The Grandmaster (2013) is the first and only kung fu movie to come from Hong Kong film auteur Wong Kar-wai, but by no means does it suffer because of that. In fact, Western critics loved The Grandmaster — even though most probably didn’t grasp its full meaning.
Wong is no noob when it comes to filmmaking. His resume includes Happy Together (1997), In the Mood for Love (2000) and My Blueberry Nights (2007). So when he conceived of The Grandmaster as an authentic depiction of wing chun kung fu that features purposefully hidden martial arts nuances, it’s safe to say he knew what he was doing.
You can’t blame the reviewers for failing to notice those concealed treasures. The truth is, anyone who’s not a martial arts practitioner likely won’t appreciate the subtleties of the film.
Before Wong Kar-wai started shooting the movie, he devoted several years to research, roaming around China in search of old kung fu masters. He even lived with a few so he could learn about and actually experience the traditions of the martial arts. During that time, many of those masters shared stories that otherwise would never have been told.
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Wong began to understand what it means to be a martial artist. Hint: It’s not about fighting or winning tournaments. The most important parts of the picture Wong discovered were intelligently inserted into The Grandmaster, as were the words that became mantra for the film: seeing, knowing and doing.
That mantra is what inspired lead actor Tony Leung to practice kung fu for three years in preparation for the role. The first year of his training took place under the shadow of not even knowing who he would portray in the film.
After suffering two broken bones, which served as his comeuppance into the real world of martial arts, Leung became concerned not that he’d be unable to execute the required film fights in a convincing manner but that he might hurt his opponents in the process.
The Grandmaster loosely chronicles the life of Ip Man (also spelled Yip Man), the man who trained Bruce Lee. It starts in the 1930s, when Ip lived in China, continues through the events that caused him to flee to Hong Kong after the Communist takeover and ends with his death in 1972.
The movie opens with Ip reflecting on martial arts, then cuts to a rainy scene in which he faces a dozen combatants. The water really tested Leung’s mettle. He later said it was the toughest scene to film. For 30 consecutive nights, Leung and the stuntmen were soaked to the teeth. Each time, no one was allowed to change into dry clothes until filming wrapped the next morning.
“Every night by midnight, I’d be shivering cold,” Leung recalled. “I began taking cold medicines and felt myself getting sicker and sicker. When we finished the scene, I was out for five days, taking medicines and living on rice porridge. I thought I had pneumonia — couldn’t stop coughing. It was bronchitis. That was the hardest thing about the filming.
“We wore cloth-soled shoes and fought in water that was over our ankles. Training doesn’t prepare you for fighting in the rain with slippery shoes. It got so cold, but with the fighting, I was perspiring. The fights put me under a lot of pressure. After all, I’m not a kung fu actor, but the film takes kung fu very seriously. I was nervous because I worried about hurting people and not doing the fights well enough.”
Back to the story: In Foshan in 1936, the kung fu community is restless over the retirement of master Gong Yu-tian, leader of the Chinese Martial Arts Association. Hoping to find a worthy successor, the northern master sets up a battle of wits with the best fighter from the south — Ip Man. Most moviegoers failed to grasp the essence behind this fight. I won’t share it here out of respect for Wong Kar-wai, who said he wanted to keep it reserved for martial arts insiders.
The final fight featuring Gong Yu-tian’s daughter will also leave non-martial artists and Western critics wondering what the heck happened. The key moment involves fa jing (explosive energy), chi and kung fu.
Likewise, viewers who rely on the English translations to comprehend all that is happening in the movie won’t grasp the spirit of the Chinese dialogue, which eloquently masks the cryptic codes of martial skill and philosophy. However, those who walk the path, who know how to open their mind so they can experience the martial arts as a way of life, are likely to get The Grandmaster.
Are you up to the challenge?
(Photos Courtesy of The Weinstein Co.)