It’s more than fair to say that Wong Kar-wai’s movies are not easy to understand. The Hong Kong director rarely focuses on narratives in his works. Yet, he is undeniably an excellent storyteller who always feeds audiences with a visual and emotional feast.
His latest effort, The Grandmaster, is another of Wong’s typical movies: light on narrative, but full of his trademark elegance, the movie weaves the director’s familiar themes of love, loss and the corrosive nature of time around gorgeous martial arts sequences.
When Wong first announced his intention of creating the movie in 2002, it was described as a biopic of Ip Man, a real-life master of the Wing Chun school of martial arts. Even though we know that Ip will eventually prosper, Wong’s version of Ip (Tony Leung) is a portrait of a sad, isolated figure, and much less accessible than director Wilson Yip’s portrayal of the same character in the Ip Man series.
In The Grandmaster, the narrative is framed by Ip’s perception of the world, outlined in voiceovers explaining his background and his observations of life and the people around him.
The movie, however, also dedicates a lot of screen time to Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of Gong Yutian, a martial arts master from northeastern China. Other masters weigh in with their philosophical and physical presence as well.
Wong is a fan of recurring themes and The Grandmaster is no exception. For example, time proves once again to be the greatest enemy, causing people not only to grow old but also to forget the things they hold dear. In this movie particularly, the idea that age makes them weak and less able to defend themselves troubles the martial arts masters.
Ultimately, the movie poetically delivers the wisdom of martial arts tradition in which Ip was deeply entrenched. But it’s not always easy for the audience to understand what Ip is thinking or what the story is trying to convey.
As a line in the movie goes: “They say, live without regrets. But how boring life would be if there was no regret.” The culture of martial arts is entrenched in a profound philosophy of life. Its interpretation by Wong cannot be embodied in exquisite action sequences and breathtaking visuals just to make it “easy to understand” — that would be boring, too.