four-plus years: I saw Ip Man at Fantasia in 2009, Ip Man 2 at New York Asian Film Festival in 2010, Ip Man: The Legend Is Born at Fantasia in 2011, and Ip Man: The Final Fight at Fantasia, just a bit more than a month ago. A part of me really wishes the release dates could have worked out a little differently (and Grandmaster could have played Fantasia) to make this an annual event.

Aside from being an example of how Hong Kong can absolutely beat something to death when it becomes a fad, though, it explains why I scratched my head a bit at a thing or two in his review. He mentions that the bit noting how Bruce Lee was Ip Man's student seems kind of shoehorned in, and, well, compared to what the other movies about the guy, it's pretty restrained. He also mentioned finding the movie hard to follow and having to look stuff up, while I thought it was fairly straightforward. Then again, I didn't have to look things up because I've been absorbing various versions of this story for a while, and already knew the framework.

It's interesting to consider how these five movies merge into one story as a result. It was fairly clear that large chunks of Ip Man 2 and The Legend Is Born were made up from whole cloth, but there were enough things in common with the other movies that I feel comfortable considering them reasonably factual. Still, it's entirely possible to have thoroughly different ideas of how much time Ip Man's wife Wing-sing spent in Hong Kong: Ip Man 2 made it seem like she and their whole family moved there with him (and that they were still relatively prosperous with no children starving to death); The Final Fight has her there briefly with Ip her husband having a chaste friendship with a lounge singer after she returns home to Foshan; while Grandmasters never shows her visiting Hong Kong at all, implying that she was never there and the only thing that kept him from reuniting with the love of his life was her vow.

Gong Er being such a central character here was initially kind of weird for me at first, as she doesn't seem to be mentioned in the other movies at all. Which in reality means nothing; all biographical movies pick and choose what to emphasize and eliminate or composite people around that. Still, it was strange that someone so central hadn't been mentioned before. And yet, when I first heard the word "opium" connected to her, my brain happily seized upon how this connected to how thoroughly disdainful Ip was of the drug in The Final Fight.

I suspect that a few years down the line, these five movies (or more; I've heard Donnie Yen is doing Ip Man 3D, and I've still got the Chinese cut of this to watch) will have blended into one semi-contradictory narrative for me. In general, that our brain does this is a good thing. It's how we learn. But I'm glad there's stuff that reinforces each other and diminishes other parts, if only so that I'm not sure Ip Man had a Japanese sleeper agent as a foster brother.

Yi dai zong shi (The Grandmaster)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 September 2013 in AMC Boston Common (first-run, DCP)

Wong Kar-wai is a notoriously slow worker in a movie industry that can turn things over with ruthless efficiency, and as evidence I present the four movies about martial-arts master Ip Man (by two different directors and starring three different actors) produced between his announcing this film as his next project and the thing hitting screens. And while it's a little difficult for those who have eaten those up to avoid the feeling of having been there and done that as a result, a new WKW movie is an event in and of itself, and this one doesn't disappoint.

It starts in 1930s Foshan, where highly-skilled wing chun practitioner Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) is chosen as the southern representative to spar with visiting northern grandmaster Gong Yuitan (Wang Qing-xiang) to begin work on the unification of the two regions' fighting styles in advance of the inevitable Japanese invasion. Gong is retiring, and while he has chosen a successor in Ma San (Zhang Jin), he has only taught the 64 Hands style to his daughter Ruomei (Zhang Ziyi), familiarly called "Gong Er". A connection forms between Ip Man and Gong Er, but the Sino-Japanese war will prevent them from meeting again until 1950, when both are refugees in Hong Kong, and soon cut off from their homes in what is now the People's Republic.

At least in the American cut screened, The Grandmaster starts with action, a big fight scene choreographed by Yuen Wo-ping, which quickly establishes Ip Man's prowess against a crowd and offers a nice preview of what's to come. Like many of the fights in the movie, this isn't so much a battle of good versus evil, or even people with opposing interests, but of masters testing themselves against each other. Great pride will often be on the line, but Yuen and Wong have a chance to show off a little here and stage things to look cool, or explain the differences of various styles and their origins before demonstrating them. There's a particularly impressive sequence relatively early on where various older masters demonstrate the individual techniques that Gong Yutian has mastered to Ip Man, which makes the ensuing sequence when they are all in play all the more exciting. You don't have to be the sort of martial-arts fan that dives into this sort of minutia to enjoy the fights - the filmmakers offer up slick packages with a little wire work, a lot of style, and plenty of hard, quick hits that the casual action movie fan will thoroughly enjoy - but the attention to detail is impressive.

Full review at EFC.

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