Far East Film Festival 20

Udine Italy April 20th/ April 28th 2018
The Film Festival For Popular Asian Cinema
Visionario, Via Asquini 33
Tuesday, April 25, time 5.00 PM

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The Grandmaster

The long journey of The Grandmaster began in 1996. Wong Kar-wai was filming Happy Together in Argentina when he saw a magazine with Bruce Lee on the cover. While ex­ploring the idea of making a Bruce Lee film, Wong learned about Lee’s master Ip Man and became fascinated by his story. The following 17 years saw false starts, a notoriously long production period and multiple missed release dates (three films and one television series on Ip were made in that time), but Wong’s exquisitely lush martial arts epic proved to be well worth the wait.
The Grandmaster starts in 1937, in what Ip (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) calls the ‘springtime of his life.’ Hailing from a rich family, Ip spends his days frequenting local dance halls and practicing wing chun in his hometown of Foshan. His fellow martial arts masters pull him into the spotlight when northern master Gong Yutian arrives in search of an opponent for his retirement tour.
Working with filmmaker and renowned martial arts scholar Xu Haofeng (The Master, The Sword Identity) on the script and Yuen Woo-ping’s precise and graceful choreog­raphy, Wong replaces his signature internal musings on love and loneliness with vivid details of different martial art forms. A breathtaking sequence early in the film shows Ip in a Game of Death-style gauntlet proving his wing chun prowess to the masters of other southern martial art schools before arriving at his match against Yutian.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Wong Kar-wai film without unrequited love. That comes in the form of Yutian’s daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi). After her father’s ‘defeat’ (in a battle of philosophy rather than martial arts), Er challenges Ip to a real fight to reclaim her family’s honour. The resulting fight lays the seeds for one of the most beautifully rendered unrequited romances in Wong’s filmography, though the unspoken romantic yearning throughout the story is thinly disguised as two martial artists looking for an­other rematch.
From that point, the film moves between Ip Man’s plight during the Sino-Japanese war and after his move to Hong Kong, Gong Er’s fight to reclaim her family honor from Baosen’s traitorous disciple Ma San (a career-changing turn by Max Zhang) and a mysterious baji quan master named The Razor (Chang Chen). The Grandmaster doesn’t indulge in the myth-making heroics of Wilson Yip’s Ip Man trilogy in the telling of Ip’s life story. It humanises him and portrays him as a man doing his best to survive, barely aware of the turbulent events happening in the world beyond him.
Contrasting with Leung’s introspective performance, Er’s arc emerges as the emotional core of the film. Forced to forego personal happiness for honour, Er is one of Wong’s most complex and tragic characters. Zhang’s total dedication to the role pays off handsomely with a fiery and dignified performance that will be remembered as one of her finest.
Subsequent re-edits of the film – the international version, the North America theatrical version and the ‘final’ 3-D version that was released theatrically in China – saw Wong restructuring the narrative and bringing the focus back to Ip (though those cuts also include new scenes with Er and The Razor). However, the original 130-minute Greater China region cut seems to be closest to Wong’s original vision: a grandiose modern wux­ia epic about the philosophies, traditions and legends that form the martial arts world. After two hours of contemplative martial art philosophies, The Grandmaster ends with a subversive and remarkably profound message about survival in the martial arts world: Becoming the grandmaster isn’t about defeating your opponents – it’s about being the last man standing.
Kevin Ma
Film director: 
Wong Kar-wai
Year: 
2013
Running time: 
122

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