Appreciation — August 28, 2013, 7:55 am

Wong Kar-wai’s Subtle Battles

How the director of The Grandmaster captures the essence of the fight 

Tony Leung in The Grandmaster © The Weinstein Company

Tony Leung in The Grandmaster © The Weinstein Company

Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster was released last Friday. Each of Wong’s previous masterpieces has evoked a kind of romantic longing. Chungking Express, for example, opens with a woman in a blond wig and a trench coat walking through the stalls of Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong. It’s a place where you can buy electronics and food, and it is crowded at night. The woman takes an elevator up to what looks like it might be a tailor shop, though it’s too dark to tell. We follow her down a hallway, and abruptly she turns and looks directly into the camera, the way a beautiful woman would turn to look at a man who was following her too closely. She walks a bit further, into a room with a man in an undershirt sitting on a top bunk, and the title screen comes up.

Then, over scenes of white clouds against the blue sky, behind silhouettes of industrial equipment, a young man says in voiceover, “Every day we brush past so many people. People we may never meet or people who may become close friends. I’m a cop, number 223. My name’s He Qiwu.” Now he is chasing someone through Chungking. He brushes past a mannequin wearing a blond wig like the woman’s. We see who he is chasing: a man whose hands are cuffed behind his back, and whose head is inside a paper bag with eyeholes cut out. Qiwu nearly slams into the woman with the blond wig, who reels to stay out of his way. In voiceover, he says, “That was the closest we ever got. Just 0.01 of a centimeter between us. But 57 hours later, I fell in love with this woman.”

In what is widely regarded as Wong’s masterpiece, In the Mood for Love, two neighbors — Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen (also known as Mrs. Chan) — are being betrayed by their spouses: Chow’s wife is having an affair with Su’s husband. Chow and Su are often in their apartments alone, and a romance develops between them. But they can’t consummate the affair. One night Su is in Chow’s apartment, working on a kung-fu comic they’re creating, when her landlady comes home and starts a game of mah-jongg with her friends. Su doesn’t want to be seen returning from Chow’s place, so she waits for the game to end. She sits on the bed; he sits on a chair. The game goes on. She lies on the bed; he sits in a chair. The game of mah-jongg gets louder. They fall asleep. Su sleeps on Chow’s bed, and he sleeps in the chair. She stays the night. In the morning, she borrows a pair of high heels belonging to Chow’s wife and returns to her room.

The Grandmaster is a romantic portrayal of the object of Wong’s own rapture, kung fu. The film is a collection of stories about the central character, Ip Man (played by the sublime Tony Leung), and the masters of pre-1937 China. Wong has a light touch: he chooses his favorite historical episodes, and does not, as an academic might, insist that we understand the entire tradition of kung fu. He just wants us to glimpse his love. It is a bit like looking at an ocean: you can appreciate its beauty without knowing its depths.

Early in the film, Ip Man is chosen to represent southern China against the grandmaster of the north, Gong Yutian. They meet before members of Gong’s inner circle, and Gong holds out a cake. He asks Ip Man to break it. A brief, balletic sparring match ensues, and Ip Man manages to get his fingers on the cake. The two men hold it, and a moment passes. Ip Man lets go. Gong waits, the cake still in one piece, held out — and then half of it tumbles to the ground.

The battle takes place just before the Japanese invasion of China, a moment when it is important for the south and the north to unify. Gong is not seeking to become master of China. He is seeking an ally. But he can’t give his true aim away; a worthy ally would understand it. And so he offers this peculiar, disorienting challenge, with no apparent possibility of victory. To decline to break the cake — which signifies the unity of China — would be to lose the fight. To break the cake — to win the fight — would signify disunity. Ip Man understands this. He manages, with some maneuvering, to get his hand onto the cake and holds it — unity — then lets go. The cake breaks not because he has broken it, but because of the tremendous energy passing between the two masters’ hands.

Later in the movie, after Ip Man has left China following the Japanese invasion, he sits in a café in Hong Kong. He has lost his wife and their two children to famine. In a voiceover, he explains that it can be dangerous to accept a cigarette from a stranger. He does not say why — only that, if a cigarette is offered to him, he must accept it. Not doing so would cause the person who had offered it to lose face.

A tai-chi master named Ding Lianshan sits down and offers Ip Man a cigarette. Ip Man hesitates, then accepts. Ding offers to light the cigarette for Ip Man, who accepts this as well. He takes a puff, and Ding tells him it is too bad they did not meet twenty years earlier, when Ding was still young. He says, “You’ve got the gift.” We understand that by watching Ip Man for a few moments, Ding has recognized a fellow master. They do not fight. They do not need to; that is the end of their confrontation.

Each battle in the film is new, precise, and intelligent. Many are difficult to understand, but they are like riddles, and can be puzzled out. The Grandmaster’s fight scenes aren’t the brute battles of fists and wills you might expect of a kung-fu movie, just as Wong’s romances aren’t about sex. In both his portrayals of love and his portrayals of fighting, he is drawn to spiritual elements: the love of a woman a man will never physically know; the contest that takes place in the lighting of a cigarette. The kinds of encounters that seem imaginary to the materialists of the world, but are everything — the place where it all happens — to the rest of us.

Share
Single Page
’s story “William Wei” won The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2012.

More from Amie Barrodale:

From the December 2014 issue

Growing Up

Five coming-of-age stories

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2018

Checkpoint Nation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Checkpoint Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a three-hour drive to reach home, in the mountains in New Mexico, and she hated driving in the dark.

Sandoval took her place in the long line of people waiting to have their passports checked by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). When it was her turn, she handed her American passport to a customs officer and smiled amicably, waiting for him to wave her through. But the officer said she had been randomly selected for additional screening. Sandoval was led to a secondary inspection area nearby, where two more officers patted her down. Another walked toward her with a drug-sniffing dog, which grew agitated as it came closer, barking and then circling her legs. Because the dog had “alerted,” the officer said, Sandoval would now have to undergo another inspection.

Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk
Article
The Printed Word in Peril·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Article
Nothing but Gifts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Article
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images

Chance that a country to which the U.S. sells arms is cited by Amnesty International for torturing its citizens:

1 in 2

A newly discovered lemur (Avahi cleesei) was named after the comedian John Cleese.

Kavanaugh is confirmed; Earth’s governments are given 12 years to get climate change under control; Bansky trolls Sotheby’s

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today