The artistry of kung fu is found in its discreteness and in its completeness. Most martial arts are composed of distinct movements; thrusts, jabs and parries akin to the bars of a musical composition or the paragraphs of a novel. The fluid fabrication found in these movements coheres into a kind of violent beauty: their order and flow is necessary to provide kung fu’s coherency, but so too is the grace within each flutter of hands or shift in posture. Cinema, too, relies on the potency of its individual elements — think Howard Hawks’ famous “three good scenes and no bad ones” motto — as well as, of course, the entire work. Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster demonstrates that beauty endures in discrete moments even if the elegance of the whole is obscured and obfuscated.
I’m not just talking about the film, mind — and I’ll get to Harvey Weinstein’s much-maligned butchery of Wong’s historical action epic in a moment — but the way that the lauded director approaches the composition of the kung fu scenes that dominate The Grandmaster. These scenes are filled with small moments of seduction and confrontation: the hum of a quivering razorblade, water droplets arcing gorgeously from a hat brim, a fan of white snow floating in mid-air. These moments have no impact on the outcome of the fight, but you sense that — much like Malick distracted by the flight of a bird or the rustle of grass — Wong is less interested in the outcome than the grace found in microcosm.