Sorry for the month long hiatus of this post. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but with the holiday break, the sudden flood of work, and the time that’s passed since my last review, I got a bit lazy. Put it on my resolution list to get things over and done with.

Also, in case you missed it, I did an article for ZeroThreeTwo featuring my favorite reads from last year.

This book started out with a lot of promise.

For starters, I’d like to think that Philippine history is usually more exciting to hear about from your older relatives than the cartoons of the 90’s had us believe. I can no longer name the show – whether it was Hey Arnold! or The Adventures of Pete and Pete or Kenan and Kel escapes me, so I hope you know which one I’m talking about – but I remember learning from it that dread was the natural reaction to realizing that your parents or your grandparents were about to tell you the stories of eras bubbling with historical detail and interest, eras antiquated enough for their artifacts and colloquialisms to now be obsolete. Thankfully, I discovered that this was not true. Growing up, I was fascinated whenever the stories that were being told to me confirmed whatever came out in my textbooks. Clearer than the shows that gave me this bad impression of the historically-charged kwento is the memory of the historically-charged kwento itself – the memory of my sister and me leaning over the table as our parents narrated to us the experiences of hearing about friends and acquaintances vanishing into thin air during the Martial Law era; the memory of us listening as our grandmother related in a very matter-of-factly way how long she had to hide under a church as bombs fell over their town; the memory of what was going on when we were born, what happened when we were too young to remember anything, or for that matter, when we were not around at all – I have become so fond of these stories that if you and I have talked and you asked me about my family, I would probably break into that mode of kwento, telling you, almost word-for-word, what I heard.

Empire of Memory opens in a similar way. Despite their experience, my parents do not have any stories about the Beatles’ visit to the Philippines in 1966. So when the novel opened with narrator Al using the event as a frame for introducing himself and the beginning of his friendship with future co-writer Jun Hidalgo, I was sold. For those of you who know what happened, you know that it certainly wasn’t less-than-memorable. Neither was it comfortable for any of the major players involved in the whole shebang: the Marcos family, the public-at-large, the Beatles themselves… As much as we would have liked to give the Beatles a welcome befitting of most foreign bands nowadays, somebody screwed up and it’s hard to entertain the idea that Paul and Ringo would ever want to come back. But Al’s narration is rife with intrigue and the tension of any story preceded by the words “We were actually there.” Jun manages to infiltrate the Beatles’ hotel room, and it is more than any of us can bear. It almost feels weird knowing that the Beatles are talking to the friend of someone who is already convincingly leaving an impression on us as if he were our own new best friend. When Jun and Al come into the possession of John Lennon’s torn jacket, it is almost like coming into the possession of a holy relic, and Al treasures it, literally. At the same time, we are being told that Jun is doing this all for the affections of Al’s older sister, Delphi, and you get the impression that this book will be about them, about their adventures (or misadventures), about the height of their friendship and then turmoil, about entering their roles as agents of the Marcos era rather apathetically but breaking out of it heroically.

I will tell you upfront that this book is not about that at all.

What it about has to do largely with the sensation the book’s prologue gives you. What I mean to say is that in the future, you might find yourself wanting to tell the story of the prologue to your friends, to talk about it as if it were something real. The problem with this is precisely that you know it isn’t. Though I learned from a professor that there probably was someone hired to write the history of the Marcos era, they weren’t Jun and Al. They are to our generation unnamed or unidentified, still hidden or lost when the regime was overthrown.

The novel’s first half will look in one’s mind like a novelized version of Mike de Leon’s Bayaning 3rd World. Jun and Al, when we meet them again in the novel proper, are working for the media wing of the Marcos regime when they are given the assignment of re-writing Philippine history for the purpose of turning Marcos into the Philippine Kim Jong-Il. Well, maybe that’s a little extreme, but they more or less do it. They change details liberally by altering the names of certain personages to invent a relation to the President or Imelda, hiding journals that could mar the story as they report it, and creating entire mythologies out of thin air just to keep themselves sane. It is a scandalous plot for those who cannot see past it (i.e. not us Filipino readers) and a justifiable one for those who stand with the Marcoses. It becomes something to talk about with your Philippine studies professor, whether he or she has read the book or not, largely because it makes you skeptical of all the history you have read so far, which is also good. It essentially inspires us to become historians with integrity, even if we aren’t in the business of it. We just have to seek out the truth of our people’s stories, so that we don’t become lost in, as Gamalinda presents, the island of Akeldama, where Jun and Al concentrate their research.

