The Chinese Doctor Zhivago
(Picture courtesy DIFF)
A supreme lesson in film-making so far above the run-of-the-mill films coming out of Hollywood, the film is a vision of artistry. Without exaggeration this is possibly the best film I have seen in fifteen years. Those who remember the Nineties and the European films of that era with their passion, tradition and accomplishments that used to be the bastion of cinema will feel at home with “The Grandmaster”- Yī Dài Zōng Shī.
Many of those marvellous films came out when the Durban International Film Festival was largely an elegant affair at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre at the University of Natal.
Wong Kar Wai, a genius on seven continents tells a tale equally composed of romantic and tragic proportions. The story unfolds in the great and poignant year of 1936 in the smoky streets of Hong Kong, the smell of subterfuge, assassination and murky politics cling to the air like a Mikey Spillane plot. The entire yarn unfolds like a dream, remarkable cinematography, lush costumes and the wordless sheen when no words are said; majesty and depth depicting the melancholy effects of family, History (the invasion of Manchuria with the Japanese occupation, Hong Kong and the place of Kung-Fu) and the romance between the competing Southern and Northern schools of Kung-Fu and the collapse of the country on the same geographic lines.
The skin of the film is far from transparent, remarkable colours are shown throughout with characters beautiful wrought. The mystical element of China, the old Buddhist philosophy and the tangle of Kung-Fu and the honour, skills and lingering wounds are so remarkably woven together.
At the centre, however is the love story that is reminiscent of “Doctor Zhivago” with all the tradition, passion and camera angles completely focussed on the vision. To see “The Grandmaster” –Yī Dài Zōng Shī is to witness a master-class in motion. One is transported through scenes of opulence and despair, but so magnificently evokes the grandeur of a lost era, that trembles revealing thought and beauty a tale almost outside time. The acting is superb. Zhang Ziyi steals the show as the Kung-Fu Princess whose loveliness is full of depth, although the enchantment is both great as well as sad.
The Director understands characterisation, the necessity of the film to follow the players; not the actors following the celebrities. In the case of the hero, Tony Leung Chiu Wai we see the clash of ideals that may shape a man in the midst of destiny. Wai’s role reminds one of Yuri in “Doctor Zhivago” because his and China’s suffering is both the pivot and the wheel of time, but the scale is Shakespearean. A reverie of ghosts, time and love in a dangerous age.
A priceless, delicate but tumultuous film which is a wonderful prize, or rather gift, received with gladness in the second week of the Durban International Film Festival.
Review by Timothy Sparks
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