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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