The Grandmaster

"Yi dai zong shi" [original title]
Zhang Ziyi and Tony Leung
Directed by Wong Kar-Wai

This is Wong Kar Wai’s first martial arts outing, not to mention his first film since his embarrassing English-language attempt “My Blueberry Nights” from 2007.

Wong spent three years researching “Grandmaster,” which tells of Kung Fu masters in Northern China and Hong Kong in the years before WWII until the fifties, and he seems to have gotten all the details, down to the buttons on Tony Leung’s fur coat and the uniforms of the Japanese occupiers, perfect.

With Leung and Ziyi Zhang in the lead roles, Wong dishes up an operatic martial arts film which, aside from some thrillingly-choreographed, shot and edited fight scenes, is epically dull. Wong uses many of his trademark effects–strobe photography, slow motion, propulsive music, on-screen text–-in the service of a generic plot that is woefully-paced and occasionally confusing. It hardly has enough going for it to justify its running time. At two hours, it feels far longer.

Several subplots that go nowhere could easily be eliminated, but even without these, its hard to imagine Wong’s afficionados being taken in by the solemnity and reverential tone of so much of the plodding proceedings, nor by the silly and repressed romance between Leung and Zhang: their most intimate encounter comes when their spinning faces nearly graze each other during a fight. Wong shows us climactic fights in a high-class brothel, amid porcelain teapots, in the middle of a downpour (we actually get two of these), and on an outdoor train platform.

Beyond this, it’s a pity that Wong has chosen to shoot on digital. Aside from lending much of the film a video-game-like effect, digital is also kinder to certain visual textures than others. Snow and water
look great. Fire and dimly-lit interiors look pixilated and/or blurry.

This article was originally published by us during this film’s Berlinale premiere.