18 October 2013

LFF 2013 Part II: Surprise Film

As I left the screening of the London Film Festival's surprise film this evening, I overheard a northern woman saying how it "wasn't everyone's cup of tea." It wasn't my cup of cha either although I do think it was a good surprise film.

After three surprise films that ranged from tedious to mediocre to quirky, I took a year off last year, when, of course, they screened the biggest film in the surprise film slot for years — and the director and star turned up too. I was too lazy to do much research on this year's predictions, but I did check out i-flicks.net again, which had a big list of possibles, ranked in order of likelihood. The Wolf of Wall Street was my favourite on the list, but there were a few others that sounded fun, as well as a couple I really didn't want to see, notably One Chance.

Anyway, I headed off to Leicester Square for the 9 pm screening (as usual, I went for the later of the two, just in case the director or cast showed up), hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. There's something exciting and strangely liberating to have almost no clue about the film you are about to see. Twitter has come a long way since my first surprise film in 2009, though, and pretty much everyone seemed to be scouring social media in the hope that the people in the 8.45 screening would have tweeted. I was trying to keep my ears closed, but the guy sitting next to me said his friend in the other screening had confirmed it was a good one. Good!

LFF director Clare Stewart took the unusual step of playing a message from the film's director (who couldn't be there) before the screening, noting that if you couldn't work out what it was from that huge clue, you didn't deserve to be there. A little harsh for people who have no interest in, and therefore no knowledge of, martial arts. I didn't especially recognise the name of the director, Wong Kar Wai, although My Blueberry Nights was one of the first films I wrote about on this blog. And as there was no title in the opening credits, I only found out that it was called The Grandmaster at the end. We did at least get an appearance from Harvey Weinstein, who told us all how awesome the film was, but that if we didn't like the opening scene, we should probably leave (hardly anyone did).

As I say, I don't care for martial arts films, but The Grandmaster was stylish and flashy, with a great score, and I did get into it eventually, to some extent. I couldn't decide whether I wanted there to be one big, final fight scene, for dramatic reasons, or whether I just wanted it to end before I drifted off. There are only so many slow-mo water shots, slow-mo falling shots and slow-mo snow shots a girl can see late on a school night before fading. Obviously, these slow-motion shots were supposed to contrast nicely with the rapid-fire fight scenes, but I would have preferred fewer of the latter too.

The Grandmaster is about Ip Man (portrayed here by Tony Leung), who went on to train Bruce Lee; I have at least heard of the latter... The film opens in 1930s China where there is a big rivalry between martial arts factions from the north and from the south. Our hero, who comes from Foshan in the south, has some fights and wins most of them, but loses to the daughter of the beautiful Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang). The encounter haunts Ip Man for years to come, even after he is forced to move to Hong Kong in 1950, following the Japanese invasion, to try to support his family. In Hong Kong, he meets Gong Er again; she is working as a doctor, having vowed to honour her father (who was killed by another martial artist) by never marrying, never having children and never teaching anyone their art. There are more fights. Some vengeance.... Er, that's it.

I feel like The Grandmaster probably isn't a bad first martial arts film to see, but it hasn't really encouraged me to delve deeper into the genre. I knew too little about martial arts and about Ip Man and even Bruce Lee to really appreciate the film fully. So, I'm a little disappointed, but at least this year the film was of a high calibre — it's Hong Kong's entry for the foreign film category of next year's Oscars — it just happened to be part of a genre I don't like.

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