Each of Wong Kar Wai’s films require multiple viewings to appreciate deeply. I didn’t even enjoy In the Mood for Love (2000) completely the first time around. However, I convinced myself to try it again, and now it’s one of my favorite films, each successive viewing yielding new insights or new favorite shots. One stylistic feature of WKW’s films is his mastery of pacing; WKW’s films are long, but deliberately so. With each successive viewing, the impression that everything seems completely necessary becomes stronger, and attention is focused especially on slow shots that indicate not only an emphasis, but a lingering upon the subject, which wonderfully tie in with WKW’s thematic obsessions, including the transience of time and the subsequent persistence of memory.
The Grandmaster (2013) would be your standard WKW package if it didn’t heavily rely on its historical background to enhance its effect and set it apart from his earlier films. While history often makes its presence felt in WKW’s other films (the mise-en-scene and even the quality of the image contribute to the impression that In the Mood for Love is much older than it really is), the history of Ip Man serves as the overarching frame of WKW’s latest foray, beginning with Ip Man’s rise to power over the martial arts schools of China to his final years as a teacher in Hong Kong. At the same time, the film avoids the trope of most bio-films by zeroing in on Ip Man’s passion for kung fu and how that passion is affected both by the tides of change and Ip Man’s personal ambitions, an approach similar to that of David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010) which I favor.
The film attempts to color the telling of Ip Man’s (Tony Leung) journey through contrast the other characters’ stories, most notably achieved through Gong-Er (Zhang Ziyi).1 I was surprised to discover that Gong-Er was WKW’s own invention, considering that Gong-Er’s story dominates the film. Her quest for revenge against Ma San (Zhang Jin) and the reclamation of her family’s honor is set against Ip Man’s relatively quiet life. While Gong sets out to overcome her personal challenges, falling to decline and eventual death in the process, Ip is unable to overcome being separated from his family despite his survival of the wars and revolutions. Setting these contexts up against their meeting and conversation in the latter part of the film renders the dialogue rich and full of tension and double-meaning, for which WKW is stylistically famous. Gong and Ip’s respective foils, Ma San and The Razor (Chang Chen), figure into the film by presenting how the two characters might have turned out had they continued through their lives without certain key qualities. Ma San is Gong Er with too great an ambition and too little the discipline and integrity to achieve it. The Razor is simply Ip Man in different circumstances; he is just as skilled as Ip and heralds his ultimate fate except that he has been exiled to Hong Kong much earlier, before he can expend his potential. The dynamics between these characters draw out themes of possibility and yet the inevitability of fate to overtake the desires inspired by the realm of possibility. At the beginning of his challenge to Ip Man, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) suggests the role of fate in their meeting. This is echoed in Gong-Er’s final meeting with Ip, where he suggests after Gong reveals her regret over her unrequited feelings for Ip that her regret cannot be a result of choice but their diverging fates.
The contrast between the concepts of fate and possibility are consistent with many other contrasts thrown out into the film. The very start of the film features Ip Man describing the phrase ‘kung fu’ as the combination of two contrasting characters: horizontal and vertical, the former referring to the fatal mistake and the latter referring to the victor. What arises is the utilization of kung fu as an extended metaphor for life itself with victory and defeat being echoed the fates of the characters presented. Gong Er’s many personal victories culminate into regret and the deterioration of both her person and her skill, and she ends the film ultimately accepting her defeat. Ip’s foresight is careful and allows him to survive, but at a great cost. He too realizes the sacrifices that Old China will have to make in order for kung fu to survive, but he is the only one who actually carries it through to Hong Kong. Ip lives out the principles of kung fu even in a mundane aspect. Many descriptions of kung fu and turns-of-phrase are applied to Ip’s gestures and minimal interactions. One particular allusion sticks to mind, beginning with the description of kung fu as being “all about precision”. Later Ip Man is offered a cigarette, and extreme close-ups are made on the hands of each man before presenting a fantastically precise tableau of two men lighting a cigarette.
Of course, while the film contains loads upon loads of thematic clashes, the other great contrast presented in the film also serves as its commentary on the culture of kung fu: the struggle between the regret of the older generations against the promise of the newer ones. While the film begins with the hope that Ip and his contemporaries will take kung fu beyond the Chinese borders (as Ip expresses in his reply to Gong Yutian), it ends with that same sense of hope that the new generation will be responsible for taking kung fu far, realizing that despite all their skill and power, Ip’s contemporaries have not done much to achieve the goals they set out to do to expand kung fu’s influence. Many images throughout the film suggest that this is a matter of reflecting upon what the older generations have done to contribute and what the new generations ought to do, given their passage. The characters reflect upon the ruins of their cities and even the links that their traditions create to the past. It should come as no surprise that the greatest link to the past suggested by the film is kung fu itself. At the end of the film, Ip recalls Gong telling him: “… all encounters in the world are a kind of reunion.” A montage follows of Ip’s later life, teaching new students in Hong Kong. As he watches them practice, he pensively recalls the life that has passed him by and the China that no longer is. The final shots mirror Gong Er’s memorial of her father, and the shadows of statues on the wall form the literal spectre of the past that looms over Ip as he passes on the tradition to a new generation.
1. I must admit here that while I was able to appreciate the film more on this viewing, I still found myself relying on this extra-textual source, which collates interview answers by WKW, to inform my reading.↩