The Grandmaster ★★★½

Faith of the fist
Balanced like a snake stew.
Forgotten hands
Returned to time.
"Always forward. Never back."

“Spirit does not toss itself about in the external play of chance occurrences; on the contrary, it is that which determines history absolutely, and it stands firm against the chance occurrences which it dominates and exploits for its own purpose."
– Hegel, Philosophy of History

Sorry for the heady quotes, but as Sam Adams joked, I’m trying to get on the poster by calling this the “most Hegelian wuxia movie ever made." Not that Wong is necessarily making a film about the progress of man toward Freedom and Master/Slave dialectics, but he is dealing with the problem of history as progress (Master Gong’s main lesson: “Always forward; Never back.”) and how it effects the individuals who are hopeless to stop it, or give into their emotions to follow the due course but harm themselves in the way.

However, besides that opening epic scene, it takes quite a while before this becomes a “Wong movie,” with the first half hour feels like a showcase for a Zhang Yimou epic. It’s a little dizzying and confusing to follow exactly why this competition is going on – which is part of the point really (The US cut includes more titles cards to explain this, which might actually be a good thing). But once Gong Er shows up in the picture this thing explodes into something magical, that almost kiss the film’s version of 0.01cm. Their first interactions by letters is right out of the final chapter of Ashes of Time and while I originally thought the abrupt change to the war was a bit jarring, it makes sense as the picture comes together in its later half. The cookie dance metaphor drives the film’s larger view of history – you can break apart North and South, but the world is larger than just a cookie.

For as many cuts and flashy focus on materials (grains, snow flakes, and of course rain) the action is surprisingly coherent while still maintaining the sensuous details that make Wong’s cinema so exciting (I was originally confused by the poorly realized CGI train in a late battle, but Nick Pinkerton’s piece connects it nicely to Von Sternberg). But let’s not lie – the best scenes in this film have almost nothing to do with kung fu: Gong Er’s visit to a temple, the Once Upon a Time in the West-like build up to her final fight, and the opera scene and conversation near the end (I wish the dialogue was a little more subtle – did Maggie Cheung ever have to openly express her love in Mood?). I think this is still a shaggy film with too much thrown in (Pinkerton makes the good point that Wong needs to be more like Malick and simply excise characters like Razor and find his elements), but I think the core of the film – history’s inevitability, not as a sign of progress toward a man becoming a legend but constantly looking back to what he’s lost – is something that in unquestionably Wong and yet still feels like new territory for him. This is the first of his films I can recall to really exist in multiple locations (all of Blueberry Nights is “America”), where characters are separated from lands and boundaries they cannot control. A metaphor for filmmaking under Mainland China? Probably not, but this is a work that will require multiple viewings to parse through its various elements. A film for those who prefer 2046 to In the Mood for Love.