The Grandmaster

RAIN DANCE: Ip Man (Tony Leung) fights so gracefully it looks like dancing in 'The Grandmaster.'

IP Man's career fits in with Subject #1 in the current Chinese cinema. That subject: how a fractured nation (symbolized on screen by feuding schools of martial arts) binds together in the face of foreign aggression.

One of the best films of 2013, The Grandmaster by Wong Kar-Wai is a triumph of the genre, but also a triumph of subversion by this ardent disciple of Josef von Sternberg. It's Wong's most accessible film, the least limply forlorn of them all. This isn't work for hire by a lately hitless director. It is above all a WKW movie. The poetry of rain and unrequited love is as important as the rousing, sensationally edited physical stunts organized by Yuen Woo-Ping. The fight scenes are anatomized in exquisite slow-mo, with a sense of tension and weight in every smashed window or body blow.

Such is the courtship of the (almost) lovers: one is Ip, played by the suave Tony Leung, dressed in a scholar's robe and a spotless Panama hat. The only woman in the world for him—and too bad he's married to someone else—is Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the heiress to an ancient school of martial arts. A smirking, pencil-thin-mustachioed villain (Jin Zhang), who has collaborated with the invading Japanese, is trying to get the secret from her.

The fights are more like dances than brawls. They take place on an icy rail platform far too close to a speeding train. Earlier, a dueling Gong and Ip agree that whoever breaks anything in a room full of carved screens and delicate furniture will be the loser—it's the almost-ness, the brinksmanship of this fight, that's a perfect image of Wong's fascinating restraint.

Oddly, Wong is a Chinese director who sees China as exotic: he presents the 1930s Paramount version of China, with orchids, opium, crimson lipstick and satin slippers. He's as lured by the exotica of the Golden Pavilion brothel ("Enter a prince, exit a pauper") as he is by the dangerous Hong Kong of the early 1950s. "Keep the light burning" is a phrase the characters use to describe the importance of passing on their art. It seems the light Wong means is the light of cinephilia, the memories and traditions of classic movies.

The Grandmaster

PG-13; 130 min

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