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The Chinese director Wong Kar-wai is known for sad, lyrical movies in which people always seem to be missing each other. In 1994's "Chungking Express," a snack-bar attendant breaks into the apartment of a heartbroken cop — one of her customers — to try and cheer him up by redecorating, only to leave town when he finally asks her for a date. In 2000, he made "In the Mood For Love," a story set in 1960s Hong Kong about the almost-relationship between a man and a woman whose spouses are carrying on an affair. They're confined by the manners of the society they live in, but they also hide behind them — it's good manners that spare them the difficult task of telling each other how they really feel. Instead they yearn silently, accompanied by mournful violins or the aria from an old Chinese opera, waiting with downcast eyes as the potential of the present moment passes them by. "To say there are no regrets in life is to fool yourself," a woman named Gong Er says near the end of "The Grandmaster" to a man she has harbored feelings toward for over a decade. "Imagine how boring life would be without regret." Soon they are walking side-by-side down an empty street at a comfortable distance from each other, where they part into the dark.
"The Grandmaster" is at its core an unmistakably Wong-ian film: Languid, sensual, rife with solemn proclamations that begin with words like "it is said" or "my father once said." But it's also a kung-fu movie, and Wong's first foray into action since 1994's "Ashes of Time." Based on the life of Ip Man (Wong mainstay Tony Leung), a kung-fu master famous in part for teaching Bruce Lee, the plot weaves the personal stories of both Ip and his almost-love Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang) into the larger narrative of China's occupation by Japan during the Second Sino-Japanese War and subsequent closing of Hong Kong. Wong's storytelling is loose and elliptical: At first we follow Ip's ascendance to grandmaster; later there's a long digression about Gong Er that throws us back into the past. Often, transitions are signaled with the hand-holding device of title cards, which is a little clumsy, but also a reminder that this is a movie less concerned with the sequential, and-then and-then and-then quality of storytelling than with creating a rich and melancholy atmosphere in which the events of the plot don't connect, but float.
Choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, best known for both "The Matrix" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," even the movie's fight sequences feel romantic, lingering not only on the blows but the foreplay that precedes them. This is especially important when Ip faces off against Gong Er: The fight exists as a proxy for a physical intimacy they never share. Wong leans hard on choppy slow-motion shots that have an almost soap operatic quality — somehow both chintzy and moving at the same time. And as with "In the Mood For Love," long portions of the movie take place in or around the rain, which almost glitters in the cool blue streetlight.
This is a movie that tries to do a lot. Sometimes too much. At a little over an hour and a half, it feels short, and somehow I wasn't surprised to learn that the edit I was watching, released by The Weinstein Co., was 22 minutes shorter than the domestic Chinese cut. Its most beautiful scenes feel like tiny islands isolated by what came before or after them. This doesn't make them more or less beautiful, only a little lost on a movie that isn't sure what to do with them. And as the movie goes on, it seems less and less concerned with the kung-fu conceit of Ip Man's life than with the scenes between him and Gong Er. These are, as you'd expect, subtle: Tony Leung rarely rises above a slight curl of his mouth; Ziyi — known on both sides of the world for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and her lead in "Memoirs of a Geisha" — delivers entire soliloquies just by contracting her pupils. Despite the movie's elaborate kung fu, in the end, Wong can't stop himself from telling the story he's always wanted to tell: about two people longingly wandering past each other, into the rest of their lives.