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Film review: “The Grandmaster” by Wong Kai-Wai

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Christine Xu
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Film review: “The Grandmaster” by Wong Kai-Wai

“The Grandmaster,” a hypnotically beautiful dream from the Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, opens with curls of smoke, eddies of water and men soaring and flying across the frame as effortlessly as silk ribbons. The men are warriors, street fighters with furious fists and winged feet, who have massed together on a dark, rainy night to take on Ip Man (Tony Leung), a still figure in a long coat and an elegant white hat. Even amid the violent whirlpools of rain and bodies, that hat never leaves his head. It’s as unyielding as its owner.

“The Grandmaster” is yet another martial arts movie, though to describe it as such is somewhat like calling “L’avventura” a thriller about a missing woman. Arguments can be made, but would miss the mark. So would expectations of historical fidelity. Predictably, “The Grandmaster” is, given this filmmaker, less a straight biographical portrait of Ip Man and more an exploration of opposing forces like loyalty and love, horizontal and vertical, and the geometry of bodies moving through space and time. Ip Man’s experience as a martial arts master and even as a teacher to Bruce Lee are factors, but when Ip Man isn’t fighting, he transforms into one of Mr. Wong’s philosophers of the heart, one whose life is filled with inchoate longing, poetic observations and complicated women.

Here, as in Mr. Wong’s earlier films, his sumptuous excesses — the lush music, the opulent rooms, the seductive drift, the thundering blows — both help tell the story and offer something more. When, for instance, Ip Man sits motionless while everyone rushes around him in fast motion, as if he and they were living in different time signatures, it’s an expression of radical isolation that’s so vivid it lingers after the scene ends. Through these different, obviously artificial speed settings, Mr. Wong isn’t simply showing you a man alone or a memorable picture of loneliness; he is also suggesting that this is what the experience of isolation feels like. Again and again in “The Grandmaster,” images become feelings which become a bridge to this distant world.The Grandmaster earned Academy Award nominations earlier this year for cinematography and costume design (and narrowly missed out on a foreign language film nod) and has taken well over $60m worldwide after becoming a solid domestic hit in China in 2013.

In my lesson, I plan to let my students view a scene from China in 1893-1972 which the music and visuals reflect the modern life of Chinese at that time. They then use a scene analysis framework to explore why Wong Kai-wai ( the director) chose the setting, camera angles, lighting, and music and what choices do they create the scene’s tone. Then I will let them to talk about Chinese culture that related to Chinese martial arts.  Students will reflect on the scene individually and in groups and then create their own scene to be presented to the rest of the class. 

Sources: nytimes