The Grandmaster is set as if inside a shop of antiques - it is full of characters who are less individuals or even personalities, and more relics; engaged in perhaps the most noblest of all human effort: to be of some consequence. As with all of Wong’s films, the film is permeated by a distinct sense of time passing by (in Wong, even falling tears are used to keep time): the grand tale progresses not through a set of sequences, incidents or events, but through a couple of years, then a decade and then, an era itself. The characters in The Grandmaster, like other specters in Wong’s filmography, have their vitality drained from them by this temporal shift – they are rendered obsolete and anachronistic – ancient spirits that linger through streets that no longer have a place for them. In this, there is a real sense of ageing and decay – as in the other pieces of Wong’s personal narrative of post-Republic contemporary China. But even more so than the other films, where characters stagnate because of the departure of a lover, an unrequited love affair, an unhappy marriage (all events that can make someone wish time would pause), The Grandmaster, being a biopic, lets historical incident influence the lives of its citizens. More self-aware of actually taking place during a politically tumultuous time (unlike other Wong films, where period is merely an excuse for more superficial excursions), the film intersperses Wong’s signatory expressionist, misty, long-lensed images with harsh newsreel footage and mentions of very specific dates. The film begins in 1930s China, where practitioners of martial art, aligned as per their geographical bearing (the northern school and the southern school), quarrel for pride, honour and even more crucially, for sustenance – both the schools, undergoing phases of transition, aim to preserve a legacy of their own forms, traditions and styles. This notion of maintenance in opposition to evolution is a central theme of the film. But even as these bands of martial artists strive for a higher philosophy, mutual self-respect and an exchange of ideas, their pursuit is truncated by the Japanese invasion of North-Eastern China, and then, by the war itself. ‘The purpose of kung-fu is refinement’, quips Ye, the eponymous grandmaster, and what is war, if not the end of all refinement?
These disturbances create a new moral order: in-family murders, national treason, usurpation of an inheritance, the new generation will use the skills bequeathed to them for graceless violence; grandmasters now wander in search of employment like laid-off masterless ronin. This new world is however haunted by the spirit (there are no bodies in Wong, only figures, shapes and outlines) of the glorious past, the daughter (in many ways, the real protagonist of the piece) of a grandmaster, unwilling still to let go of the age of grandeur, of prestige, but even more importantly, of principle. The conflict between her and her more adaptable, traitorous, murdering brother really is the crucial dilemma of this film, and perhaps, of all Wong – the endless tug-of-war between those who can’t move on and those who do it too quickly.
Throughout all of these upheavals and their aftermaths, Ye survives and lives to tell the tale – it is interesting in that Wong uses the fact of his titular character’s life co-inciding with a significant phase of his national history to an oblique effect – he makes a biopic of a man which is actually about everyone (and everything) around him. But it also has to do with Tony Leung (who plays Ye) and the nature of his apparitions in Wong’s films: he doesn’t feature as much as he lingers in them, like an ageless, eternally youthful organism, a perpetual cipher – a time traveler who haunts the alleys of Wong’s China from the 1930s to the 2040s – one wonders if this collaborative project is now complete.
Despite the stylistic traits it shares with his other films: the staccato editing, slow-motion which places within parenthesis the grace of a single gesture, an interest in isolating individual parts of the body from the whole (and fetishising them in the process) – The Grandmaster is a valuable summation of a near quarter-century project, if only because Wong successfully combines two of his enduring concerns as a filmmaker: capsules of time (tears, days, mood) and individuals, who in Wong’s own words, touch each other like a plane touches a runaway; fleetingly, before it has to fly away. Its straight-forward pursuit of a clearly evolving story also makes it appear closer to early Wong than it is to the middle-era (and also, to his work as a screenwriter).