Ang Lee has said that Taiwan's movies have a small atmosphere, that they lack depth. What are Teacher's thoughts on Wang Kar-Wei's The Grandmaster?
Grandmaster of a Generation
Wang Kar-Wei's The Grandmaster is a wonderful example of a movie that has a huge atmosphere. It stands out and scores highly it in its style, its form, interpretation of the subject matter, and even in the actors and actresses' interpretation of their roles. It may seem controversial that Tony Leung's performance of Yip Man only has a quarter of screen time to Zhang Ziyi's Gong Er, but his performance as the hero and achievement of capturing the quintessence of his character's arc is unseen in any other Kung Fu or Hero movie ever before. From the moment he comes on screen he is a master, and every subtle move he makes fits perfectly into the character of The Grandmaster, Yip Man.
Tracing the River's Source
It took Wang Kar-Wei roughly sixteen years of preparation to make this movie. It began when Wang had finished shooting Days of Being Wild in South America. While at a train station, he came across a magazine article that had a picture of Bruce Lee in it, he wondered what Bruce Lee's face was doing all the way out there, and thought of making a movie about Bruce Lee. However, Bruce Lee's story had already been made into a number of movies, and it would be very difficult to have something new to say. Then Wang saw a video of Bruce Lee's old master Yip Man, filmed by Yip Man's son, Yip Chun, whom following his father's instruction, filmed and documented Yip Man three days prior to his passing. In the footage Yip Man wears his pajamas, is in his living room, and practicing on his wooden dummy. Perhaps Yip Man was ill, and since he was of old age by this time, all one hundred and eight moves of the form were done in fragments. The back story to this footage touched Wang, he was compelled to understand the motivation behind this man; Why did he do this?
The Passing of Legacy
There is a story that tells of Bruce Lee, after becoming famous, approaching his former master, and asking him for permission to document his form on film. But Yip Man rejected him, saying that if this was to be documented and meant for anyone, that it would be for everyone, and not just for Bruce Lee. Wang believed that this could be the explanation he was looking for; at the end of his life, Yip Man used his last breath to document this thing that could have been lost, and it inspired Wang, this was the kind of story that he wanted to tell. At first, Wang was only interested in the story of one man, or of one street, but after collecting and reviewing some research material, his interest was no longer just in one person, or one street, but of an entire era.
The Devotion of Learning
The Grandmaster originally centered around Yip Man, but as more material was found and research done, the script was changed, and finally Gong Er・s story had taken up the majority of the film. Some called Wang bias, whether bias or not, Gong Er・s story is the predominant arc of the movie. In the beginning, the contentious Gong Er challenged Yip Man, and the two entered a complex relationship that would not easily fade. Then during the time of war, and being constantly on the move, the two never met. To avenge her father, Gong Er took an oath on sacred grounds. She vowed to never marry, nor to have any children; she would never have a family, and never take an apprentice to pass on her craft. Although this portion of the movie talks about taking on the path of revenge --and this path is different from normal discipline, and refinement-- it also can be used to address the devotion and intensity needed to perfect one・s Kung Fu. This is what the ancients meant when they said that without devotion, or a passion for something, a craft cannot be perfected. In the end, Gong Er defeated Ma San and avenged her father, but through the conflict became seriously injured. This shows that if an act is done for a purpose, the accomplishment will always come at a great price.
A Time of Great Struggle
The Grandmaster recounts a time of drastic change, the struggle of man, and the sentiment that no matter how powerful you are, how capable you may be, you cannot escape the pressures and entrapment of a changing world. Much like a scenario seen in Jing Yong・s novel The Smiling, Proud Wanderer, when the character Lin Guchung askes Feng Qingyang why Feng, the great swordsman and master of the style ：Lonely with Nine Swords,； would choose to hide as a beggar? Feng Qingyang answered that no amount of training and expertise can fend off the political and social pressures of the times you live in. Yip Man had dreams and aspirations that he could never fulfill, and Gong Er was caught between finding comfort in love and avenging her father・s death. These two protagonists・ stories represent a great number of different meanings of life. This movie contains elements of an artistic film, and it also has elements of a melodrama and literary film, and in some ways it is a lot like Gone with the Wind. So many capable masters and heroes, yet so few of them are able to break the chokehold on their lives, so few are able to penetrate the darkness of their time. In the end, only Yip Man makes it over the mountain of struggle and lands in Hong Kong, and makes a new life for himself.
