REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, JUNE 2013
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
This is one of those rare and delightful instances in which an esteemed colleague, Shelly Kraicer, has so thoroughly crystallized my thoughts about the film in question (along with providing a great deal of cultural and historical context that I would not have been able to) that my remarks are virtually redundant. I will say that I'm surprised to be impressed with The Grandmaster since, around the time of its world premiere at this year's Berlinale, I managed to "acquire" an unsubtitled copy, which I watched in order to get a feel for the film's formal parameters. (Sadly, I don't speak either Cantonese or Mandarin.) On that pass, I was concerned with Wong's incessant cutting, the fact that shots were seldom allowed to hold the screen for more than a second or two. Not only did this strike me as distracting in and of itself (compared to the lush, hypnotic pace of Wong's best films), but it also seemed to contravene a basic if unwritten rule of martial arts cinema. You want the camera to step back, let the film roll, and allow the unalloyed athleticism of the performers hold the "stage."
But upon second look (with subtitles), I started to see exactly what Wong is up to. As Kraicer explains, The Grandmaster is a significant departure for Wong. It's the first film he's made that actually organizes time historically, rather than as looping memory or as a modernist problematic of motility vs. stasis. In a purely formal sense, Wong's take on (a small portion of) the life of Ip Man (Tony Leung) could be considered a kind of extended postscript to the epilogue in In The Mood For Love. Where the "real time" of history and politics is a shocking intrusion in that film, crashing through to break the hypnosis of Wong's romantic idyll, The Grandmaster deals in layered and indistinct timeframes. The hard, concrete progression of history (particularly the Japanese occupation) asserts itself and recedes. But the incremental development of Ip's school of kung fu, and the various competing schools, comprise the dominant plot of the film, and as Wong unfurls this tapestry through both fight scenarios and political machinations, we observe the discontinuous, underground development of Ip's unified wing chun method.
If we are literal in understanding Ip's key statement, that kung fu is but "two characters, one horizontal, one vertical," then we get it: someone stands while the other fighter falls. But this motto also alludes to the progression of time. Uneven development means that there are always at least two histories, the short-term dominant regime, and the attenuated stretch of deep time. (Raymond Williams called this "the long revolution," Fernand Braudel and the Annales School the longue durée.) And if we read this back into The Grandmaster's structural organization, perhaps Wong's impressionistic treatment of kung fu makes sense as a unique approach to the very meaning of "fighting" in Asian cinema. (It's even a notable revision of what the director did in Ashes of Time, which was given to abstraction but maintained a general spatial integrity.) These tight close-up shots, isolated and assembled as units in a pictographic lexicon, convey motion as well as stillness, the horizontality of thrust and the verticality of resistance. What Wong shows us in these fragments is not just the hit but the movement of air, the fact that a punch that doesn't connect is still a rearrangement of elements, a force. We see water beads, dust particles, even shafts of light take on jagged, differential jabs and parries throughout The Grandmaster, to an extent that actual body contact is almost superfluous. For Wong, as for Ip Man, these anti-matter "impacts" reflect the forces of history we can never see.
Some reviews just aren't very good, and I'm afraid this is one of them. I found myself tasked to write quite a bit more about this Alex Gibney documentary than I really had to say about it. It being a Gibney doc, its methods and viewpoint are straightforward and even a bit crude. (I should note, I rather liked Taxi To the Dark Side, but when compared with Laura Poitras' very similar The Oath, there's simply no comparison. Poitras is both a journalist and an artist; Gibney's neither.) Furthermore, given that I have rather impassioned views on the Bradley Manning case, I ended up ignoring We Steal Secrets and using the review as a broadside for ranting about Manning. All in all, not a very illuminating read. But we all strike the occasional sour note, yes? You can judge for yourself, as the Nashville Scene was gracious enough to run the piece and pay me for it as well.
All hail the Ethan Hawke Renaissance! I guess... Although I have many, many issues with this film, I'm not entirely sorry to see such a low budget, non-blockbuster mega-sequel make a killing (har har) in the current marketplace. If I were inclined to be generous, I could say that The Purge is a horror-thriller "of ideas," and that sets it apart somewhat. But let's face it: those ideas are painfully half-baked, and I'm not convinced that a stupid chop-'em-up isn't preferable in some ways to a "thoughtful" film that flatters its audience, feeds the beast, and leaves no one any better for having undergone the ritual. It's all just a bit too self-congratulatory. Not unlike Iron Man 3 or Despicable Me 2, except here, liberal smugness is the toy in the Happy Meal. Anyway, here's my write-up for the Nashville Scene.