The book is rife with Bibilical references, aside from the obvious Jesus allegory of the American-Filipino rock superstar Sal X. The island of Akeldama takes its name from a Biblical location. Many of the chapter titles are taken from popular Biblical passages. What am I getting at here? Post-colonialism and also self-criticism. Gamalinda seems to present the Philippine people as if they were the new Israelites, or at least, they have been deluded into thinking that they are so. Reaching the end of the novel, I got the sense that no one finds salvation, not even Sal X, who has himself crucified annually to get the attention of the American father who has forsaken him. The father never comes back for him. The story of Akeldama ends with a hint that doom is approaching. We’re also never quite sure if the Zabarte brothers will ever end the cursed cycles of violence and romantic triangles that have befallen their family. The impression I get as I think of it now is that Gamalinda is pointing out our eternal frustration with our colonial masters, how that frustration will never be sated by revenge or self-mortification, and how we in the end throw our own faults on the shoulders of our personal historical villains. This is the island of Akeldama basically. It is an island that represents some of the very worst attitudes of the Philippine people. It reflects us, but it doesn’t have to be us.

Akeldama seems to infect those who come to it. Even Jun, who spends more time over there than Al, becomes more and more apathetic about what he is doing. It takes Al to snap him out of it, and it takes Delphi, who remains totally untouched, having moved to the States, appearing only once via correspondence to snap Al out of his own trance. When Al realizes what is going on, he basically has to race against time to make sure the book never reaches the printers. I’ll tell you upfront: it does reach the printer, and it coincides with a very specific point of Philippine history. When you see it, you can make of it what you will.

All said, I am a little hesitant to recommend this book. Despite its length, it doesn’t make for light reading and the patterns that extend throughout the novel are sometimes frustratingly subtle. If you want to hear a good story about a particular time in Philippine history, go ask your elders. If you want to contextualize arguments about Philippine identity, society, and history in one fell swoop, take a chance on this book. Magulo siya.


So I managed to squeeze in yet another book before the year went out! The way Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is written allows for you to finish it in a week’s time, provided you set aside a good number of free hours, as I did in the thick of my Christmas break. The novel’s chapters are refreshingly bite-sized, typically spanning two pages and stretching at the most to five. I say ‘refreshing’ not only because most of the novels I’ve read this year are built up by lengthy scenes that make it difficult to pause, but also because the chapters manage to be engaging in their brevity. Hence, this week I gave up a lot of time to finish this 500-plus page whopper of a book.

The novel follows on one hand, Marie-Laure, a French girl who early on in her life loses her vision and is taught by her father, a locksmith who works at the French Museum of Natural History, to navigate the cities they live in using scale models which her father builds. On the other hand, we also follow Werner, a German boy who is fascinated by the inner workings of the radio and is given the opportunity to use his skills in service of the Nazi army. Both of them are enamored by the things that they cannot see: Marie-Laure learns from the brief time she spends growing up in the halls of the Museum that “to really touch something… is to love it” (30) while Werner and his sister Jutta grow up hooked on a science and music program aimed at children that Werner manages to pick up while modifying his first salvaged radio. They have no idea that their paths will cross, as all novels are wont to do with their respective characters, in the walled city of Saint-Malo, which, like Dresden, is doomed to be decimated in the process of its liberation. Though the city has been mostly restored in the present day, it’s largely implied that the Saint-Malo that the reader becomes deeply acquainted with is not the Saint-Malo that still stands along the coast of France. Saint-Malo, following its destruction, becomes one other thing that we can no longer see, but still fall in love with, years and miles away.

