Tony Leung may be the most beautiful man in the movies today, and no camera loves him more than that of Wong Kar Wai. In “The Grandmaster,” which opened the 2013 Berlin Film Festival, Leung holds the gaze of the lens so intently that he almost goes beyond what a human actor can be expected to do – he’s more like Kim Novak’s hypnotic hair spiral in “Vertigo,” a force that can make you lose your mind a little.
The movie around him can make you feel a little woozy too, but not always in the best way. A lush visual epic based loosely on the life of Ip Man, the legendary martial artist who trained Bruce Lee, “The Grandmaster” - like all of Wong’s movies - is meticulously made and extraordinary to look at. Leung makes his entrance fending off a slew of challengers with his bare hands, during a downpour no less. As he swirls, kicks and jabs amid the raindrops, the Panama hat he’s wearing turns damp and soft, yet it still looks great, a bit of Hollywood glamour that can’t be destroyed even when left to the elements. Leung and his cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd capture it all with the utmost care, and if it had been possible to choreograph the movements of individual raindrops, they would have.
But the self-serious precision of “The Grandmaster” may also be its greatest enemy. This is a story told in shards; Wong is so obsessed with visual details – faces refracted as if in a broken mirror, or fragile arcs of blood being traced out on the pavement by the feet of two feuding kung fu masters – that the story he’s trying to tell is partly obscured by them. The narrative unfolds as Ip Man, played by Leung, reflects on the events of his life: He recalls the martial arts training he received as a kid, his ascent to the level of master, the contentment he felt at having a wife and children. “If life has seasons,” he invariably tells us via voice-over, “my first 40 years were spring.”
The challenges Ip faces aren’t all of the kicking and leaping sort: He suffers through the Japanese invasion in which he loses his family, and finds himself adrift before settling in Hong Kong. (Homelessness, both the emotional and the literal kinds, is one of the film’s recurring motifs.) And when reigning kung fu master Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) announces his retirement, bitter fights break out among martial artists who vie for supremacy. Gong challenges Ip to a duel, and when Ip wins, Gong’s daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), tries to save the family honor by taking him on. The fight between them is both erotic and ferocious, a match of wits that plays itself out through kicks and punches and airborne leaps. Gong and Ip come face-to-face in a moment that’s half pillow talk and half pillow fight, not quite knowing what just hit them. That’s love in a nutshell right there, but Gong and Ip don’t necessarily recognize it.
The fight sequences in “The Grandmaster” are glorious (they were devised by the great action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping) and Wong revels in their surreal quality – they’re as much a part of his dreamscape as, say, Maggie Cheung’s brocade cheongsams in “In the Mood for Love.” Wong is addicted to hallucinatory beauty, and his MO is to inject us with that same fever.
Yet there’s something oddly sterile about “The Grandmaster”; it’s too meticulous to be genuinely fervid. Even Zhang Ziyi’s unassailable gorgeousness – her skin is like a porcelain night-light – in the end seems curiously flat, a movie-magazine rendering of feminine allure. Those of us who love Wong, and who patiently wait out the interminable years between his movies, demand a specific kind of greatness from him: We want his movies to be overwhelming but delicate; supple but sturdy; hypnotic but assured. “The Grandmaster” is trying to be all those things at once, and it’s perhaps the “trying” that’s tripping it up. But one thing is constant: Leung holds that camera. His face is almost a movie unto itself. The filmmaking around him is just an excuse.