BERLIN – The waiting, as noted philosopher Thomas Earl Petty once said, is the hardest part. Just as some of Terrence Malick’s languorously produced films premiered as near-mirages, to the point that the mere fact of their existence had to be absorbed before the critical conversation could begin in earnest, it’s difficult to consider Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster” without its extensively delayed arrival having some effect on one’s gut response.
In the moment, heated anticipation can turn a merely good film into a masterpiece, a mere misfire into a disaster. “The Grandmaster,” a predictably picturesque but surprisingly unconfident foray into would-be lusty commercial movie-making for the singular arthouse stylist of “Chungking Express” and “In the Mood for Love,” goes to neither of these extremes, but its missteps are doubly dismaying for the knowledge that Wong deliberated over them so long.
The director has never been one to let go of a film easily, famously fussing over 2004’s swoonsome head-trip “2046” until long after its Cannes premiere, but the finished product has never before felt blighted by uncertainty. (That goes even when the entire venture — specifically his last feature, 2007’s twee English-language debut “My Blueberry Nights” — seems misconceived. There’s something to be said for being purposefully wayward.)
“The Grandmaster,” a departure for the director as much in its epic sensibility as in its martial arts genre trappings, is different: for every creative decision here that feels exquisitely, exhaustively considered, there’s another that feels entirely careless or, worse still, compromised. The last of its many, many codas, nestled amid the closing credits, finds the director’s favorite leading man Tony Leung, here playing famed fighting guru Ip Man, winking at the camera and asking the audience with a scarcely straight face, “What’s your style?”
He may be referring to the dizzying array of martial arts schools and disciplines covered in this valentine to the physical art form, but he could as easily be Wong himself, shrugging to any audience members confused by his own straying aesthetic. Either way, it’s an arch, even camp, flourish that suggests he may not be taking the enterprise entirely seriously — or at least wasn’t at one particular juncture in the editing process. Elsewhere in this protracted tale of love and war on the kung-fu power ladder, proceedings could hardly be more po-faced — this uneasy tonal range another symptom of a film perhaps left stewing too long.
The story could be suitably grand, though it takes some finding beneath the director’s customary curling serpents of cigarette smoke and refracted, mirrored surfaces. The life of Ip Man, most renowned for training Bruce Lee himself, has already inspired a slew of B-level action tributes, a legacy Wong seeks to dignify not exactly by making a straightforwardly ennobling biopic, but a melodramatic saga in which his qualities — and failings — as a man take narrative precedence over his untouchable reputation as a fighter. The film’s lofty title, meanwhile, may not even belong to him, but to the woman who sneakily emerges as our protagonist: formidable martial arts heiress Er Gong, played by Zhang Ziyi at her most brittlely beautiful.
The film spans nearly 20 years, with non-linear chronology – well, it would hardly be Wong without at least one flashback — inelegantly dictated by invasive voiceover and over-applied title cards. It begins in the mid-1930s, with Ip a promising but unmotivated fighter, taking on a duel with revered, soon-to-be-retired master Gong Baosen. Ip wins the duel in generationally symbolic fashion, only to be challenged again the aforementioned Er, daughter of the defeated master. Once they meet, Er’s resolve to maintain family honor is compromised by a more amorous personal motivation. No sooner does the film promise a star-crossed, frequently gravity-cheating romance, however, than it abruptly pulls focus from Ip altogether, as Er’s battle against a legion of family foes takes center stage.
Wong’s storytelling, traditionally a fluidly visual art, progresses in often baldly prosaic fits and starts: most jarringly, our narrator announces rather unceremoniously that WWII separated Ip and Er for ten years, though there’s little on screen to denote the passing of a decade. Much interconnecting activity besides is explained away in curious present-tense intertitles, where an actual scene might have done the job. The politics at play aren’t particularly complicated, but the lack of articulated motivation makes them confusing all the same: Er’s adversaries, notably another potential grandmaster who goes by the moniker The Razor, are particularly ill-defined.
The film’s final, and most emphatically Wong-flavored, act makes it clear that the director himself views this unexplained morass of subplots as so many negligible red herrings. As the long-dormant Ip Man returns to the frame, dressed in a soberly chic suit seemingly pilfered from Mr. Chow’s wardrobe in “In the Mood for Love,” to stalk the streets of post-war Hong Kong with the now-disenfranchised Gong Er, they swap tangled metaphors and tortured, unconsummated gazes. It finally becomes clear what film “The Grandmaster” is, or at least should have been – the odd dazzlingly airborne combat sequence notwithstanding, it’s very much a wistful Wong Kar-wai mood piece after all.
That’s a comforting note to end on, but it’s a late epiphany in a film where the director spends far too much time play-acting as Zhang Yimou or, far more oddly, play-acting as himself. There appears to be a level of self-parody even to the film’s bountiful beauty, as the clever-clever focus manipulations and doubled visages of Philippe Le Sourd’s autumnally-toned cinematography look to beat former collaborator Christopher Doyle at his own game. (The syrupy, saturated orchestral score by Shigeru Umebayashi, to be fair, is a new stylistic gambit, though not a welcome one.)
Wong”s beloved use of slow motion, meanwhile, is taken to delirious excess in the film’s action sequences, freezing the principals in gorgeous stasis even when in pulsating motion. It’s a signature trick at odds with the fidgety editing, which only finds its rhythm when its two stalling lovers let their slow-burning yearnings subsume them — and the muddled film around them. Sometimes, just sometimes, the waiting is the easy part.