The novel reminded me very much of Markus Zusak’s classic The Book Thief in the way it developed Marie-Laure and Werner. Both children are certainly precocious. Marie-Laure possesses a degree of cunning that evenly matches Liesel Meminger’s own. Werner’s anxieties toward the cause he is forced to serve easily brought back Zusak’s Rudy in my memory. The two enjoy brief moments of intimacy that are cut short by the hand of fate, and especially in Zusak’s book, Death plays a role that transcends his narration of the story. However, where Doerr’s novel departs from Zusak’s is also where the real magic takes place; whereas most of Zusak’s novel shows Liesel and Rudy growing up together and having their effect on each other from years of friendship, Doerr builds up the anticipation of Marie-Laure’s meeting with Werner during the siege of Saint-Malo, which, once more details to their backstories are revealed, appears to the reader more and more serendipitous and yet poignant as one gets past it. It becomes easy to appreciate the novel when one realizes that its true action is set in motion at the very beginning, which is the first night of Saint-Malo’s bombing, rather than at the chronological beginning when Marie-Laure’s childhood memories are recalled and Werner considers the harsh environment of the mining town in which he and his sister live. The latter is the beginning of a long set-up that takes up most of the book, but never loses its effectiveness, as the novel jumps back and forth between the events leading up to the bombing and the siege itself. The novel does this because while the chapters that chronicle the siege are, I feel, more essential to what it is all about (the encounter between the two lead characters), the circumstances reinforce the emotional gravitas of this moment and reverberate when the novel moves past the siege into the moments after. The chapters that follow the siege tend to reveal certain details prematurely, such that the set-up becomes a process of back-tracking, of filling in the blanks to the story. Nonetheless, when those details are revisited in the set-up chapters, they recall in one’s mind what is to happen when Saint-Malo is liberated.

At the same time, the novel is a meditation on human choices and how one overcomes circumstances that at first glance seem more powerful than the one who experiences them. Marie-Laure’s father comes into the possession of a fabled gem, which supposedly brings bad luck to those around it but long life to those who possess it. Its presence in the story is subtle, vaguely hinted at but never explicitly suggested as being the root of all the evils that the story has to throw at the main characters. When Marie-Laure realizes that the gem has started taking effect in her life, she comes to fear that she will never be able to overcome it or undo the damage it has caused to her loved ones. At the same time, Werner experiences an existential crisis when he becomes aware of his own capacity to rebel against a national cause and popular behavior. While he survives the bitter experience of training to become a Nazi soldier through the privileges that his skill set grants him, he realizes that those closest to him have suffered at great costs. He must then make the choice to protect them or die. The stakes behind this choice, one shall find, are the exact same stakes that permeate the encounter at the heart of the novel. And though Marie-Laure may not realize it because the time she spends with Werner is so brief, there was a great struggle that occurred in one man’s heart, which she couldn’t see, but perhaps could have known, if only they had spent more time together.

From there, we come back to what the novel is all about: things that we cannot see, but are there. The novel exposes to us the mechanisms of life the way one might present the mechanisms behind a magic trick. One performs the trick and astounds the audience. But whereas the revelation of a magic trick’s inner workings disillusion the audience, the revelation of life’s inner workings moves the audience to wonder, to delight in what is always there for all of us.

That’s it for 2014! I’ll be doing my next post on ZeroThreeTwo, which is my list of my five favorite reads of the past year. In the meantime, enjoy the rest of your holidays. Happy new year!

The first volume of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet is probably a novel that young Filipinos will find themselves comfortable reading if they want to learn more about their neighbors in the Southeast Asian region. My mentor Dr. Dumol pointed out that the novel bears a remarkable resemblance to the first of the two novels by our national hero Jose Rizal, which is apparent even on the book’s back summary, which includes (describing the protagonist): “The son of a noble Javanese, he moves easily among the Dutch and their ideas and language but is prevented from enjoying their rights.” He is not the only one. The girl who figures prominently in this novel is an Indonesian Maria Clara, oblivious to the goings-on around her but the infallible object of many affections. Even her parentage is considered controversial by the community at large. While Elias is not as easily recognizable here, and neither is Sisa, This Earth of Mankind should still stand out as a counterpart to Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere because their similarities transcend the novels’ superficial details and connect thematically instead.

