“The Grandmaster”: Life, Martial Arts, and Living with our Regrets

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One of my biggest fears these days is what kind of legacy am I going to leave behind.

When I’m old and can no longer move around as I used to or pursue my dreams in any form will I be filled with regret? Will I keep thinking back to my youth wondering about things I should’ve done?

I’m in a period in my life right now that can be both seen as my prime and a deep concerning transition.

More than ever, I’m better at the things I’m passionate about between writing both with this blog and other projects and as a practicing martial artist in my spare time. However, I’m also kind of bereft of a lot of other things a guy in his early 30s maybe should have at this age.

I’m currently, mostly, unemployed, as I quit my job back in April (have a small part-time gig at the moment). I’ve bounced around multiple career paths since I graduated in 2013 and it still feels like I’m directionless in this regard and no closer to financial independence and true growth than I was many years ago. I really have no idea where I’ll be in this regard in the near future. Will I still be struggling? Will I be even broker and more destitute?

I’m also single (surprise, for those mutual friends who are reading this) having mutually broken up with my girlfriend back in December after nearly nine years together. I have no kids, no partner, no family other than my immediate one to call my own. Despite being young and for the most part enjoying life as a single man, there is still a part of me that worries if I’ll ever have something romantically I’m truly content with, that I will die alone someday, loveless and childless. No one to hold my hand as I pass into the void.

I often, too often really, spend my time these days thinking about the missed opportunities in my life, specifically how my younger twenties went. I wonder about how I would’ve approached things differently with my passions or the “what might’ve beens” in relationships I never had the courage to nurture both platonically and romantically.

Couple all this with my general cynicism and outlook on the world we live in and it’s frankly hard not to feel depressed these days for myself. These thoughts plague my mind, even if my life is definitely not as joyless as I may make it sound here, but that’s what life is; a series of many regrets.

And it’s kind of what makes it worthwhile too.

This is one of the many central themes to a great movie I revisited recently in Wong Kar Wai’s “The Grandmaster.”

Most people are at least somewhat familiar with Donnie Yen’s kung fu action classic “Ip Man,” the film that mythologizes the very real master who trained Bruce Lee. Scenes of Donnie Yen absolutely blasting stuntmen apart with a barrage of Wing Chun punches and kicks has become a fixture in pop culture that many fans such as myself admire him for. “The Grandmaster” tells its own Ip Man story however, going for a much different approach to the famous Wing Chun master’s saga.

Though I personally like “The Grandmaster” more, this is still a classic, make no mistake.

Where “Ip Man” is a kung fu movie, “The Grandmaster” is a movie about kung fu, namely how kung fu and those who practice it describe life and our legacies.

Played by the equally talented and famous Tony Leung, the exploration of Ip Man’s story focuses on how events, past, present, and future inform his life and his own legacy. It details how his unique style of fighting brings him to many corners of China as well as the unique people who exist in all of them.

Though there is plenty of wire-fu to go around in this film, director Wong Kar Wai focuses less on Ip Man’s mythical feats and more on his journey through life and those same people he encounters along the way. Specifically, it’s the many martial artists of China who are also trying to carve out a legacy for themselves from these meetings with the titular Grandmaster. A theme develops from here as their unique styles of combat not only inform how they fight but who they are as people.

The fight scenes, of course, can be very self-indulgent haha.

Anyone who has practiced martial arts knows no single fighter is a carbon copy of another, even those who train the same style be it Wing Chun, Tae Kwon Do, Karate, or Muay Thai all fight differently. They all have their own style.

When you fight others, in a strange way you get to know them too on a personal level. It’s a truly unique experience that one only knows from being in the ring or cage with another fighter. “The Grandmaster” observes all this as Ip Man narrates his journey through life. Certain fighters because of the way they fight are bolder in their personality, some are more subdued, some vicious, and in the case of Ip Man calm and collected. And from all this both sides glean something from these encounters, these ritual duels and sparring matches, that inform them who they are as well.

“What’s your style?” becomes a broader question by the end of the movie, asking the audience what makes you you and the answer is everything. Your life’s goals, dreams, accomplishments AND regrets earned, gleened, and/or passed down from all the people you meet in life. That is what defines one’s style.

This especially becomes true early in the film when Ip meets Gong Er, the daughter of a fellow grandmaster in kung fu. She is unable to hold her father’s legacy because of her gender, creating a complicated rift in her relationship with martial arts. The two come to know each other after Ip Man is able to defeat her father in a game of wits to see if he could be a worthy representative of the southern styles of martial arts. She challenges him to a fight to defend her father’s honor and Ip Man happily obliges as he is intrigued to face a younger more able practitioner of this style.

In a fight that I would almost describe as foreplay, the two become enamored with each other shortly after. Their unique fighting abilities coupled with their individual philosophies on life bring them closer and closer together as the film progresses.

I needed a cigarette after watching.

However, Ip Man is married, with children, and the time has clearly passed for them to be together. Nonetheless he pursues her, even if his relationship with Gong Er is not explicitly romantic yet and the two seemed destined to come together until China is invaded by Japan by the film’s midway point.

