Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai burst on to the international scene with his third feature, Chungking Express in 1994. But there’s always been a suspicion that he puts far more effort into wearing his sunglasses just so, and into always remembering to keep them on indoors than he does into his scripts.
Like the characters in his films, he seems to drift in a haze of existential ennui, from which he only occasionally emerges to marvel at his own loveliness. For all their frames of velvet and chords of gold, there’s a diaphanous feel to Days of Being Wild (’90) and Fallen Angles (’95) as there was to Chungking Express that leaves you wanting and quietly disappointed. But then he made In The Mood For Love.
Screened in competition at Cannes in 2000, where scandalously it lost out to the risible Dancer In The Dark, In the Mood For Love had all the usual extravagant imagery, melodramatic music and impeccably manicured characters, but it also had weight, substance and depth. It was as if he’d taken the sexual frustration and emotional repression of Brief Encounter, and reimagined it for the Far East, rendering it in a rich, exotic and rampantly resplendent Technicolor. It’s magnificent, and you can see the trailer here.
But after that, there was 2046 (’04), the inevitably disappointing sequel to In the Mood, and then My Blueberry Nights from 2007. So what are we to make of his latest film, The Grandmaster?
Released in China over a year ago, it arrives here only now. And that as they say tells its own story. I’ll not give too much away, but it does help to have a rough idea as to why it is that some of it jars in the way that it does. Tara Brady gives a pithy and impassioned summary in the Irish Times here. And she’s right to be annoyed.
The film has those irritating title pages that, instead of propelling the narrative forward by filling in the gaps between what you’ve just seen and what you are about to see, merely sum up what you’ve just been told. You feel like you’re being patronizingly spoken down to by one of those fatuous teachers who put you off education for life.
And entire story strands disappear without trace, taking with them what you’d assumed were important characters.
And yet. What a sensationally sumptuous sensual feast for eyes and ears it is. It’s very much a companion piece to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But whereas the later was a love story framed by martial arts, this is a martial arts film with some class of a love story hovering at its fringes.
But, and this is hardly surprising given its tortured gestation, it lacks Crouching Tiger’s structural harmony. The Grandmaster is a meticulously constructed martial arts film, that’s as precise with its camera angles as it is with the choreographed shapes thrown by its combatants.
But it’s also a gloriously languid, impossibly lush, quintessential art house film that lingers lovingly on every exquisitely crafted composition, luxuriating in the score that they’re draped in. The music is so Morricone-esque, it sounds as if someone has reproduced one of his scores, note by note.
Which makes it two films in one, that somehow coalesce, but not quite seamlessly. I’ve no idea what kind of cross-over audience there is for martial arts films, and for ethereal art house spectacles like this. But I’m one of them.
You can see the trailer for The Grandmaster here.
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