Saturday, March 1, 2014

THE GRANDMASTER's Blu-ray/DVDebut: Wong Kar Wai's gorgeous & moving ode to martial arts

The name Wong Kar Wai sure does set a lot us critics' hearts aflutter. We adore his ultra-romantic, color-saturated films full of love, longing and renunciation, among other things. "Other things" this time would include, surprisingly, the martial arts and the history of that famous Grand-master (and teacher of Bruce Lee), known as Ip Man. Mr. Wong may have a special place in the hearts of American film critics, but that place does not yet include most American audiences. On Rotten Tomatoes, for instance, THE GRANDMASTER garners an 75% approval rating from critics, but only 61% from audiences. Well, maybe they'll come around in time....

Meanwhile, those of us who love Wong's work -- the filmmaker is shown at left -- can exult in his latest, just now arriving on DVD and Blu-ray. This is a decidedly different kind of film from anything I've seen by this director, while maintaining Wong's signature style. The film is almost ceremonial in its quietude and pacing, and because it is dealing with historic characters of great note and importance to Chinese history and culture, the filmmaker has chosen two of the most iconic performers working in Chinese film to play the leads, Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi. Both actors do what is possibly the most subtle and brilliant work of their careers in this film.

Watching Leung (above) and Zhang (at right) offer the smallest of facial expressions -- a half smile, eyes lowering quietly -- to the largest effect is alternately powerful and enchanting, a veritable primer in film acting. When Wong trains his camera on these two faces, you simply can't look away. The moments toward movie's end set in a heroin den make up one of the great, heart-breaking romantic scenes in motion picture history, with Ms Zhang's stunning work topping everything she's so far accomplished. The actress never pushes the heroin daze; it's barely there. But it is there, and it colors, ever so slightly, all else.

What Wong has managed here is to fuse his usual filmic beauty with Chinese philosophy and now martial arts to what seems a near unbeatable combination. The stunning fight scenes are performed more slowly than we are used to so that many more steps can be observed and thus appreciated. The filmmaker's ability to offer graceful, precise and masterful mise en scène is something to marvel at, it seems to me.

What may prevent complete acceptance of The Grandmaster is Wong's use of narration, both verbal and written via title cards, to help tell the story. The movie runs 108 minutes but would probably have lasted more like three or four hours, had the filmmaker decided to give us his tale in a more typical show-not-tell fashion. This use of narration did not bother me, for I found it added to the ceremonial/historical aspect, but others of you may object. (My spouse certainly did. "This is the last martial arts movie I ever want to see!" was his annoyed, post-film judgment. But then, he's never enjoyed martial arts movies all that much.)

What you won't object to, I think, is the movie's sublime beauty and near-hypnotic use of camera movement. There are a number of great visual filmmakers working today, but no one does it quite like Wong Kar Wai.

The Grandmaster -- from Anchor Bay Entertainment and The Weinstein Company -- arrives on DVD and Blu-ray this coming Tuesday, March 4, for sale and rental.

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