by Gabriel Valdez
Ziyi Zhang. Much shade is thrown her way. “She’s a dancer by training,” goes one criticism, which conveniently ignores the by-now years of martial arts training she’s undergone with masters most of us could only dream of tutoring under.
Another criticism reminds us she’s no Michelle Yeoh, as if there can only be one female movie martial artist at a time. And, for that matter, if we’re talking purely practical martial arts skill, Jackie Chan’s no Michelle Yeoh either.
I often hear: she couldn’t actually win that fight. Well, this is probably true for half of movie martial artists. I’m not going to judge which ones could and which ones couldn’t, and that includes Zhang, but if that’s your schtick I’m pretty sure at least half the people who fly in kung fu movies can’t really do that either.
The simple reality is that Zhang is one of the best movie martial artists working today, and she fuses dance with martial arts to realize a balletic choreographic style that is relatively new in much the same way Jackie Chan’s fusion of stuntwork and martial arts once was. Being such a unique talent allows directors to frame their stories around her.
One such film was The Grandmaster, which I ranked as the second best film of 2013. The Grandmaster tells the tale of Ip Man, the Chines historical figure and cultural hero who would later go on to train martial arts cinema’s formative light: Bruce Lee.
Most recountings of Ip Man are mythologized to an egregious extent, but that’s what every culture (including ours) tends to do with historical figures. There are a few things that are intriguing about The Grandmaster‘s retelling, however:
First off, this is director Wong Kar-wai’s only real entry into martial arts cinema. He tends to make movies about love, alternating frame stories, and crime melodrama. His movies are utterly beautiful, almost like moving paintings, as you can see from the scene above.
Secondly, while The Grandmaster as a title seems to refer to Ip Man, the narrative leads you to believe that the grandmaster being spoken about is Ziyi Zhang’s character, Gong Er. She has even defeated Ip Man in a contest of kung fu. She is a woman, however, and so cannot inherit the traditions or certifications of a Chinese martial arts school. Because of China’s attitude toward women, the style her family practiced dies with her, while Ip Man’s style is free to live on through him. In this way, The Grandmaster is an absolutely searing refutation of gender politics in China, and a portrayal of all that’s been lost through China’s focus on patriarchy, privileging men while devaluing women, and focusing on the birth of sons over daughters.
In the scene above, midway through the film, Gong Er confronts Ma San, who has murdered her father and stolen the school’s certifications – and therefore the right to continue teaching the style – for himself.
What’s unique about the choreography is the use of slow motion to focus on the precision of hand movements. Most schools of kung fu focus on rhythm through a precision of hand movements, arm placements, and accompanying steps. The position of a hand can dictate the entire attitude of a movement. By slowing the choreography down, we’re able to see the intentions of key strikes, where they hit and miss. It translates the intention behind each move and how each character shifts attitude in order to counter the other’s. It’s derided by some American critics for being too focused on aesthetic, but the truth is the fight is communicated in terms of each character’s internal strategy better than most full-speed fights.
It stands not just on its scenery and art design, not just on the unique aspects Zhang brings to choreography, but as a fight that plainly communicates how moves are strung together according to this particular martial arts philosophy.
And it’s just one of several such scenes that make The Grandmaster one of the most unique and important martial arts movies ever made.