Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Grandmaster

“A true martial artist doesn’t live for. He simply lives” is one of the many aphorisms that make up Kar Wai Wong's The Grandmaster. This one is from Bruce Lee, the most famous student of the Wing Chun master Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) whose life is the subject of the movie. Narrative is an essential element of most martial arts. The Grandmaster asserts his authority by creating a legend, a kind of living mythology. Homer is the vehicle by which we vicariously experience Odysseus, but martial arts greats, like Ip Man and Bruce Lee, are living legends, anointed not only because of the challenges they face, but the way they face them. Traditional martial arts deal with a kind of enlightenment. The Do, as in Judo refers to a “way” or “path.” Kendo is the way of the sword. Much of The Grandmaster takes place in the village of Foshan in Southern China and there’s a subplot in which Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) the beautiful daughter of another grandmaster becomes both a challenger and ill-fated love interest of Ip Man's. The kinds of combinations you see in The Grandmaster, in terms of love and, of course, technique are what differentiates it from Requiem for a Heavyweight and the kind of classic boxing movies that many Americans are familiar with. The form or content, in this regard, is what dictates function. While the typical American boxing movie—one of the most recent examples is the The Fighter which told the gritty story of Mickey Ward—is steeped in naturalism, martial arts movies like The Grandmaster and Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon tend to be characterized by an impressionistic style in which the fighting verges on dreamlike fantasy. It’s a quality that those martial arts aficionados who are more interested in aggression than balletic beauty might take exception to. No one would ever accuse the Ali/Foreman’s legendary “Rumble in the Jungle,” captured in the documentary When We Were Kings of lacking spirit, but the spirits that are conjured up in a movie like The Grandmaster are of a decidedly different and transcendental variety, involving religious belief and highly involved systems of ethics and moral conduct. 

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