I saw Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster on the day it opened in Toronto theatres, but not at the Varsity: I was on a flight from London to Singapore, and it was included in the rather remarkable range of films on the viewing menu. Even better, whereas North America got a version with some twenty minutes cut out of it, Singapore Airlines was offering the full 130 minute version. I realize there’s not much point in giving a shout-out here to Singapore Airlines (although, in addition, it was one of the smoother and more easeful experiences I’ve had in economy, including some of the better food), but it was certainly a good omen for a pleasant vacation. Of course, despite all that, I wouldn’t claim a screen in the back of an airline seat is as good as the Varsity, although, frankly, I’ve known audiences there that were more distracting.
Anyway, it was a pleasure to see The Grandmaster, although my immersion in the experience was also limited by having to pause it when the meal came, and then later for an extended nap. The film chronicles two decades or so in the life of “Ip Man” (Tony Leung), a real-life Chinese master of martial arts who achieves fame by defeating an old master in a showcase match, but suffers great dislocation and loss during WW2 and subsequently (he trained the young Bruce Lee, although the movie doesn’t address that); he develops great affection for the old master’s equally accomplished daughter (Zhang Ziyi), but circumstances impose a necessary distance between them. The film has any number of carefully choreographed showdowns – people defying gravity and beating unlikely odds and the like – but Wong generally emphasizes the intimacy of these encounters, sometimes to a point that might seem rather perversely contrary: on numerous occasions, an expected fight barely transpires, swiftly resolved instead by the quickest and most subtle of moves. This reinforces the underlying emphasis on these arts not primarily as a matter of skill or physicality, but as one of discipline and ethics.
I’ve seen all of Wong’s films I think, but I haven’t often gone back to them a second time, so my memory of them is a bit limited now. I remember being dazzled by both Chungking Express and 2046, but on one other occasion I was confused to an extent I’d be embarrassed to specify, and only realized how out of it I was when I consulted a plot summary subsequently. The Grandmaster covers territory he’s visited before – his Ashes of Time was also a martial arts drama, and his most admired film In the Mood for Love contained similar strands of unrequited longing and exile. I liked the new film very much, but it would be difficult to say it extends his work in a significant new direction. Indeed, it almost stubbornly seems not to be doing that, as if Wong wanted to draw on his affection for past works and collaborators, and to enmesh himself in an infrastructure he’d never have to leave.
I don’t know which twenty minutes of the ones I saw were removed in North America, but it’s not hard to see how something could be removed, or for that matter rearranged (it doesn’t entirely unfold in chronological order) or supplemented with more voice overs, or historical footage, or investigations of things only touched on in the current version. This isn’t a weakness – it speaks to the evocative power of what Wong’s created: a meditative space of seemingly almost infinite capacity. The film draws greatly on the grave beauty of its lead actors, but there’s little attempt to depict the aging of the characters through make-up or other means. Judged as history, this sometimes gives a peculiar sense of disconnection, but nevertheless, Wong avoids reducing events to mere captions and backdrops, to the superficial clarity of many such epics. The Grandmaster is certainly a tribute to the Ip Man, but it’s also an acknowledgment of the difficulty in grasping any such figure, that the separation of myth from factual record becomes impossible, and for that matter, for most of us anyway, unproductive. The Ip Man’s richness as a point of multiple intersections provides a perfect medium for Wong’s artistic fluidity, creating a rare movie that’s both accessible and yet fleeting. The more I think about it, the more I think I’ll need to see it again somewhere else.
As it was a twelve hour flight and the selection was so good, I also watched Francois Ozon’s In the House, yet another in the large group of widely admired foreign films which never opened in Toronto. Fabrice Luchini plays a teacher of French, one of whose pupils starts surprising him with unusually eloquent essays, which set out in installments his somewhat creepy interactions with another boy in the class, and that boy’s family. The teacher gets drawn into the developing story, critiquing it as a piece of fiction while choosing not to probe how much of it is actually real, and crossing various ethical lines along the way. Ozon seeds the story with various other themes and strands – the balance of art and commerce, the escalating obsession with China’s economic dominance, and of course confused and/or unfulfilled sexuality – but it never feels over-stretched or forced: it rattles elegantly along in a fairly archetypal French manner.
In the House
It doesn’t have the bite of Ozon’s earlier films though, and its wisdom and complexity can ultimately only stretch so far. I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise by saying it’s ideally suited to being viewed on a long plane flight, but I don’t think the small screen saps too much of its evocative power in the way it probably did with The Grandmaster. That being the case, it seems to me that if you’re going to be sitting on a plane for twelve hours, you don’t need to surrender to the brain-deadedness of the experience for the whole time. I guess someone somewhere must agree, or else In the House wouldn’t have been on the menu. Or maybe it’s a cosmic joke, on the premise that such films are now so unfashionable, you’re only likely to see them if you’re willing to put yourself above the clouds.
As if to prove that, we’d planned to go and see a movie during our stay in Singapore, adding to a quirky list of such experiences that we’ve accumulated over time. But once we got there, the movies on release, and the multiplexes in which they were showing, all looked exactly the same as those back home. So we spent the time doing other things.