Review: The Grandmaster
It's impossible to write about Wong Kar-Wai's latest film without an explanation of the controversy surrounding the release. When The Grandmaster was released in China at the beginning of the year, it ran 130 minutes. The movie was then slightly trimmed down to 123 minutes before premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. Between Berlin and further international release, the movie was cut down to 108 minutes
Many fans have criticized The Weinstein Company (which owns the distribution rights for the film in most territories) for attempting to dumb the film down for American audiences, but by all accounts the editing was done under the full supervision of Wong Kar-Wai, who recently stated that he "always wanted to have a U.S. version that was a bit tighter and that helped clarify the complex historical context of this particular era in Chinese history."
The film works as a complex origin story, presenting the life of martial-arts legend Ip Man (Tony Leung), although his story is intertwined with a fearless female fighter named Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) who initially challenges him to gain back her family's honor.
For someone like me with only a casual understanding and interest in martial arts, the first hour of the film felt twice as long, even in its edited form. The background and division of fighting techniques between regions of the North and South is complicated and, at a certain point, became tiresome. We are initially thrown straight into an elaborate fight scene in the pouring rain at the beginning of the film, but the action slows down completely towards the middle and doesn't pick back up again until almost the very end. The Grandmaster feels oddly paced and, without having seen the longer cut, I have no idea if my issues with the film were a result of the edits or just inherent in Kar-Wai's vision.
We spend the last act of The Grandmaster bouncing around between Hong Kong in 1950 where Ip Man has settled down to be a martial-arts teacher, and his final encounters with Gong Er. We flash back to 1940 to witness a breathtaking fight sequence at a train station where Gong Er was defeated for the last time. The details of her life are wrapped up in a hazy montage of opium and missed opportunities for love, but I would have preferred to see a lot more of the luminous Ziyi on screen. Much has also been made in the film's marketing that the story of Ip Man is the story of Bruce Lee's teacher. While that's true and briefly referenced in photo form in the final moments of the U.S. cut, we don't get any of that in this movie. Maybe that story will come in a future sequel?
Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd captures the action perfectly, whether the participants are in the pouring rain, flying through the air, or being caught in glimpses through Kar-Wai's signature slow-motion shots. With several visually stunning sequences and an immersive sound mix, fans of the genre should consider experiencing the movie on the big screen, even if it's just a jumping off point for a future acquisition of the uncut Chinese dvd. For my money, The Grandmaster still feels overlong and fails to provide enough action to justify its aggressive expansion (to 749 screens nationwide) this weekend.