Wong Kar-wai’s new film The Grandmaster.

Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster.

Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster.

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.

In The Mood For Love.

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?

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

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.

Ziyi Zhang in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Ziyi Zhang in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

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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Oh So Dull “Life Of Pi” Confirms the Death of 3D.

Zhang-Ziyi-9Ang Lee is one of the most formidable film makers working anywhere in the world. After beginning with the charming The Wedding Banquet (’93) and Eat Man Drink Woman (’94), he made two of the very best films of the last two decades.

Sense And Sensibility (’95) and The Ice Storm (’97) combine subtlety, intelligence and range with a visceral, emotional depth. And they both capture perfectly the social mores and political complexities of 19th century England and 1970s America.

He followed that up in 2000 with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The physical ties and bonds that bind human beings together and drive them apart have rarely been explored quite so tangibly. And few films are as emotionally satisfying and as enigmatically layered.

peopleglassesge_450x300Life of Pi is its exact opposite. An obviously gay writer expresses his devotion by sitting and listening as an Indian man tells an interminable tale of a tiger on a raft. And we have to sit through the guts of two hours, as a computer generated tiger “interacts” with a CGId boy, raft and sea. And the only hold that it might conceivably have on your attention is the fact that it’s all shot in 3D.

When television arrived in the 50s, cinema responded by re-inventing itself to burst forth in glorious Cinemascope, and then in 3D. Then, when video arrived in the 70s, cinema responded once again with a still underwhelming version of 3D.

And, with the arrival of the Internet in the first decade of the new century, 3D was once again wheeled out to stave off the imminent demise of cinema. This time it was going to save television as well.

But everything we see in the cinema and on television is already in 3D. All “3D” does is to extend that illusion from the screen to your eyes. And yes, now that technology has finally caught up with it, for the first minute or so, it really is extraordinary to behold.

HowToMarryAMillionaireBut there are only so many fireflies you can be amazed by as they appear to be buzzing but inches away above your ears. The second minute is perfectly fine. But by the third minute, you get used to it. And you go back to the actual story.

If you want to see what the future holds for 3D, have a look at the woeful How To Marry A Millionaire. It was the first film to be shot in Cinemascope. And shorn of its WOW factor, today it looks hopelessly clumsy and embarrassingly thin. And what a criminal waste of Marilyn Monroe and, dear Lord, Lauren Bacall.

As for television, why would anybody want to watch, say a sporting event or a documentary in 3D? They’re already in 3D. What’s going to be added by utilizing the space in between the screen and your eyes when viewing them?

I hope that whatever bills he needed to get paid when he agreed to take this on have now been serviced. But Life Of Pi I’m afraid can be added to the Hulk (’03) as yet another pointless exploration of video game technology destined for a dusty shelf somewhere.

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