When kung fu meets couture
ALABOUR of love. That’s what one gathers from watching Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster.
I made time to watch this martial arts epic, as the Academy Awards is around the corner. The Grandmaster is nominated for Costume Design, and yours truly was curious to see how an Asian film landed in this category, pitted against American Hustle, The Great Gatsby, The Invisible Woman and 12 Years A Slave. (Why it didn’t receive a nod for Foreign Language Film is beyond me.)
I predict that American Hustle – which has gained serious momentum in the awards circuit of late – will sashay away with the trophy. Still, I have my fingers crossed for The Grandmaster’s costume designer William Chang Suk-Ping and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd; the latter is nominated in the Cinematography category (along with Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska and Prisoners).
At Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Awards last November, The Grandmaster claimed five awards, four in craft categories, and one for Zhang Ziyi as Best Leading Actress.
Besides being an award winner, the film stars A-listers Zhang and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. Therefore, I’m dumbfounded that it was never released in Malaysian cinemas last year. I mean, c’mon, how many mo lei tau (nonsensical) comedies from Hong Kong must we be subjected to?
Still, not everyone would appreciate The Grandmaster’s lush, languid pace. But fans of Wong would love, love this. As a movie critic points out, Wong “crafts movies you live and breathe in until they’re absorbed into your system. In short, his movies are the stuff that dreams are made of.”
This is a filmmaker who makes melancholy seductive; I remember his other masterpiece In The Mood For Love (which was, thankfully, shown here on the big screen in 2000) which left cinema-goers breathless, awed yet heartbroken.
It took Wong six long years to make The Grandmaster, and you can tell this from his painstaking attention to detail in every frame. It tells the story of two decades in the life of Ip Man (played by Leung), the kung fu master who specialised in the school of Wing Chun (the same style he went on to teach Bruce Lee).
Just as fashionistas ooh-ed and ahh-ed over Maggie Cheung’s cheongsams in In The Mood; they’d swoon over The Grandmaster’s runway-ready wardrobe.
Leung’s character makes his first appearance in a fight sequence, in a dark alley. As heavy rain falls, he takes on dozens of streetfighters, wearing a white wide-brimmed hat.
Punches are thrown and bodies fly all over the place ... in slow motion. Throughout the brawl, Leung (an actor who never seems to age) is unflappable. He doesn’t break a sweat and doesn’t even lose his stylish hat.
The viewer is then transported to a brothel, where the courtesans are garbed in figure-hugging qipaos and exquisite jewellery. Their make-up and hair are flawless.
In the movie’s best fight se- quence, set in a train station during a snowstorm, Zhang wears a lovely fur coat. Her character Gong Er – out to avenge her father’s murder – coughs up blood on the coat after the battle. Zhang is luminous; I was never really a fan, but she won me over. In fact, by the end of the movie, I was (comically) trying to ape her “64 Hands” fighting technique.
The action sequences are choreographed like poetry in motion by Yuen Wo Ping (of The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill fame).
Wong reportedly insisted that Leung and Zhang perform their own fighting. Hence, no stunt doubles were used.
The fighting scenes were so elaborate that they would take weeks to film; the aforementioned opening setpiece took a month.
Last but not least, there’s the dialogue. In typical Wong style, it’s laced with poignancy.
“To say there are no regrets in life is to fool yourself,” muses Gong Er. “Imagine how boring life would be without regrets.”
Sigh. Swoon. Please watch this.
William wishes that real life is like a Wong Kar Wai movie, where everyone wears fabulous clothes and moves in slow motion. But not where the protagonist dies a tragic death, obviously. Send your feedback to email@example.com.
Fabulous fighters: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Zhang Ziyi in a scene from The Grandmaster. They are surrounded by courtesans, garbed in exquisite apparel.