Martial Arts and The Time We Lost: The Grandmasters (一代宗師)

thegrandmasters Although I grew up in a Chinese/Taiwanese background, the fascination about Chinese martial arts is always something foreign to me.  Every year there can be thousands of movies/TV series/novels/comics depicting the world of martial arts, and most of them are keen to present spectacular action scenes that combine kung fu with special effects. It is only through films like The Karate Kids, Kung Fu Panda, or Yip Man that I come to see the splendor and the essence of Chinese martial arts.   Martial arts is not just about performing fancy moves.  Nor is it about being cool or beating someone up.  It is the way you live; it is a philosophy of life.  And most of us today have lost the connection to this part of our tradition.

As a record of Chinese martial arts in the early 20th century,  The Grandmasters presents the end of the era through the perspective of Yip Man.  In the beginning,  this reticent, modest Wing Chun practitioner only took Wing Chun as his hobby.  However, his life has greatly changed since he accepted the duel invitation from Gong Yutian, a BaGua master who is about to retire.  The fight let him meet Gong Er, the daughter of Gong Yutian, and since then a mutual appreciation has grown along with their letter exchange.   The invasion of Japan affected their life in every way: not only did their correspondence stop all of a sudden, but the Wing Chun master had to move to Hong Kong and teach Wing Chun for living.   Gong Er and Yip Man were reunited in Hong Kong a decade later, but the possibility between them evaporated with time already.  The coat button from Yip Man could only be a souvenir from the past rather than a promise of the future.   The Grandmasters is really a Wong Kar Wai’s movie: underneath the life story of grandmasters are the frequent themes in his works–the irrevocable time, the unfulfilled relationship, and an endless reminiscence about the thing lost.

The Chinese title of the film literally means “master of a generation."   Since you cannot see whether this is a singular or a plural form from it, it makes me wonder which master in the movie can be qualified for this title.   In the face of political and social turmoil, it is still not easy for martial artists to survive by their deadly moves and their philosophy of life.  From  Gong Er and Yip Man we see different attitudes about martial arts and time.  For Gong Er, kung fu is a way for her to connect herself with her father and family.   Her eagerness to protect family reputation and seek revenge suggests her inability to go with a change.  When her eagerness led her to the choice of celibacy, the choice made her unable to move forward in life as she could not get married or pass her skills on to someone else.  In the end she was trapped in time and her endless reminiscence.   However, Yip Man seems to overcome the impact of history with reticence and his philosophical attitude.  He was adapted to the change in his life and he was clear that he could only move forward.   Perhaps a master of generation is someone who can let go of the past and deal with change in calmness just like Yip Man.

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