Right away, most people who see “The Grandmaster” will be bowled over by its visual virtuosity. The movie’s fight scenes zing by with balletic grace and the rhythmic flourish of great music. The plot begins to bubble when a secretly trained female kung fu expert from the North appears to challenge the main character, who’s been chosen as best of the Southern Chinese masters.
The pair’s eye-popping altercation entices us into a haunting near-Platonic love story. That element, alas, is invented. In a way the film pays tribute not only to a legendary teacher of Bruce Lee. It also draws attention to the unknown women who managed to master forms of the martial arts despite the entrenched tradition of denying this knowledge to females.
The movie presents two kung fu artists at the pinnacle of their powers: Ip Man, the real-life southern Chinese master played by megastar Tony Leung; and the daughter of a fictional great northern Chinese master, Gong Er, played by the beautiful Ziyi Zhang. [The movie’s original title was “The Grandmasters.”]
The Sino-Japanese War, the invasion and occupation of China that led up to the Asian theatre of WW2, rears its ugly historical head. Viewers are informed that during his time Ip lost two daughters to starvation. (The real Ip was survived by two sons…were his sons fed better during the hard times—a long and ignominious tradition in more than one society—or were they born later?) I’ve read that the Chinese language version of the film is 30 minutes longer because gruesome facts of the Japanese invasion are shown in more detail.
Despite the historical gravitas, visual thrills, and emotional pull of all these factors, to this attending metaphysician, they remain surface attention-grabbers.
Below these layers, I was intrigued by the amazingly non-hostile look in Leung’s eyes as he takes on a raft of arrogant martial artists in challenge matches throughout the film. Especially in his duel with Gong Er, his expression is humble and alert rather than macho and patronizing.
In all Ip/Leung’s battles, of course, he is fighting for his life, or at least his honor, should he be spared by an opponent. But what an outlook! You have to see the set of his face, the quiet, non-hostile readiness for each attacker, to appreciate how wonderfully this actor portrays his character’s confidence—visible in the quality of his attention. Why does he look so consistently, um, friendly? It’s disconcertingly unwarriorlike. But convincingly, uh…masterful.
Perhaps part of it stems from the fact that Tony Leung trained for three years before the cameras rolled on his portrayal of Ip Man. Some very well known kung fu masters participate in this film, several of them having helped train Leung. Is that why he looks at his opponents with something akin to respectful fondness? Or does he somehow exude a feeling like that of Wilfred Owen, the WW1 British poet-soldier who wrote of his adversary as “My enemy, my friend”?
Ziyi Zhang has a background in dance, but she also trained rigorously in kung fu before being filmed. She looks demure rather than friendly, and intent on defending her father’s reputation. Their convincing performances, even with occasional use of body doubles, is steeped in painstaking prior attention to training and fitness.
Perhaps the highest moment of artistry—and depth—comes in a snow-flecked nighttime showdown on a train platform in Hong Kong. Gong Er has caught up with her nemesis. This man, an orphan her father trained to succeed him, betrayed her family’s honor by collaborating with the Japanese, and expelled her from her family home. By the time they meet we know that their form of kung fu is lethal, this guy has no conscience, and it’ll be a fight to the finish. A terrible moment comes when she is pinned, her head inches away from the wheels of a passing train. One more shove and she’d be decapitated. Somehow she escapes his clutches and renders him unable to rise from the platform. When he tries to appear noble in surrendering his position, she replies, “Let’s be clear,” and states firmly to his followers that he has done so only because she’s defeated him.
Uh-oh. Didn’t the Chinese originate the concept of saving face? And isn’t that expression crucial to the quality of attention one might expect to receive from others? What Gong has done is vindicate herself, whom this traitor threw out of her home with a sneering put-down that she was ‘only a woman.’ But she has also humiliated a man desperate to retain the admiration of his followers…a man who’d used all his skill to try to kill her.
We watch her leave the scene in apparent serenity, only to observe how, in the privacy of her home, she coughs up blood. Afterward, she stops practicing medicine and becomes addicted to opium. One has to assume that this is no idle indulgence, but a last resort to endure mortal pain.
Alas, the price of revenge is steep. Gong accepts it, diverting her attention away from disappointment and towards readying herself to die. Was her father right all along? Now she is too injured to carry on her father’s teaching, and too weak to heal others.
Meanwhile, Ip locates her after the war in Hong Kong, and she accepts his invitation to tea. He does not know the price she has paid to avenge herself and her father, and hopes she will look upon him as more than a rival she narrowly defeated years ago.
Alas again. She admits she has cared about him, even uses the word love, but says this will be their last meeting. Only the viewers know why she is so discouraging to him, and are allowed to taste the bitterness and honor of her confession.
Maybe I’m a hopeless romantic, but no sex scene in any movie I’ve ever seen can match this quiet conversation over tea between two incredibly attractive characters who do not so much as touch hands.
Ip, so innocent in his optimism, urges Gong to continue her father’s teaching. As if most of her has already died, she answers that it is part of life that great forms of knowledge have been lost or forgotten. She says she has already forgot the “64 hands” for which her father was legendary. As though passing a mystical baton, she expresses hope that Ip will continue to teach and expand his own knowledge. From what we know, he surely did.
The most memorable adage from The Grandmaster comes from Gong Er’s father, via his daughter. She tells Ip that there are three essential things in life: being, knowing, and doing. In a flashback we also see that he told his unfaithful but ambitious disciple never to think himself the best: “There is always someone better.” True mastery implies humility.
Leaving open the possibility that someone can always do it better, even if one has mastered something, is a wonderful insight into the finest quality of attention—ever willing to respect and admire others.
What a movie. What a master class.