(Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong/China, 2013)
A long-delayed but triumphant return to form. After the woozy shambles that was My Blueberry Nights, Wong has regained his footing and reinvigorated his art. Since 2000's In the Mood for Love made him a bonafide international art-house star, Wong has been playing in a larger and more perilous sandbox. He's matured out of his rollicking early period into a more reflective, stately mode, but his restlessness has kept apace. Nights can be seen as a well-intentioned misadventure. Bereft of the nostalgia and specificity of his own past, Wong grafted his well-developed visual sensibility to a disjointed string of American cinema-literary tropes, and the results ranged from "interesting" to embarrassing. To some, this was proof-positive of Wong being an overrated auteur, but to many, including myself, it was a forgivable misstep. As his latest indicates, he's still got the goods.
Although there are the expected similarities to his earlier work, such as Ashes of Time, The Grandmaster shows Wong to be undiminished in his curiosity and ambition, as he attempts to marry his intensely interior aesthetic to what is primarily a historical drama, with components of the wuxia genre. I'm not much versed in the martial-arts tradition, but what Wong accomplishes with the fights is marvelous; gorgeous and fluid, it's both highly kinetic and coherent. Although the speed of his cutting is on par with any recent Hollywood film, the physical movements are never obscured or confused. Wong cleaves tightly to the historical accuracy of the story, and thus denies himself the use of pop-music cues that have previously been so integral to his art. But he makes up for this deficit with the fights themselves, which become interludes of pure rhythm and movement, every bit as mesmerizing and emotionally charged as Maggie Cheung sashaying down a nighttime street.
The Grandmaster also marks a certain departure in the way that Wong goes about telling the story. Unlike so many previous films, in which the narrative served as little more than a pretext, this film really moves. It isn't entirely free of Wong's distinctively slippery way with chronology, but compared to his earlier work it can feel positively brisk. This is easily Wong's most utilitarian film: voiceover is used to convey not just feeling but to parcel out crucial information about the plot, and intertitles are used to clarify time and place. The happiest surprise of all of this is that these things, which can occasionally have the feel of concessions to the genre trappings, actually end up working to the film's benefit. They wind up being a grounding force, almost gravitational, that tethers Wong's romantic fancies to the relentless grind of history. Ip Man's story is, after all, suffused with sadness. In the end, bereft of his family and former life, he perseveres only through his commitment to the tradition of his school of Kung Fu, believing that it must be passed down to future generations. In this final sense, the martial art becomes one of the few remaining strands of living culture, brought through the crucible of history, altered but not broken, to connect the uncertain future to the rapidly disappearing past.