Helping Yourself to Help Others
When Wang prepared for The Grandmaster, he did extensive research into the world of Kung Fu, in order to give the film a world of epic proportions. He traveled all over the mainland and interviewed over hundreds of masters, collecting great amounts of information and facts, and through the depth of his research he could see some notable changes. For instance, the absence of Chi, and the discipline of internal forces were all but gone. Wang put what he had pieced together onto the screen. He wanted to show that these things were not just concepts, but that they existed, and now we only have fragments left, something whole is missing; perhaps it・s gone forever, perhaps just temporarily. He knew what Chinese Kung Fu was for, in it・s integrity and purpose, and manifested it through the character of Yip Man as he demonstrated the martial artist/scholar・s practice of the four corners of Chinese Philosophy (Benevolence, Righteousness, Etiquette, and Wisdom). Yip Man represented the tradition and legacy of establishing the self in service of establishing others, the enlightening of the self in service of enlightening others; the high functioning existence of helping yourself to help others, and breaking the habit of dependence and the pursue of answers. In fact, very few people today can find inner security and peace, instead we rely on something external, like a brand of spiritualism, or a religion, or a god, and forget that if we were to experience the supernatural, it would be from our own devotion and discipline. In the ancient times, learning Kung Fu required kowtowing to a master, the intention of the ceremony was to keep reverence, honesty, and purity in your heart. Otherwise both student and teacher would be apprehensive, and inquisitive of each other, and if that were the case, how then could the gifting and bearing of a legacy be done?
Being Receptive and Responsible
When Yip Man and Gong Er dueled in the teahouse, Yip Man could have easily won, but to give his opponent face, he chose to help her maintain balance when she was falling instead. Then, he purposely cracked the staircase to give her the technical win by breaking the rules of the fight. Is that not the best example of Chinese Kung Fu・s philosophy of yielding? It is an etiquette, and it is a demonstration of receptive and responsible Kung Fu, it can also be translated into day-to-day life as a living philosophy. The movie shows us the emotional connection of the two characters, it was a kind of connection that could resonate in everyone of us, but because of the times, the world they lived in, their different ethics and numerous other conflicts, this bond was never made. Just like the fate of many others, no matter how capable, many things are simply unachievable.
Finding the Dao Through Craft
The only thing to be sought after in Kung Fu is the discipline of the craft. Kung Fu is much more than forms. Forms are just moves, and no amount of practice, even with tremendous strength or incredible speed, can elevate the practitioner・s skill beyond that of technique, let alone enter the basic level of martial artist. The harnessing of our life energy into Chi is the basis of Kung Fu. The practice of Chi fuels our spirit and gives us energy to do the difficult and righteous things. The discipline of emptying our spirit eases our heart and mind, and allows us to let go and find a path without seeking one. Life is filled with all types of love, conditions aside. If love can be bridged from both sides, it will grow, and if it grows it will bear fruits of reward. However, the actual reward is not in being able to let go of one・s achievement, but in reaching(reflecting) back. Letting go is an act of self completion, but reflecting back is comparable to Gong Er・s father Gong Yutian・s mercy for his disciple Ma San, it・s for the completion of others. Kung Fu is about willingness to sacrifice yourself for the better of others, if that isn・t accepted then the way is lost.
