For a while, Wong Kar-wai was the answer to all film lovers’ prayers: he offered a heart-stopping camera style, a mature interest in raw, unrequited passions and a genius for tapping magnetic turns. So strong is his ‘In the Mood for Love’ (2000) that it summed up not just a decade of lush Asian impressionism, but the entire first century of the movies.
So what’s this most exquisite of directors doing making a martial-arts flick? All props to Bruce Lee, King Hu and ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, but the genre, even at its most thrilling, puts limitations on the subtler filmmaker. ‘The Grandmaster’, five years in the making, feels like a waste of Wong’s talents. Sure, it’s loaded with foot-to-face combat, gorgeously photographed and edited, as the plot leisurely unpacks the true-life tale of Ip Man (Tony Leung), the ’30s-era kung fu master whose style would affect a generation of fighters to come. But there’s only one tone to these impeccably crafted sequences: bone-dry solemnity. Wong’s fans will miss his sophisticated humour, his thoughtful reach.
When he’s not kicking people, Ip circles Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the lethally skilled daughter of a revered talent handler. Their flirtation at one point takes the form of a stairs-bound duel; elsewhere, they recite poems or stare at each other longingly. Wong has done this dynamic better in virtually all of his past work, there’s a pretty dullness here that shouldn’t be confused for mastery.