For starters, Toer’s novel deals largely with the meaning that arises from the experience of lost causes. This is not to say that the cause of this novel should be considered lost (neither should we say that of the Noli‘s); the main characters of Toer’s novel recognize the threat posed to them by forces that only appear stronger because of their deep ties to colonial authority. Though defeat seems inevitable, they struggle anyway, and by the end, they emerge not so much unscathed but alive nonetheless and in possession of greater motivation and deeper meaning in their lives. In the middle of the novel, the protagonist-narrator Minke witnesses an argument between his friend the Frenchman Jean Marais and his landlord Mr. Telinga, who had previously been Marais’ superior officer when they fought for the Netherlands Indies army against pockets of resistance across Indonesia. Their argument centers on the ends of war, which Telinga argues is merely the victory of the stronger side. Marais however suggests:

“… there has never been a war conducted for its own sake. There are many peoples who go to war who have no desire to be victor. They go to war and die in thousands… because there is something they want to defend, something more important than death, life, or defeat and victory.” (224)

Minke brushes them off, having had gone to them in the first place in search of an answer to an unrelated question. At this point, he (and perhaps the reader) has no idea of that argument’s later significance in his own life. As the novel progresses, he experiences hope and despair in alternating doses. Towards the latter half, he learns to take control of his emotions, knowing very well that he is becoming more and more responsible for the fates of others. At the very least, Minke may have walked away from all this with an inkling of the significance of his friend’s argument to the nationalist movements which Minke shall fuel with his writing, pointing out the social stratification and the disadvantages posed by being non-European. Inasmuch as the novel is a coming-of-age story for Minke, it is more strongly a story about recognizing social responsibility, especially given the talents and privileges one comes to possess.

Curiously, Minke becomes aware of the prejudices that permeate Indonesian society when his own erroneous prejudices are exposed. Minke’s preconceived notions of the concubine Nyai Ontosoroh and her daughter Annelies are immediately shattered in the first few chapters. Once again, Marais serves as Minke’s guide in this matter when he tells him: “An educated person must learn to act justly, beginning, first of all, with his thoughts, then later in his deeds” (56). Unlike the earlier quote, this piece of advice more explicitly recurs in Minke’s narration, underlining his awareness that, if he wants to emerge as good as his European peers, the refinement of his thinking must trump his most immediate emotions. Throughout the novel, we often see Minke succeed in keeping this resolve, and to us in a post-colonial setting, it is abundantly clear that he does turn out morally better than the Dutch who control the lives of his loved ones as if they were less than human. Minke falls a step short of finishing his studies abroad, much like the Filipino ilustrado, but Toer also makes it apparent that the quality of education in colonial Indonesia allowed for Minke to equal his peers without having to leave.

Naturally, the Dutch colonial presence is not presented by Toer as an absolute evil and he does note the merits of seedling globalism as a result of their coming. Echoing Rizal’s sentiments of the Spanish colonial government, Toer has it that Minke desires not so much a complete separation between the Netherlands and Indonesia but instead reform of the colonial government. It is easy to see how much European education has exerted influence on Minke for the better, and time after time, Minke uses that education to elevate Indonesian national identity. Minke marvels at the advancement of technology and welcomes its capacity for cultural exchange. He also weeps when one of the assistant resident’s daughters expresses her hope that he should become a leader among his people in the cultural sphere rather than the political. This motivates his courage to write against what injustices do exist in their society as it is and call for reform.

Young Indonesians who come to know Toer’s and Rizal’s novels have a lot to talk about with young Filipinos who know the same. I do not want to sound too idealistic by saying that it would be already a dream to have the Minkes of the 21st century shaking hands with the Ibarras of the same age. After all, it is already happening. It is a matter now of planning and execution, and then, greatness.

It is unlikely that I shall finish any more novels before the end of the year, especially given that the three other books I’ve brought home with me are rather thick. The next post on the blog will dwell on my favorite reads of 2014, as well as something of a manifesto for the blog and the direction I’d like to take it in with regard to these reviews. Stay tuned!