A Brief Encounter
In dealing with is feelings, Yip Man always maintains his own balance, he is in a state of wholesomeness and is unbothered by the outcome, whether it be a gain or a loss. After arriving in Hong Kong, he met Gong Er for a second time. Yet, he made no advancement in their relationship, he was aware of the path and oath she had taken. His encounter with her was unobtrusive, they were just old acquaintances catching up. When Gong Er sensed her end approaching, she finally addressed Yip Man directly to confess her feelings. After the confession, the two never met again. This portion of the movie demonstrates the martial artist/scholar, whose unaffected nature, and whose existence of complete ease, stability, and sensible mind, can taken on and let go of any hardship. Compared to the more common and vulgar notions of ：Blood, Guts, and Glory,； the former shows the greater depth, and atmosphere.
Modern practice of martial arts has its emphasis on strength, and is becoming more of a sport. The moves are still based in Chinese Kung Fu, but the inner workings, and thought processes are based on western athleticism. In regards to drawing (internal) forces, or generating a penetrating force, the practitioner is drastically limited. If the emphasis were instead put on the basis of Kung Fu (Chi practice), then the overall range and depth of the practitioner would be enormous. When Wang made The Grandmaster, one of the basic problems he presented was this shift, because something is missing today in Kung Fu. Practicing Kung Fu, but not practicing Chi, is like a Chinese saying, ：Training your fist but not your craft, leaves you old, empty, and daft.； Gong Er and Yip Man・s relationship never becomes anything, on the surface the movie addresses the love between two people, but on a deeper meaning the relationship represents the loss of an era; the era of Chi has gone. The two know about and care for each other, but have no future with one another. When they meet they do not delve into details, and when they want to there is no longer any time left; is that not very much like all the relationships in life? Many martial artists want to delve deep into the craft, but because of abundant excuses they can barely advance beyond knowing technique and enter the realm of art. After years of seeking and experience, struggle and practice they make hardly any advancements. The key lies in being doubtless, and completely devoted, accepting what you understand and even accepting what you cannot understand, that is the basis of a Legacy. Learning things that we are drawn to, but to also to learn from what we are repelled from; we must practice that which is difficult to us, but we must practice even harder on that which comes easily to us. If this can be done, then we enter a state of harmony, as at ease as coming upon an unoccupied shade beneath a tree, it would not be a chance occurrence or a lucky find, it is actually a form of reflection, of finding yourself again after being lost. If this can・t be understood, then the concepts of Chinese Philosophy・s Four Corners, the practice of Chi, and the disciplined and harmonious Chinese Kung Fu will actually perish.
Everywhere and Anywhere
The many changes of great eras are hard to grasp, even for a superior martial artist/scholar. Yip Man attained nothing during his time before Hong Kong, yet his form of martial art was eventually spread all around the world. During that time, the majority of the Martial Arts World felt that Chinese Kung Fu could not be taught to any foreigners, but Yip Man did anyway, and so did Bruce Lee. That is what it means to possess a great atmosphere. The West, and Japan all learned from Chinese technology and culture, but after developing on these ideas and skills they refused to let go of their achievements. Unlike the Sung, and Yuan dynasties, who had worldly atmospheres and allowed their technological and cultural findings to be given away, to better world・s development as a whole. In the final scene of the movie, Bruce Lee finds Yip Man and becomes his apprentice, it represents a legacy. The movie traces the violently changing years, from the end of the Qing dynasty, to the establishment of the Chinese Republic, from the Northern Expeditions, to the War of Resistance against Japan, from the Civil War, and finally, to Hong Kong. Wang Kar-Wei narrated and merged together the fragmented legacies, how they began and ended, and this concept, it・s spirit, atmosphere, and great depth was, and is profound. The Grandmaster is full of conflict and peace, through combat and through conversation, nuanced character development, emotional and passionate, and all encompassing. Through and throughout, this is the breadth and atmosphere that Ang Lee meant; and a martial artist who has no reverence of culture, who seeks no path, and has no heart for legacy, is a person without any atmosphere at all.
Chi Kung Culture Society of TAIPEI