“Now the fight becomes something more than a contest of wills, it becomes a careful discovery of kindred spirits as seen through a reciprocal poetry of martial arts form.”
Men and women gaze down from train windows, and a warm light captures their motionless calm as if they were held in amber. Outside, the station lamps illuminate flecks of snow drifting from dark clouds above. Amidst these graceful notes of a New Year’s Eve evening, Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang) and Ma San (Jin Zhang) stand several lengths apart from each other, feet planted, shoulders squared. They stare ahead without expression. In Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster, the traditional martial arts stand-off yields to the surrounding beauty of the environment, and as this match begins, the choreography becomes a natural extension of these poetic inflections. The fight between rivals Gong Er and Ma San is almost intimately framed, as close-up chaotic shots of action are interwoven with prolonged moments that emphasize the body in motion. Wong Kar Wai favors the stylized punctuation of a fist held just inches from an opponent’s chest, like a sparrow alight on a perch, over sweeping wide-angle shots that would capture their movements in succinct clarity. Indeed, the director does not seek clarity at all but raw emotion, and with The Grandmaster he captures that emotion through the paradoxical complement of brute force and temperance.
The story of The Grandmaster follows the legendary Ip Man (Tony Leung), a martial arts master who popularized the style of Wing Chun and took on a young, precocious Bruce Lee as student. These facts give the film a tenuous foothold in reality, and from that foundation Kar Wai leaps willingly into an indulgent fabrication of the grandmaster’s mythology. While this deviation may sound like a detriment, in practice it gives the film room to breathe. Throughout Grandmaster, the director uses Ip Man’s saga to re-explore familiar themes — unrequited love, isolation, the haunt of the past — and then recontextualizes these themes within a balanced martial arts philosophy. When the film’s characters are confronted by the ills of life, carefully wrought by their creator, they do not wallow or drift aimlessly. Instead, they respond with composed grace; they act only when needed and do not waste words on trifles like pity. Grandmaster then makes an explicit connection between this composure in life and the composure in the midst of a fight. After all, a master does not achieve greatness through sheer strength alone, he does so by knowing when to yield and when to strike. And though a master may be said to live his entire life as an embodiment of this principle, the fights themselves bleed into the personal and symbolic as well through their filmic execution.
When Gong Er challenges Ip Man to a duel early in the film, the meeting means little more for her than an attempt to re-establish the supremacy of the northern stylings of martial arts over those of the south. Ip Man accepts the offer, wanting only to see the beauty of her 64 Hands technique. As the fight begins, their bodies seem to blend together as pieces of broken clay seeking their match. The two exchange blows as they bound back and forth across the opposing railings of a staircase, and as they both fly into the air at once, the camera hesitates while they pass each other in near suspended animation: their eyes locked on the other and time rendered immaterial. Now the fight becomes something more than a contest of wills; it becomes a careful discovery of kindred spirits as seen through a reciprocal poetry of martial arts form. Naturally, the duel does not end with some dreadful impact, a landing blow that would betray the tenderness found here, but through the soft breaking of a staircase floorboard — a violation of the rules set before the fight.
Following this poised dance, the travails of The Grandmaster begin in earnest. Ip Man loses two daughters to starvation during the Japanese occupation that preceded World War II, and soon is cut off from the rest of his family in a cordoned-off, British-occupied Hong Kong. Meanwhile, he harbors love for Gong Er born from their fight, and even finds the woman lost in the city as well, but instead of telling her of his love, he gives her a button from a coat: all that is left from a planned trip north. Er understands the feelings behind this gesture, but she has her own complicated past to worry her. She has sworn an oath to Lord Buddha that she will not mother children or teach another soul her 64 Hands technique, a promise given in order to gain favor and avenge the death of her father at the hands of a former pupil — the aforementioned Ma San. And though she feels the same way toward Ip Man, she cannot act on it. She laments that once an arrow has been let loose, it cannot return to its bow, and leaves matters of the heart alone.
As Grandmaster leads into Gong Er’s showdown at the train station, flitting easily into the past, the mood changes. The fight is a perfect antithesis to Er’s match with Ip Man, because here a savage intent takes over. Ma San is seen as a dangerous man, who holds death in every strike, and thus the occasional hesitation in the fight choreography allows for premeditation. The opponents mean to harm each other; they do not act with heedless passion but with measured contempt. And yet the intimate framing that surrounds these still moments affirms the turbulent circumstances that the two find themselves in. Er’s revenge may be attempted with befitting poise, but the complicated emotions behind her decision remain inextricable: love and grief for her lost father and a fear that she cannot best Ma San in a match. For Ma San the same can be said, only for arrogance and guilt. By allowing for the contrast, Kar Wai’s film manages to elevate the action on the screen as a tempered response to overwhelming sentiment.
Once the fight concludes, Grandmaster returns again to the present. Gong Er and Ip Man meet once more; they acknowledge a love affair that will never be satisfied and thrill in coming as close as they ever will to consummating it — just by saying the words out loud. If longing and regret weigh on either of them, they do not to let these feelings rule them. Er even admits she prefers a life with regrets, that it gives meaning. The two part easily, and the film picks up again with the legend of its protagonist, who establishes a Kung Fu school in Hong Kong that will later gain renown. In the end, he weathers the brutal fortunes of life and moves on, a stolid fixture. Still, Kar Wai persists in telling a love story above all else, and that is what the audience is left with. If the action kindles excitement, it does so as a lyrical extension of the heart and resolve of the characters. Looking closely, each duel puts words to something that would otherwise remain unsaid, and all the better because this way you can almost feel the words instead of hearing them.