In the mood for stylish kicks? So is the 53rd Berlin Film Festival, which opened Thursday night with the international premiere of Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, his long-in-the-works biopic of legendary martial arts master (and Bruce Lee's teacher) Ip Man. Snowfall dusted the star-studded screening at the Berlinale Palast, where the film’s leads, Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang, appeared alongside director Wong (who this year is also president of the international jury responsible for awarding the festival’s Golden and Silver Bears). It was almost impossible to distract from the spectacle: even a topless Ukranian feminist crashing the red carpet to protest female genital mutilation (wait, what?) barely caused a yawn among the paparazzi.
Anticipation so was high in Potsdammer Platz for Wong’s first feature since 2007’s English-language, U.S.-set misfire My Blueberry Nights, that the noon press screening at the cavernous Cinemaxx 7 was at near-capacity a full 30 minutes before show time. And the action epic did not disappoint, delivering one of the most unlikely genre hybrids with a swoon-worthy mash-up of popcorn-picture kung fu action and art-house romance. The 130-minute version currently playing in Chinese theaters (where the Asian blockbuster has already grossed north of $45 million) is now 10 minutes shorter due to cuts that streamlined some Chinese-specific exposition, but the film did not seem to suffer in the slightest. It’s easily Wong’s most resonant work since 2000’s In the Mood For Love.
Look no further than Wilson Yip’s recent series of Ip Man movies to see what a difference an auteurist sensibility can make with the exact same material. Those iterations, starring Donnie Yen and choreographed by Sammo Hung, were straight-up entertainments, with teeth-rattling action, maudlin sentimentality and heartwarming uplift. But Wong, who uses Ip Man’s story as a foundation for more sociopolitical and even metaphysical notions of identity, astonishingly infuses his trademark aching melancholy into all the fight scenes (masterfully staged by Yuen Woo-ping, the martial-arts maestro behind The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
Phillippe Le Sourd’s cinematography throughout is a marvel of lenses, lighting and composition, giving the whole spectacle a deliriously sumptuous texture that miraculously never feels indulgent. Under Wong’s direction, the fighting radiates beyond the participants, harmonizing with their environment instead of simply demolishing it in a way that not only showcases masterful fight moves but also deepens the film’s ideals of interconnectedness within a splintered world.
Storytelling has never been a strong point for Wong, and those looking for narrative details will find a threadbare patchwork of plot points that connect the characters in the most basic and unfettered ways. That said, this is still one of the more narratively propulsive of his films, as well as one of his most thematically urgent. Set in 1936 and spanning more than two decades, Wong’s epic addresses China’s political turmoil as well as the Japanese occupation that causes Ip Man’s ultimate journey to Hong Kong. And he uses Ip Man’s alchemic fusion of China’s myrid martial arts (his renowned Wing Chun school of kung fu) to draw parallels to an insatiable (and arguably unattainable) longing for unity and continuity – whether national, familial or even artistic.
One of the most pleasant surprises is that the film is just as much about Ziyi Zhang’s character Gong Er, a scion of an undefeated martial arts dynasty and a formidable opponent in her own right who connects with Ip Man with soul-mate intensity. Her story is just as poignant as his, infusing the film with a deeper feeling of loss.
The Grandmaster is not without its flaws—there are dollops of fortune cookie ruminations that threaten to overwhelm a handful of truly resonant confessions. And a post-credit action-montage epilogue ends with Tony Leung, still in character, lifting his hat brim and saying ‘What’s your style?” as though he were making a Nike commercial. But these are forgivable missteps in an otherwise audacious achievement. As one character explains, there are three steps to the path of a Grandmaster: being, knowing, and doing. As a director, Wong has clearly attained the title.
Check out the rest of our Berlin Film Festival 2013 coverage