Friday, October 4, 2013

The Grandmaster

Alternate Title:  Too Cool for School

One sentence synopsis:     Famous Martial Artist Ip Man fights for position and respect in Warlord and WWII-era China.

Things Havoc liked:  For those who've never heard of him, Ip Man was one of the progenitors of modern martial arts teaching, a practitioner of Wing Chun, who brought martial arts into the mainstream through a succession of students who would go on to become famous in their own right (such as Bruce Lee). Active from roughly 1920 to 1960, first in mainland China and later in Hong Kong, Ip Man lived through the warlord period, the Japanese occupation of large portions of China, the civil war and subsequent communist takeover, and all the myriad chaos woven through those difficult years. The Grandmaster is not the first movie to chronicle Ip Man's story (the eponymous Ip Man series is a particular gem for fans of kung fu movies), but it is one of the first to find a major American distributor, and thus here we are.

My knowledge of chinese actors is very limitted, and the only two actors I recognize are, providentially, the two leads, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, and Zhang Ziyi, respectively playing Ip Man himself, and Gong Er, the exceptionally skilled daughter of one of Ip Man's confederate martial arts masters. Leung has been in a hundred films, most of them unseen by me, but insofar as I can compare this performance to others of his at all, this is probably the best I've seen from him. He plays Ip Man not as a brooding badass, nor even as a young, indestructable lion, but as a martial arts master, who, when we meet him first, is at the top of his game, and knows it. His manner is refined and very restrained, with no un-necessary bragging or even needless demonstrations of his "true" power. He can, when necessary, destroy numbers of armed men who confront him in the streets, or defeat the mightiest martial artists in all of China, but failing the absolute need to do so, and to practice his craft, he seems perfectly content to allow others to attain glory and reputation, secure in the knowledge that his own place among the grandmasters is already unshakeable. Most Kung Fu movies are about the invincible protagonist triumphing over a sea of arch-rivals and evil foes. This invincible protagonist doesn't even bother to recognize his foes as worth worrying about. If they confront him, they will be beaten. And if they do not, then his life is unmolested by them.

Probably the only actor that anyone else here in the states will recognize however is Zhang Ziyi, of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Memoires of a Geisha, and The House of Flying Daggers. Though she looks roughly half of Ip Man's age, Zhang does manage to play the foil to him very well, partly because of her undisputed martial arts credentials. Indeed, weirdly enough, Zhang's character of Gong Er is the one who has the more traditional martial arts badass journey through the film, as she swears revenge against her father's finest student, who, following Japan's invasion of China, joins with the puppet government of Manchukuo and seizes control of his former master's training academy after slaying him. Gong Er's obsession with revenge (she forsakes marriage, children, and teaching in favor of vengeance) alongside her stern retainer Ding Lianshan, comprises a good half of the film, culminating in an inventive martial arts battle in a train station. Whether this actually happened or was made up out of whole cloth, I have no idea, but this thread provides the movie with much of its action...

Things Havoc disliked: ... which is really the problem.

I was prepared for many things when I sat down to watch this movie, but one thing I did not expect was to be bored. The reason for this is not the actors, who are uniformly excellent, nor the choreography, which is as high quality as one expects from Chinese martial arts movies, but because the story itself involves nothing happening. Ip Man literally does nothing for most of the film, save for the occasional philosophical discussion or sparring session. So detached that he doesn't even seem to be offended by his enemies, he simply saunters through the movie, leaving nothing whatsoever to look at. Yes, this is probably much more like the real Ip Man than the high-octane kung fu extravaganzas that have borne his name before this, but those movies at least had something in them worth watching. This movie is painfully dull, particularly in the long segments following Ip Man's appointment as grandmaster of the southern chinese martial arts schools, to say nothing of the entire last third of the movie, following the aforementioned battle in the train station, in which nothing happens for interminable periods of time.

And it's not like the movie has nothing to do in those periods either. Ip Man's fall from grace during the 1930s mirrored that of China itself. His daughters died of starvation, his wife was threatened by the Japanese puppet government if he did not join them publicly, he had to flee China for Hong Kong in the face of the Maoists or risk being killed as a symbol of China that was. Yet every one of these events is glanced over as unimportant next to scene number thirty-seven of Ip Man staring longingly out a window while Gong Er reads his letter and contemplates the beauty of snow on the cedar trees. If the film had just left these things out entirely, I could have understood it. Film is a narrative medium, and not every biography has to be scrupulously accurate. But worse than that, it actually references these seminal events in voiceover narration, passing off the deaths of Ip Man's family from starvation as though it were a minor incident of no importance. Worse yet, the movie actually goes on to treat it as such, scarcely giving Ip Man the slightest reaction to the horrific death of his entire family.

Final thoughts:   The above may sound worse than it actually is, but it illustrates the problem with this movie. Refreshing though it is to see a martial arts master who doesn't need to flex and attack every fifteen seconds to prove his manliness, this film goes way too far in the other direction, resulting in a main character who seems barely human in his reaction to the tragedies that shape his life. I appreciate the desire to do something new with a character that has, up till now, mostly been fodder for kung fu extravaganzas of mixed quality, but if the movie can't be bothered to take an interest in its own goings on, then why should we?

Final Score:  4/10

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