The latest from Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai — and his first since 2007's American sojourn My Blueberry Nights, which was partly set and shot in Memphis — The Grandmaster is part celebration of China's colorful martial-arts heritage, part war-torn historical epic, part biopic of famed kung fu teacher Ip Man (who trained Bruce Lee later in life), and part treatise on Wong's great subject: romantic longing. If that sounds like a lot to squeeze into 108 minutes, especially for American audiences who are likely to be very unfamiliar with the film's historical milieu, well, it is.
The Grandmaster was cut by more than 20 minutes for American release, but even an extra 20 minutes seems insufficient to properly explore everything this opulent film is interested in. So, rather than a fully realized work, The Grandmaster comes across as an episodic series of film fragments strung together with explanatory inter-titles and voiceover narration. It's frustrating ... but oh those fragments.
"I lose myself in my passions," Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) says late in the film, reflecting back on her childhood under the tutelage of her Northern master father. "Kung fu is about precision," Ip Man (Tony Leung) says earlier in the film. And they both might as well be Wong speaking for his own filmmaking style, best captured in such earlier masterpieces as 1994's Chungking Express and 2000's In the Mood for Love.
The Grandmaster is gorgeous, with fight scenes that are expertly and artfully shot and choreographed to pay particular attention to the details of different techniques and styles. The first meeting between the charismatic Ziyi and Leung (who co-starred in Wong's previous Hong Kong film, 2046) is fight as dance — an intimate, unspoken courtship in battle form. Along the way, the film takes you places you wish you could spend more time, like a kung fu brothel (no, really) where hidden martial arts masters lurk amid the crowd or a post-war Hong Kong where (martial) artists live in exile, confronting modernity.
If The Grandmaster is a ghost of a movie, it's still more essential and more worthy of a big screen than any competing multiplex product.
The Grandmaster opens on Friday, August 30th, and is playing at Malco's Cordova and Paradiso theaters.
Fill the Void
The debut of writer/director Rama Burshtein, Fill the Void has been touted as the first feature film directed by an Orthodox Israeli woman. As such, it's a testament to the value of diverse points of view.
Set amid Tel Aviv's Orthodox Hasidic community, Fill the Void is about a family plotting a new path in the wake of a tragedy. The older sister of 18-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron, who won "best actress" at the Venice Film Festival for this performance) dies while giving birth to a son, leaving husband Yochay (Yiftach Klein) adrift. When Yochay contemplates moving to Belgium to marry a Hebrew-speaking widow, Shira's mother hatches a plan for Shira to marry Yochay, taking her sister's place, raising her newborn nephew, and preserving the family.
"Isn't it better than marrying a stranger?" Shira's mother asks.
A rare film that depicts a traditional religious community from within, Fill the Void itself is devout but not without doubts. The young Shira weighs family loyalty, religious devotion, and the yearnings of her own heart, and it isn't just the film that takes all three of those concerns seriously. So do the elders in a world where marriages — as depicted here — aren't so much arranged as shepherded and negotiated.
At only 90 minutes and occurring primarily within the modest residences of its characters, Fill the Void is a graceful, intimate portrait of a family and close-knit community, marked by striking cinematography and bits of wry humor that will surprise you. If you're open to the film's quiet tone — as well as reading subtitles — it's also a surprisingly accessible film.
Fill the Void is opening on Friday, August 30th, and is playing at Malco's Forest Hill theater.
A fictional but topical legal thriller about a high-profile British terrorism case, the ostensibly high-toned film Closed Circuit tries to do two things and falls short on both.
The film opens with split-screen surveillance footage showing the same scene from 15 angles, all capturing the moments before a truck-bomb explosion in a crowded market. But while Closed Circuit occasionally includes shots of these surveillance cameras, the opening credits make formal promises the rest of the cinematically conventional film can't keep.
If Closed Circuit falls short visually, it also doesn't work up much human interest, building its plot around an unlikely pairing of two ex-lovers as principals on the defense team. Eric Bana, as the accused terrorist's defense barrister, and Rebecca Hall, as the state-appointed special advocate, make for an attractive once-and-future couple, no doubt. But the forced relationship story never clicks and thus seems to merely reveal how unserious the film is about the political/legal thriller at its core.
Closed Circuit opened Wednesday, August 28th, and is playing at Studio on the Square.