A part of me wishes that Ifemelu’s first blog was real, that I could find Raceteenth on WordPress, just to get a healthy, regular dose of the exciting, witty commentaries that scare off any remaining hope that if you move to America, good things will come to you. After writing the previous sentence, I looked up The Small Redemptions of Lagos and discovered that Adichie herself has crafted in Ifemelu’s persona, making the blog something of a mini-sequel to Adichie’s critically-acclaimed novel without having to sacrifice the original tone and character of the blog as it appeared in the book. This is great and already I anticipate the next installment on my feed. However, to be frank, I would have preferred to read all of Ifemelu’s blog posts on a proper blog than in the book, where they only served to chop the narrative up and lose my attention in the plot. (Let this post be an invitation to consider the novel for itself first, disregarding the blog posts as supplementary material.) Taking this complaint further, I feel like this is my main qualm with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest novel (the first of hers that I’ve read): most of the novel’s parts seem out-of-place. She spends so much time on building up the circumstances that when we reach the present, there is hardly any space left to resolve the things that got me hooked on the book in the first place.

We first meet Ifemelu on the verge of the next great change in her life, the imminent move back to her home country of Nigeria after studying and working for several years in the United States. It is immediately clear to the reader, as is typical in most diaspora novels, that the Ifemelu returning to Lagos has been affected by the sort of people she finds herself surrounded by in America. As a result, she becomes conscious of her becoming an American (or Americanah, as her friends back home often say in jest) despite her efforts to resist cultural assimilation. When we step into Ifemelu’s past, we witness her attempts to assert her natural Nigerian accent, comment on the assimilation of other black people to American society, and assess each of her relationships the context of the one great love of her life, Obinze, with whom she has long since broken off. Since the dissolution of her their relationship, Obinze has remained in Ifemelu’s mind and heart so strongly that it is the knowledge that he has settled down with someone else in Nigeria that haunts her and even cause her to reconsider going home. It is one desire strongly tugging against another: she must face him (and the brand new Nigeria) or drown in an alien world that will forever mark her alien as well.

Many of the present day plot threads are fun to read through. Ifemelu’s experience at the braiding parlor, which frames her flashbacks, is mostly what I expected the book to be like. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I feel that Ifemelu’s contrast with Aisha, who spends an entire afternoon working on Ifemelu’s hair, could have framed the whole novel. Though while I grant that the novel intends to be about Obinze just as much as it is about Ifemelu, which is why the novel spends its latter third bringing the two back together, I want to point out that the book makes it easy to forget this. Just as I was settling into the story of Obinze’s time as an undocumented immigrant in England, I turned the page and found myself back in Ifemelu’s extended flashback. At the same time, many plot threads begin and are left unresolved; I got the sense that the novel never goes in the direction I want, and so I felt a bit cheated. Does the disillusioned Ifemelu ever remember her promise to help out Aisha, having failed to disillusion her? You never see it. Even Ifemelu’s final interactions with her nephew Dike when he visits Lagos, which supposedly resolves his psychological problems, felt rushed. I would have liked to see him discover Lagos and his parentage a little more, and then I would have liked to see him confront his mother Aunty Uju about it, or at least to tie up that end by letting us know what happens to them in the end. You never find out. And then Ifemelu’s epic novel-spanning romance with Obinze? Well, obviously that gets resolved. But I get the sense that the decisions the characters make in the novel’s final pages are miscalculated, Obinze in particular. The real repercussions of his actions are left ambiguous to the reader. You never learn the consequences.

My gut feel is that the hype surrounding this book stems from its relative newness and significance. Its two central themes are undoubtedly cultural differences and the various types of racism that permeate a culture that has historically triumphed racism but has yet to fully eradicate it. Yet, what makes it relevant is that it situates these themes in the post-9/11 America that evolves into the Obama-led America. It suggests that while America has come a long way from the rampant racism that has plagued most of American history (to the point of collectively selecting a leader who is described in the book as having been the result of the intersection of many cultures), one need only rely on social media to see that many immigrants still feel unwelcome in America and that some of the hostility comes, surprisingly, from people of the same racial ancestry. What I liked about this point is that it seemed like something you could say of all diaspora who find themselves in America, not just African; in Philippine Literature for instance, I recognized this as the concern being raised in Bienvenido N. Santos’s What the hell for you left your heart in San Francisco. Perhaps where Americanah takes the next step is to present the ways in which foreign culture subverts one’s effort to keep cultural identity intact. At some point in the novel, Ifemelu notes that it was when she came to America from Nigeria for the first time that she came black, a statement that when carefully reflected upon requires no further explanation. It brings to mind that Americanah is in some way a coming-into story, but a very specific type that does not so much mark Ifemelu’s growth into adulthood but her permanent change into the Americanah, who finds herself looked down upon by those who have adopted the American identity wholeheartedly and yet subconsciously looks down upon those who have never really left home, even when they are already there.