Ip Man continues to narrate much of the film, describing his life in seasons starting in “Spring” before jolting to “Winter” in this moment. He goes from experiencing a life of profound privilege and beauty as both a master of Wing Chun and a family man to one quickly mired in poverty and survival at this point in the story. His legacy starts to take on a new form, as pursuit of martial arts perfection takes a backseat.

Meanwhile, Gong Er experiences her own difficulties, as her adoptive brother Ma San, the only person able to carry her father’s legacy, becomes a collaborator with the Japanese in order to survive for himself. Both she and her father find this act to be dishonorable and tainting of their school’s martial arts legacy, and shortly after the grandmaster passes away, Gong Er goes after Ma San to right this wrong.

It all leads to a climactic final encounter between the two as Gong Er wins back her father’s title from Ma San in hand-to-hand combat. She decides from here to not pursue marriage or to have children, to end her father’s martial arts legacy with herself after becoming tainted by Ma San’s own.

This scene rocks so much.

It’s a tragic moment but one she does not come to lightly, and with her wounds from the fight driving her to opium she begins to slowly lose all her faculties and her ability to perform her father’s fighting style. When Ip meets back up with her in Hong Kong, a decade after the war, they are at different points in their life. With his life cut off from his family and bound to never see his wife again, and with the border to China closed, Ip Man tries one last time to be with Gong Er to which she finally admits having feelings for him not long ago. But time has already passed, their time together at their peak is over, she is slowly fading away and she can simply not go on much longer because of her health. She talks about her regrets, specifically with not pursuing other passions she had once in her life and of the romance that never happened between the two but then she says this.

“To say there are no regrets in life is just to fool yourself. How boring it would be to be without regrets.”

She decides in this moment that what she carries from her father isn’t his fighting style but rather his sense of honor because that was what was most important about him to her. It’s why she cannot break her vow.

Moved to tears each time I see this scene.

As silly and cliché as it may sound, some things aren’t meant to be and not every endeavor we pursue or choose not to pursue is supposed to end in personal perfect victory. We all often get so wrapped up in our mistakes from the past that we forget to live. Sometimes we fail, sometimes we don’t say the right things in the moment or be the person we wish we were at various points in our life. It’s ok to live a life with regrets, even if they are painful, because they are what makes life such a profound experience.

When you are a martial artist, or any type of athlete really, it’s a game of pursuit. Pursuit toward a goal of personal perfection. But we aren’t all destined to be champions or the best in these things. Most of the time you’ll only get so far with it. Life is the same way. We toil, we fight, crawl our way to the finish line in order to approach some level of personal peace and pride but it’s never going to be perfect. Not everything works out like a storybook happy ending.

But to live with all that, all those events that define your life, good and bad, is a triumph as well and to continue on through that is a victory too.

Gong Er’s final message to Ip Man here is an important one, even if it’s bittersweet. As they part ways she mentions she won’t see her personal road to its end but encourages Ip Man to do so himself. Again, we don’t all get to go as far as we want to in life. Many of us will come up just short or very far from our goals but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t a life worth living or wasted. Our experiences, the people we meet, what we learn from them and from ourselves is important. They form us into who we are. There is once again victory here in this regard.

“The Grandmaster” is a movie about life and its passage through time. In the film’s final moments Ip Man describes martial artists, of all styles and schools being on the same quest and their goals coming down to “horizontal and vertical.” In at least my interpretation of this moment, Ip Man is describing time and its consistency throughout one’s journey. The past, the present, and future all coming together be it through martial arts or some other passion one might have. Ip Man’s legacy is tied to the popularization of Wing Chun worldwide and of course his most famous student, Bruce Lee, but as he watches that same young Bruce perform what appears to be Gong’s signature move at the end of the film, he sees how her legacy is still very much alive. And it’s alive because of his time spent with her.

Wong Kar Wai’s Ip Man film may not be the most popular or most famous of the many interpretations of the Wing Chun master’s legacy but it leaves its own mark that only adds to his legend. The film was no doubt influenced by what came before it and how the director personally sees kung fu and the man behind Wing Chun and in this way adds to the film legacy as well. It’s a beautiful movie that describes not just the philosophy of martial arts but of life’s strange journey itself.

Legacy isn’t so narrowly defined as leaving behind something legendary for everyone to see and notice. It’s everything that we are, good and bad. Beautiful and ugly. Triumph and regret. Because of the people we meet, some part of all that will be imprinted and passed on forever.

I have plenty of regrets that I wish I didn’t have, and they often trouble my mind to no end but that doesn’t make my life a failure. In the end, even those low moments, those decisions we wish we could take back lends to our unique sagas, our unique personalities, our unique outlooks on the world around us and create legacies that carry over in their own way. They mold us into who we are and we carry that into our next lesson in life and to other people who carry it on themselves. And from that we create our own unique way to live. Our own style of life.

So, what’s yours?

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