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June 23, 2017

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Elegant 'Grandmaster'

In the world of martial arts, what does it take to be a grandmaster? Champion kung fu (功夫) skills, unyielding perseverance to pass on the torch, or relentless efforts to protect the family discipline? The beginning of "The Grandmaster" (一代宗師) says it all, in a philosophical fashion:

"Kung fu. Two characters: one horizontal; one vertical. Only the one left standing in the end is right."

Kind of profound, isn't it ? Just when you are intrigued by the line, you are taken on a journey back to the early 1900s, and see how Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai (王家衛) portrays martial arts masters of different schools.

The film auteur's distinctive aesthetic, along with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, make the martial arts epic elegant — something that sets it apart from its action-rich counterparts. Not to say fight scenes are less fierce in "The Grandmaster," but the way they are delivered clearly carries a style, ambience and taste of the Republic Era (1912 ~ ).

Main characters in the film are legendary Wing Chun (詠春) master Yip Man (Tony Leung Chiu-wai, 梁朝偉), who was also mentor to Bruce Lee, and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi, 章子怡), daughter of the Gong family which is known for combining two schools of martial arts: Xingyi (形意) and Bagua (八卦).

Yip Man and Gong Er first see each other after Yip defeated Gong's father at a martial arts contest. Gong sees this as an unacceptable failure and sets out determined to save her family's face. She invites Yip to a dinner banquet, except it is essentially another martial arts challenge, which ends up giving both of them a sense of mutual appreciation, just like the Chinese proverb "From an exchange of blows friendship grows."

Here comes what Wong excels at the most — the delicate illustration of repressed sentiments. Yip is a happily married man and Gong is an engaged woman. But they are also two martial arts practitioners who see each other as confidants, a base by which their appreciation for each other grows. However, the era they live in prevents them from developing their sentiments into something more. What they can do is exchange letters and tokens of fondness such as a coat button or a box of burned hair. This is an alternative and smart way to say: We are all products of our time.

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