For all the suffering that the three (well, two really… or… three?) Cooke siblings Lowell, Fern, and Rosemary go through growing up, you can’t help but feel that none of them should really be blaming each other. That’s pretty much a given in Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which was recently nominated for the Man Booker. In this way, Fowler’s novel is a prosaic Royal Tenenbaums, a story about three children who would have grown up alright if not for the royal mess started especially by their father without much regard or remorse for the repercussions. Unlike Tenenbaums however, the Senior Cooke fails to atone for his sins and emerges largely as the overarching antagonist of the novel. Ironically, he achieves this while remaining mostly absent from the novel itself; Rosemary underlines this when she makes an effort to remind us of her father’s name, which I recall being Vince, but I’m not so sure anymore. How we remember that guy is telling of who he really was more than anything else: a psychologist.

The other great difference between Fowler’s novel and Tenenbaums is that Fern, the “middle child”, is a chimpanzee, and like Rosemary, I must stress here that you’re probably already thinking that Fern isn’t part of their family at all. Actually, convincing the reader that Rosemary and Fern are sisters (and to some degree, identical twins) is probably one of the novel’s greatest strengths. As we go through Rosemary’s reflections on her college years and her struggles to remember her childhood with Fern, we are presented with an organic relationship whose moments of tension are deeply felt, especially in the novel’s final pages. I myself admit that the final scene is particularly memorable as it carries with it not only the resolution of Rosemary’s strained relationship with her sister, but her turning to Fern as a result of her strained relationships with pretty much everyone else.

Interestingly, much of the book’s tension relies on Rosemary’s unreliability as a focalizer-narrator, rather than her strained relationships. Though she appears to have complete control over the order of events (she begins her story in the exact middle, as it were), Rosemary is conscious of her own mind’s capacity to trick itself; time and time again, she explains psychological concepts old and new to conveniently remind you that she may not remember everything exactly as it happened. You begin to question whether or not Rosemary’s recollection of an event is faithful to its reality. Otherwise, it may be a watered-down version.

Simultaneously, crucial scenes are withheld for later dramatic effect. This was one of the things that didn’t quite work for me. Rosemary tends to make open references to these events without showing them to us. Instead of tension, the novel sparked up some confusion. I found myself going back and forth, wondering, “That happened already? How could I miss that?” Rosemary also has a tendency to ramble, to digress, which, though appropriate to her character, lost my attention sometimes. A number of background characters seem to lack relevance or are simply convenient to the plot, and Harlow, though the catalyst for Rosemary’s re-evaluation of her relationships with her siblings, is annoying as hell.

Perhaps the novel’s best parts are the Cooke family members’ confrontations with each other, both in the past and in the future. I pored through the first few parts, which presents Rosemary’s early life, struggled a bit through Rosemary’s college years, in which her family seems almost totally absent, and enthralled by the novel’s final third, which brought Rosemary back to Lowell, to her mother, and to Fern. Rosemary’s encounter with her runaway brother Lowell in her college years signals the beginning of her true empathy with Fern. It becomes apparent that while she was aware of her similarity to Fern, she was never aware of her sameness with her. The middle absence is thus fitting, meant to underline Rosemary’s sameness/twinness with Fern, her being thrust into a completely different, hostile environment than the one in which she grew up. The time Rosemary spends with her mother after college is also quietly emotional as Rosemary finally comes to terms with the truth, having obtained her mother’s journals from that early, unobtainable part of her life with Fern. Suddenly, her mother’s attempts to bring the truth to light become her own conscious act of atonement. This prompts Rosemary to fight against a world of cruelty in her own way, which puts her somewhat in the same line of work as Lowell albeit less radical. It might be said then that the family business has changed largely, still dealing in the same market but going in a different direction entirely.

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.