In Which Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster Leaves Me Begging For Mercy

Sometimes a movie begins, and within ten seconds you hate it, and try as you might to step back, to go with the flow, to give it another chance, nothing works, it thwarts you at every turn, it opens by poking you in the eye with a sharp stick, and ever lets up.

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The Grandmaster is such a movie. Without knowing any of the characters, without knowing the story, without hardly anything having happened, you’d think only the worst of filmmakers could fill you with dread in the opening minutes of a movie. You would not expect someone as talented as Wong Kar Wai to do it. And yet I can say, with pure, unexaggerated honesty, that I would rather stick my head in a box of live weasels than watch The Grandmaster again.

The movie opens with a box of live weasels…no, wait, that’s how I wished it began. I wish it was about a kung-fu master weasel who fought snakes on another planet, and at the end ten thousand alien spaceshifts land, out of which pour aliens so weird and evil that the weasel kung-fu master is left with no choice but to send the entire universe spinning to its death down the gaping maw of the black hole from which the aliens draw their power. For example.

I think the actual movie has something to do with kung-fu master Ip Man (Wong Kar Wai regular Tony Leung), famous to we in the west for having trained Bruce Lee. Is he famous in China for anything else? I bet he is. I’m led to understand he’s quite the historical figure. Too bad they didn’t make a movie about him. That is, a movie that didn’t suck harder than a one-legged whore on Arbor Day.

Ip Man, he of one expression

Ip Man, he of one expression

According to this movie, which might have been vastly improved had it featured a kung-fu fighting one-legged whore, Ip Man is a man who shows not a single emotion, who has no desires, no fears, no wants, no needs, is incapable of losing a fight, but who engages in no fights other than the bloodless kind in order to prove to various people that, no, really, you guys, my kung-fu is awesome.

What is the point of this fight? Shh, that's a secret.

What is the point of this fight? Shh, that’s a secret.

Actually he does lose one fight. A woman beats him, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi). Or so she says. What happens is they spin around fighting until they stop, each staring at the other, and in the next scene she gently mocks him for having lost, which apparently was due to his breaking the tread on a stairway. Did I miss the part where they lay out the rules of the fight? Maybe I was distracted. With boredom.

Speaking of scenes, there are none. The movie consists mainly of, I don’t even know how to put it, let’s say, maybe, gestures? Can we say that? The movie consists of gestures, of people saying things about Ip Man, sort of, but not really, and then somebody fights somebody, but briefly, and we have no idea what the fight means to anyone doing the fighting, and then we’re on to something else, only so slowly and with such disregard for character and story it seems to take forever to transpire.

The entire thing is shot in close-up. Close-ups and never-ceasing fast edits. As far as I could tell, the whole movie was shot in maybe two rooms and a train station. There’s no way to tell because no scene is ever set. It’s all close-ups of faces and shoes and hands. And there are no scenes. Did I mention that?

A train station! I can tell by the train.

A train station! I can tell by the train.

The only person in the movie who seems to have some kind of desire that we the audience are let in on is Gong Er, she of the 64 monkey hands style (to paraphrase), who’s out for revenge against Ma San, the creepy weasel (there is a weasel in here!) who killed her father. She kicks his ass in a train station. I knew it was a train station because of the train racing by them while they fought, which must have consisted of maybe 500 cars.

Gong Er and Ma San’s fight is the culmination of Gong Er’s history since we last saw her (when she fought Ip Man), which takes maybe a half hour of screen time, at the end of the movie. The movie about Ip Man. Where’s Ip Man during this half hour? Beats me. He vanishes for a half hour, then reappears for the final five minutes or so to be old and die. Or something.

I appreciate daring in my movies, but abandoning your lead for a half hour at the end? Maybe not the best move.

