With Wong Kar-wai’s latest film, The Grandmaster, set for its U.S. release this Friday, here’s a video to prime you for one of the most exciting aspects of the film: the fights. There are over a dozen fight scenes in the film; upon close examination, no two of them are filmed quite the same way. The following video not only lists them all, but also ranks them. Not necessarily in order of “kick-ass-ness” as you would find in your typical fanboy video. Watching the film, it’s clear that Wong is interested in greater issues than mindless eye candy: he is conveying a poetic vision through cinematic execution of the martial arts. It is by this criteria that I judge his work.
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While I’m loath to adopt the listicle model that defines much of what passes as film criticism these days, I have resorted to this gimmick to smuggle in some ideas on what Wong Kar-wai is doing in these scenes. This ultimately leads to some speculating on how the film points toward some possible future(s) of martial arts filmmaking. In some sense perhaps what I’m doing is akin to Wong’s calculated concession in making this film: taking an established (and virtually exhausted) commercial genre as an opportunity to engage critically with what its cinematic properties are, and could be.
Note: All the fights in this video are based on the Chinese version of the film. The U.S. and European versions may have different fights (I know for a fact that the European version features a spectacular duel between Ip Man and Razor that would probably rank in the top three or five on the list below, as I recall it displaying some of the finest physical technique between the two fighters without relying too much on editing to cheat its way through the fight.
Wong Kar-wai’s THE GRANDMASTER: Ranking Every Fight | Transcript:
Level I: Short Skirmishes
#14: Ip Man ruins Brother Xiong’s lunch
To kick things off, a couple scenes where Wong Kar-wai uses kung fu as a punch line, pun intended.
#13: The Razor seats his guest
The Grandmaster is a full-scale exploration of kung fu filmmaking in all its potential —visual, dramatic, thematic. As such, Wong isn’t afraid of dabbling in its comic qualities as well.
#12: Ma San vs. the Southerners
Here Wong uses a more classical kung fu-filming technique, with clear visuals and coherent editing. In twenty-six shots, Ma San defeats twelve opponents in twenty-six seconds, his efficiency matched only by Wong’s film technique.
#11: Master Gong vs. Ma San
In contrast, this showdown between teacher and student is intensely impressionistic. Packing twenty-two shots in just fourteen seconds, Wong unpacks a brief exchange of blows into an expansive, multifaceted moment of destiny.
#10: Kung fu light-up
But perhaps the most original short skirmish in the film is this non-fight. An old master appears simply to light up Ip Man’s cigar, but on a deeper level, he is studying the power contained in the younger man’s slightest gestures. The moment itself is symbolic of how the film places heavy significance upon microscopic moments.
Level II: Secondary Showdowns
#9: Ip Man vs. Sister San
In the lead-up to his crucial match with Master Gong, Ip Man spars with three elders, each with lessons to impart before his big test.
#8: Ip Man vs. The Accountant
We see how each fighter is defined by their style. We also see how kung fu isn’t just fighting but a kind of conversation. These matches aren’t just fights but exchanges of knowledge, a language spoken through bodies in motion.
#7: Ip Man vs. Yong
Kung-fu is an vast language of moves and techniques forming infinite combinations. Ip Man has a relatively simple vocabulary of just three moves, but it’s his mastery of them combined with his knowledge of all the others, that leads him to triumph.
#6: Ip Man shows his eight legs
At one point two fight scenes run back to back. Ip Man, newly arrived in Hong Kong, calmly proves his mastery against the doubters.
#5: The Razor quits his gang the hard way
Meanwhile, the Razor escapes mainland China in the film’s most vicious, brutal brawl.
The two scenes are a study in contrasts, not just in how two characters handle their desperate predicaments in postwar China, but also two different styles of kung fu moviemaking: classic old-school demonstration kung fu vs. slick, neo-Hollywood ultra-violent vulgarity. Come to think of it, I think I ranked these wrong.
Level III: Main Events
#4: Opening fight
The very first scene is a full-on aesthetic assault, as Wong dives into a dazzling range of kung-fu movie techniques: rainy atmospherics and high flying wire-work, jarring split second cuts and fetishistic slow-mo close-ups. What’s most striking is Wong’s fixation with the digital image in all its ultra-clarity. This is Wong’s first film shot in digital, and he delivers a truly digital kung fu movie, where bodies are no longer moving through space and time but through millions of high def pixels to be pored over. On the other hand, the shameless display of style teeters on MTV self-indulgence.
#3: Gong Er vs. Ma San
The feeling of hyper-digitalization is even stronger in the film’s climactic showdown, which takes place in a train station, except that it looks more like a fake green screen fantasy dotted with CGI snow. The computerized train in the back looks utterly phony, its purpose to provide a cool flicker effect But one shot the flicker doesn’t even match up with the speed the train is going. But other moments insist on the scene’s physicality with extreme literalness. It’s a weird combination of shameless artifice and high def detail, and it embodies everything that’s at stake with digital CGI action filmmaking: the endless possibilities and pitfalls of its plasticity.
#2: Ip Man vs. Master Gong
Proving that less is more, Wong achieves one of his most profound moments when Master Gong challenges Ip Man to take the biscuit from his hand. It’s a simple sequence but incredibly dramatic scene, where kung fu comes down to a battle between minds.
#1: Ip Man vs. Gong Er
The best kung fu moments of The Grandmaster don’t involve flashy digital effects, but a true sense of connection between people, the best case being when Ip Man fights Gong Er. Like a classic Hollywood musical number, it’s a rare examples of kung fu as love scene, like a classic Hollywood musical number, where would-be lovers come to know each other through the movement of their bodies. Sometimes the oldest techniques are the ones that work the best.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, video essayist, and founding editor of Keyframe. He tweets as @alsolikelife.