Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster is very much in the tradition of other Wong films. There’s a slowed shutter speed, emphasis on small details and movements, lack of establishing shots, foreground elements, and general disregard for spatial relationships and continuity. Probably like a lot of people, I wasn’t much of a fan of My Blueberry Nights. Wong’s drenching romanticism just didn’t translate well in English, and though it was beautifully lensed by Darius Khondji, Norah Jones’ performance really brings it down.
The Grandmaster seems like it might be most easily compared to Ashes of Time in both films’ insistence on the idea that action scenes are more about slowing down than speeding up – contrary to most any other action film out there. It’s an odd film for a number of reasons, chief among them for me are the huge number of reaction shots and the strangely placed and utilized intertitles.
I’ve read – and David Bordwell has a really excellent piece on it HERE – that there exist several different versions, already, of The Grandmaster. Maybe that explains the redundant, entirely useless interititles that really only function to slow things to a plod. For example, when Tony Leung’s Ip Man refuses to collude with the Japanese, a title announces this fact, but it announces it right after we see a scene that tells us the exact same thing. Is this a US distributor idea? I’m not sure, but it seems really at odds with Wong’s overarching idea that cinema is for the ambiguous flexing of time and space, and not concrete information.
Those reaction shots really got my attention. It’s not only the sheer number of them (there are a whole lot), but it’s that they’re almost always in close-up, that they’re generally used in a rhythmic way to build up to a fight scene, and that they don’t always, as Bordwell points out, adhere to traditional eyeline matches.
Though The Grandmaster has some of the most beautifully choreographed and staged fight scenes I’ve ever seen, it’s this idea that makes Wong’s films timeless and functions similarly to, say, the repetitious, slow-motion reenactments that are part of what makes In The Mood for Love such a masterful film: by eliminating spatial constraints (i.e. it doesn’t matter where these characters are looking, it’s the rhythm that’s key) Wong steers his audience away from typical story convention and towards the realm of cinematic possibilities. These characters could be looking at anything, and at any point in time. It’s simply the juxtaposition and – the important part for me – not the adherence to basic filmic rules that says who/what they’re looking at. In this way, Wong emphasizes the tableau and the idea that each shot is somehow an important moment for that character – as though it’s a quick window into them alone.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (Lowery, 2013)
How annoying are Terrence Malick comparisons getting? David Gordon Green, and now David Lowery. I get it – you move your camera dreamily, favor voiceover, have a pervasive score, and feature romantically criminal characters, you’re certainly impinging upon Badlands and Days of Heaven, but Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (awesomely titled) is pretty different than those narratives.
The criminals-sort-of-on-the-run story is propelled by strong performances from the underrated Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Lowery has a tendency to to allow for partial silhouette/underexposure. For example, in one shot he tilts down from sky. The exposure is clearly set to the sky, yielding an obvious under-exposure by the time the camera frames the ground by a train. It’s a curious decision, but one that seems to a) place nature on a pedestal, and b) push the idea of naturalism (i.e. no digital tricks).
I don’t always love voiceover-driven films (a recent example of that backfiring: the letter in Eastern Promises), but it comes together here. Part of that is the actorly delivery. Part of it is the rest of the structure of the film. Lowery jumps through time a lot. His scenes are generally short, and there’s an emphasis on drifting slowly towards an inevitable conclusion (digression: voiceover certainly has something to do with feelings of inevitability in cinema; similarly, I think that nontraditional structures can also lend themselves to inexorability – it’s like the filmmaker, by, in this case, skipping so leisurely through time, is pushing us towards an outcome rather than unfolding to it.). The voiceover functions as the kind-of glue that marries these time ellipses.
The Spectacular Now (Ponsoldt, 2013)
This is one of the few films that I can think of where I regret my review of it (you can read that review HERE). I was overenthusiastic about a film that, with a little more reflection, seems pretty standard. It’s just forgettable. A few good performances, at least two scenes that are really affecting, and the rest is a narrative that I’ve seen before.
My least favorite part of the film is something that I only touch on in my review: that Aimee’s character really only functions to change for Sutter. Sure, she has some narrative weight: she helps him overcome some of his fears, maybe be a better person generally, confront his father, etc. That’s all great, classic storytelling stuff. But their initial interaction, and the way that it’s a foregone conclusion that she’ll change for him and not vice versa is really annoying and glossed over.
Prisoners (Villeneuve, 2013)
This is one of my favorites of the year. HERE‘s why.