Reviews are generally positive for this thing. I don’t get it. Do I have to know more about Chinese history? The history of kung-fu movies? I’ve seen some, but I’m no expert. The fights in here are uniformly boring. They’re shot with a combination of quickly cut punches/kicks/etc. and slow motion shots of feet sliding gracefully over wooden  floors. I assume that, stylistically, it resembles or plays off or or builds on what’s come before in the world of martial arts films, but despite my lack of expertise in the genre, I’m sure I’ve seen far better fights than these, in far better movies. Enter The Dragon comes to mind.

bad guys wear moustaches

bad guys wear moustaches

They key to making fights interesting isn’t how you shoot them—though that’s certainly a factor—it’s knowing who’s fighting and what they’re fighting for. In The Grandmaster, with the exception of Gong Er’s fight against Ma San, not a single fight means anything except for one thing: Ip Man proving that he can fight. Which, yes, that’s a motivation, but it’s not much of one. Hey you guys! I can fight! Seriously! Look! See? I totally whupped you. And Leung acts the part showing zero emotion. None. Does he care about anything? At all? His daughters being killed by the invading Japanese? Never seeing his wife again? These events aren’t shown, they’re written on-screen. We never see Ip Man reacting to, well, anything.

Why would we? There’s no story. There are gestures. These gestures race through time, from the ‘30s to the ‘50s to, well, I don’t know. Until Ip Man dies. Is this a history of Ip Man? Of kung-fu? Of China? It wants to be a little of each, and succeeds at none.

I didn’t even like the look of the movie. It’s shot digitally and looks it. The screen seems to stutter with digital jerkiness at times. Is this on purpose? It’s hard to tell. The lighting is dull, the images run into one another. It’s a visual dud, with only a few brief shots that leave an impression.

the prettiest shot of the movie

the prettiest shot of the movie

How is this possible coming from Wong Kar Wai? I have no idea. This is the man who made In The Mood For Love, which is all emotion and color and character. His movies are renowned for their visual beauty and intensity of emotion. Not so with The Grandmaster.

I don’t require movies to be linear, to over-explain, to be simple, to be easy. In fact, I like them best when information is imparted visually, and when I have to concentrate and, in a sense, work at it to fully understand and appreciate them. I don’t think The Grandmaster falls into this category. It’s not understated. It’s not artfully oblique. It’s not simmering with subtlety. It’s unemotional, confused, muddled, and, the worst sin of all, boring from the first scene to the last.

I left the theater depressed, with the feeling I never wanted to watch another movie as long as I lived. That’s serious business. That’s one terrible fucking movie. Bring on the box of weasels!

7 responses on “In Which Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster Leaves Me Begging For Mercy

  1. This looked a bit ropey from the trailer and preview scenes I watched; I could scarce dredge the patience to make it through those, so the full feature must’ve been excrutiating.

    If you’re not scarred for life(!) I’d recommend Donnie Yen’s Ip Man duology though – classic storytelling style, well executed, and first rate fight scenes.

  2. Can you please tell me who the OTHER guy with a mustache is in the movie??? He has a random fight in the rain? WHO IS THIS MAN AND WHAT IS HIS PURPOSE?!?

    • WHAT?! I thought it wasn’t another guy with a mustache—I thought it was the same mustache! On two guys! Well, this movie just gets more and more confusing. If we’re talking about TWO separate mustaches involved in a fight in the rain, then I just don’t know what’s going on at all anymore. Damn movie can’t even get a mustache fight right!

  3. This is the first movie I watched on my freshly installed home theater setup (with a scary 10m hdmi cable). The stutter effect made me cringe and immediately fall into despair that my setup couldn’t handle full HD. Turns out it’s just *this* movie. I positively hate that stutter effect. It does not look like an artistic consideration at all. It looks and feel like bad interlacing when somebody might have done undue frame rate conversions!

    • On the one hand, I’m a little angry that you’ve reminded me this movie exists, but on the other hand, I appreciate you pointing out yet another reason to be annoyed by it. As for testing out a new home theater set-up, you can never go wrong with Blade Runner.

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.