08/17/2013 09:42 am ET Updated Oct 17, 2013

Kung Fu Poetics: Wong Kar Wai's The Grandmaster

The most stunning film of the year, Wong Kar Wai's The Grandmaster displays a fight genre as ballet, limning a history of Ip Man, Bruce Lee's martial arts teacher. Introducing the movie at its U.S. premiere last week, with Samuel L. Jackson, Susan Sarandon, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson in attendance, director Wong said, "People think of kung fu as chop suey. It is not chop suey." Although what looks like the slicing of hands is part of the movement, as designed by Yuen Wo Ping, choreographer of The Matrix, Kill Bill and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the martial arts are less violent, even when blood flows, and more poetry. A courtesan differentiates the styles for Ip Man (Tony Leung) with Ziyi Zhang, who plays Gong Er, learning her father's tradition of Bagua style, a lethal "64 hands" technique by secretly watching him. Viewers who might avert their eyes at such spectacle will be awed, in particular at a fight scene set against a moving train in the snow. Quite simply, you are watching an exquisite silent movie, independent of dialogue, in thrall to evocative music. In close-up much of the time, the actors' faces large across the screen, an intimate drama unfolds even as the settings in Southern and Northern China are epic, and meant to show the passing of an era.

At the after party at the Royalton Hotel's Forty-four, the actor Tony Leung's stylist Candy, "like a sweet," told me they made 3 different versions of the film, one for Hong Kong, another for Berlin, and this one for the United States. The Grandmaster is Hong Kong's entry for Best Foreign Film Oscar. Director Wong elaborated, "We grew up reading kung fu graphic books." So for Asians, the tradition is more familiar. For American audiences where narrative is key, the romance between Gong Er and Ip Man is emphasized. Both Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang spoke about the rigors of martial arts training. They did their own movements. But showing the subtleties of their relationship may have been more of a challenge. When asked about those close-ups, the fine-boned Ziyi Zhang said, "I am grateful for the Director of Photography, Philippe le Sourd, for lighting my face that way." As to the acting: "You have to be very aware, in control of showing emotion, but not go too far."

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