Myself with Wong Kar-wai, at a pre-screening reception at the Museum of the Moving Image. Photograph by Guan Liming.
NEW YORK - I have never been a keen follower of Bruce Lee, or kung fu movies, but I was dying to see The Grandmaster, a biopic loosely based on Lee’s legendary master Ip Man (1893-1972). The dynamics between a master and his disciple has been a subject dear to my heart – I wrote a thesis at Yale that compared the ways Western and Eastern religious conversion stories used such relationships as a narrative driver.
Ip Man (or “Ye Wen” in Mandarin), played by Tony Leung, was a master of the Wing Chun style of martial arts. Narrated from his perspective, but with interspersed omniscience, the story turned on his life from 1930s in Foshan (Southern China), his flight to Hong Kong after the Sino-Japanese War and his combats with the heirs of the other prominent martial art schools.
Tony Leung as Ip Man in Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster (2013). Courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Factional rivalry and closely guarded secret techniques are the two pillars of the Chinese martial arts tradition. In order to maintain his legacy of dominance in kung fu, a master would go through extraordinary lengths before he selected his heir to whom he would secretively transmit the highest art form of his “trade.”
At the New York premiere on August 10, I asked director Wong Kar-wai to explain the prototype for Gong Er, played by Zhang Ziyi, who embodied the spirit of revenge that has also been ingrained in the lore of martial arts. After Ip Man “defeated” Gong Er’s father Gong Yutian, the preeminent Northern master, through philosophical exchanges, Gong Er challenged Ip Man to a fight. Later, Gong Er sought vengeance on her father’s appointed heir Ma San after Ma committed dual treason against her father and China by collaborating with the Japanese occupation regime.
Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er in Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster (2013). Courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Wong told me that Gong Er is a composite vignette of different types of outstanding women from the Republican Period: talented artists, writers, actresses and intellectuals who did not subscribe to the traditional boundaries of women’s roles and took their destinies into their own hands.
Despite her command of her family’s arcane techniques and her vow to steadfastly safeguard the “rules” of the martial arts tradition, as a woman Gong Er was disqualified, by the very tradition that she sought to uphold, as the legitimate torch carrier of her father’s legacy.
Wong Kar-wai, nicknamed “Black Sunglasses Wong” because he is rarely seen without his signature shades, on the set of The Grandmaster (2013). Courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
The Grandmaster traces Wong’s In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2005) in their highly stylized and sensual drama about a bygone era and fleeting passion. Gong Er’s relationship with Ip Man was charged with a subtle erotic tension from their first combat at Golden Pavilion, a brothel frequented by the martial artists. Gong Er showed an upper hand because Ip Man broke the wooden floor during the fight, but invited Ip to her home in the North for a second match
Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love (2000). Image courtesy of Photofest.
An epistolary relationship ensued. You need not have read the letters between Héloïse d'Argenteuil and Peter Abélard to sense the unspoken attraction between the two martial artists. Ip Man had a fur coat custom-made for him in order to visit Gong Er in the North, but the eruption of the Sino-Japanese War unraveled his plan. Later Ip Man brought the coat to a pawnshop in exchange for needed cash to feed his family, but he kept one button as a keepsake, which he would give to Gong Er when they re-encountered each other in Hong Kong.
Jude Law and Norah Jones in Wong Kar-Wai's My Blueberry Nights (2007). Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
I was disappointed that Gong Er confessed her affection to Ip Man during her farewell speech as her health had precipitously declined. I think there are things better left unstated in life, as well as in drama. In any event, Gong Er’s worldview and her inability to transmit her family’s legacy due to her untimely death inspired Ip Man to popularize his teaching and make Wing Chun’s teachings accessible to many students.
I asked Wong why simmering romantic entanglements continued to be his cinematic obsession, even in a kung fu film? He did not answer. But as I walked out the Museum of the Moving Image, I suddenly realized that an unfulfilled romantic yearning is a perfect metaphor for the alluring vicissitude of a transitional time.
Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI), New York
July 12 – August 24, 2013
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
August 1 – August 25, 201
Chiu-Ti Jansen is a TV presenter, a publisher and a writer based in New York City with a pulse on China.