A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
All of writer-director Wong Kar-Wai's ten feature films star one seductive, maddening, tragically romantic lead actor: time. Every one of Wong's main characters weathers an intense relationship with time. It's often a brutal contest, monitored by such odd scorekeepers as a bucket of melting ice ("As Tears Go By"), the expiration date on a can of fruit ("Chungking Express"), a train depot clock ("Days of Being Wild") and the steep stairwell leading to a noodle stand ("In the Mood for Love").
Wong's characters do their best to find some peace, clarity and happiness in this lifetime, which their creator rarely grants. Whenever he does, the screen lights up with surprise and delight. Yet the shadows are always close by, which makes the joys in his films as tense and gloomy underneath as the sorrows are brightened with oddball humor and loveliness. (I remember the desperately lonely character in Wong's "Chungking Express" trying to cheer up his dripping laundry: "I told you not to cry. You must be strong") All as the clock ticks away and the world turns, sometimes in delirious time-lapse.
"The Grandmaster" pits time against its first truly formidable foil, wisdom. The people in Wong's films are often flailing, scrambling and ducking away from time's ravages as they try to live and love, but in "The Grandmaster" they have a complement of disciplines called the martial arts to steady them. Various schools of kung fu teach characters how to maintain poise and balance in battles of every sort.
Tony Leung, who plays the legendary wing chun master Ip Man (whose students included Bruce Lee), stands rooted like a tree. He never makes an extraneous move, never wastes words on empty ceremony or sentiment. The other master martial artists in the film are the same way: trees that bend and sway in the storm and could even be cut down but are almost impossible to uproot. "The Grandmaster" is a drunken love letter to experience, which helps us survive, and wisdom, which helps us face aging, loss and, ultimately, the abyss. Wong, who was called the coolest director in the world when he was much younger, is now 57. This film is about a man like him, who has proven himself in the world and enters mid-life exuding a new, sage kind of cool.