Year Released: 2013
Directed by: Wong Kar Wai
Starring: Tony Leung, Ziyi Zhang
(PG-13, 130 min.)
Genre: Asian, Martial Arts
“Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water.” Bruce Lee
This biography of Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s legendary teacher, is literally a grand mess. Wing Chun Kung Fu, that perfect blending of martial arts styles this film purports to describe, is at odds with the self-indulgent mishmash of plot, ethos, and “authentic” history the artsy director Wong Kar Wai gives us.
I liked it better when Wong brought his Federico Fellini style to a martial arts soap opera in 2008’s Ashes of Time Redux . It too promised more than it delivered, but that mystic film conversely delivered more than it promised as well. In that haunting dreamscape of a film we could accept the abrupt shifts in time and space without apparent explanation.
But The Grandmaster sets out as a documentary of sorts. “The Grandmaster is very accurate,” Wong insists in his interview with L.A. film critic Bob Strauss. “There’s only one element which is fictional, the character of Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang).”
Well, duh. The main plot fixation is on the platonic romance between Gong and the very married Ip Man, which is self-contradictory on its own terms, even without the disconcerting fact that Gong’s character is invented for this “authentic” film.
Maybe that’s because in reality, Ip Man did not, as portrayed in the film, separate from his wife and children due to forces beyond his control, i.e. the closing off of Hong Kong where he had supposedly gone to work to send funds home to his impoverished family. No, in reality, Ip’s wife and children were able to join him in Hong Kong a few years later, but his wife refused to stay and returned to their town of Foshan. After that Ip Man took a mistress with whom he had one son.
Perhaps this contradiction stems from another ironic distortion in Wong Kar Wai’s “authentic” biography of the man he romanticized even while protesting that he was not interested in Ip Man as a hero. The designated culprits in the film are the Japanese, who invade China in 1936 and take over the home and riches of the previously wealthy Ip Man. In reality, those financial losses were as much due to the 1911 revolution that overthrew China’s last emperor and the communist takeover of Foshan in 1949.
In fact, anti-communist Ip Man was actually a detective in the Republic of China and was thus on the losing side when Mao Tse Tung took over the country. He fled to British Hong Kong for his life, not to get a job as the film blandly states.
Maybe that’s because, although one of the films’ strongest condemnations is against a Chinese martial arts grandmaster who becomes a collaborator with the Japanese, in actuality, the real collaborator is Director Wong Kar Wai. As he himself admits, since the 1997 British hand over of Kong Hong’ to Mainland China, its once mighty film industry has come under the influence of Beijing. The movie world as he once knew it no longer exists. But while he vilifies the fellow who “collaborates” with the Japanese, Wong himself is one happy little collaborator.
Of course, I’ve been affected. If, today, you look for Hong Kong filmmakers you haven’t seen in a long time, you’d better go to Beijing. Ninety percent of the industry people are working on projects in China. You have to cope with their rules there, but it’s a bigger playground, you have more people and more resources. I don’t think collaboration is a bad thing.
You have to deal with the censors. But with a film like Grandmaster, you don’t have any problems with them.
Especially if you make the Japanese the chief villains and wipe out any mention of communist atrocities, such as the fact that both of Ip’s sons who returned to Foshan with their mother were sent to reeducation camps by the communists. (They fled communist China in 1963 to be with their father in Hong Kong.) *
And while we have to commend Wong for the six years he took to research his film, one has to question his rewriting of history to make his Chinese censors happy. And yes, the three years of martial arts training Wong’s regular leading man Tony Leung undertook to approach his role is laudable, but one cannot help but wonder why Wong chose to use someone untrained in martial arts to depict this beloved grandmaster. Maybe that is why some experts complain that the fighting scenes are too brief and consist mainly of close-ups and sudden strikes that send the other combatant flying.
But if you are looking for martial arts with the emphasis on arts, images of magnificent brothels, duels in steamy train stations or relentless rain, with the dark pools of water almost as soulful as Tony Leung’s eyes, this film is for you.
*Much of this history is from the very interesting review The Grand Master: A Dissenting View by Jon Nielson, who has practiced Wing Chun for over thirty years.
Most important decisions in China, as well as Japan, India, Africa, and Great Britain, are made over tea. In our film, the martial arts group sips tea in some most unlikely places, magnificent brothels that host the martial arts as well as their more traditional fare.
Let’s pay tribute to Hong Kong, where Ip Man lived for the final two decades of his life. The place where he instructed a little street urchin named Bruce Lee in the martial arts.
We salute that city with one of its signature drinks, Honey Milk Tea over Ice, just the thing for these steamy days of lingering summer.
Hong Kong Honey Milk Tea
Original recipe makes 1 drink
2 orange pekoe tea bags
1 cup boiling water
5 ice cubes
4 teaspoons sweetened condensed milk
3 teaspoons honey
Steep the tea bags in hot water until the color turns dark red, about 3 to 5 minutes. Discard the tea bags and let the tea cool.
Combine the ice cubes, sweetened condensed milk, and honey in a glass or cocktail shaker. Pour in the tea and mix well. (If the tea is still warm, the ice may melt; add more ice if desired.) A strong, flavorful milk tea is ready for you to enjoy.