Editor’s Notes: The Grandmaster is open in limited theatrical release.
Flecks of rain float through the air. Feet slide along a wooden floor, circling their target. A cigarette smolders in the night.
These are the images you relish in The Grandmaster. The film isolates its moments of white-hot intensity and mounts them like individual works of art. Wong Kar-Wai shoots every cracked neck and body blow with tremendous precision. He allows us to savor every carefully choreographed bodily movement. A hyper-stylized kung fu ballet, the film unfolds as a torrent of gorgeous isolated moments.
The original cut of the film paints a broader portrait of a kung fu scene with Ip Man at the center. The Weinstein version focuses on Ip Man at the expense of those around him, many of whom are arguably more compelling than Ip Man himself.
Which is a real shame, given how poorly these little pearls are strung together. The most expansive film of Wong’s career, The Grandmaster suffers from its own wealth of ambition. The film spans several decades and strives to capture the inner lives of multiple characters, the transformation of a country and its people at war, and the evolution of various strains of kung fu — all while, you know, kicking ass every few minutes. Given its visual impulse to slow down and marinate in its moments of pure grace, it simply can’t cover that much narrative ground.
It doesn’t help that a ruthless, tone-deaf edit by The Weinstein Company has shortened the film by 20 minutes from its original theatrical release in China.
The Grandmaster is the latest telling of the story of Ip Man, a legendary kung fu master of the Southern school. The film trails Ip Man (Tony Leung) and those around him, friend and foe, for 20 years as they philosophize about kung fu and slay assailants with seemingly effortless flair. It opens in the 1930s during a period of transition. An elderly grandmaster, Gong Yutian (Qingxiang Wang), seeks an heir to carry the tradition of the Northern and Southern schools of kung fu. From the North he selects Ma San (Jin Zhang), an untamed blunt instrument who’s all force and no restraint. Yutian sics a string of fighters on Ip Man to test his prowess as a potential heir in the South. Ip Man passes, only to fail in a glorious battle with Yutian’s daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the silk to Ma San’s steel.
Once introduced, these characters form the nucleus of Wong’s loose, 20-year narrative of kung fu, familial honor, and romantic longing.
Like all of Wong Kar-Wai’s movies, The Grandmaster is a colossus of cinematic style. Wong’s films let you gorge on their meticulous details, from costume choice to lighting, set design to camera movement. Your eyes feel downright gluttonous. The Grandmaster should only extend Wong’s reputation as one of cinema’s chief stylists. Where his previous films lingered on moments of inner devastation, this film externalizes those emotional flashpoints in a series of spectacular fight sequences. The Grandmaster isolates individual moments of combat the way In the Mood for Love isolates those private moments of romantic agony.
Wong’s camerawork and editing remain integral here. His action scenes unfold as a series of distinct and coherent contortions of the body. In 2013, most action films offer a frenetic nightmare of shaky cam and wild cutting, an approach that values visceral impact over coherence. Some action films swing the other way, offering up macro-level long shots to ensure we see every swinging fist in real time. Wong opts for a third, and far more inventive, approach. He treats each movement as a line of poetry.
The most expansive film of Wong’s career, The Grandmaster suffers from its own wealth of ambition.
The sheer visual splendor on display can’t mask an overstuffed narrative, however. The Grandmaster longs to have us connect to Ip Man and Gong Er the way we did Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love. But that film earned its transcendent romance through 90 minutes of quiet character work. The Grandmaster has no chance of achieving such heights when it has so much else on its plate.
Some critics have already mourned The Grandmaster’s American release as yet another butchering from Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein, the film’s distributor. Indeed, the American release inserts a barrage of inter-titles and voice over snippets to hold the hands of English-speaking viewers.
A Wong Kar-Wai movie may be the absolute antithesis of a PowerPoint presentation. The man doesn’t make artless conduits to deliver facts. He creates abstract renderings of a mood, which Weinstein shatters with every shoehorned bit of condescending exposition.
The Weinstein Company has done more here than simply dumb down a foreign film for the American market, however. It also demanded a cut shorter than two hours, which has led to numerous subplots and side characters getting trimmed. The edits range from the bizarre to the infuriating. To market the film as a more conventional biopic of “The Man Who Trained Bruce Lee,” the American cut excises much of Ziyi’s screen time. It also shortchanges The Razor (Chang Chen), a character as suave as his name suggests. The original cut of the film paints a broader portrait of a kung fu scene with Ip Man at the center. This version focuses on Ip Man at the expense of those around him, many of whom are arguably more compelling than Ip Man himself. Alas, much of The Grandmaster’s emotional heft stems from Ziyi, which leaves the American iteration feeling disjointed and undercooked.
Fun as it is to mock Harvey Weinstein, ultimately Wong Kar-Wai’s to blame for the scattershot nature of his film. Wong is reported to have said that The Grandmaster “could have been four hours long.” That sounds about right. Even the 130-minute Chinese cut doesn’t solve all the narrative problems here. Given its array of central characters, 20-year time span, and commitment to emotional resonance, poetic dalliances, and show-stopping fight scenes, The Grandmaster probably should have been envisioned as a television miniseries. As a feature length film, it remains an incoherent marvel.
[notification type=”star”]83/100 ~ GREAT. A Wong Kar-Wai movie may be the absolute antithesis of a PowerPoint presentation. The man doesn’t make artless conduits to deliver facts. He creates abstract renderings of a mood, which Weinstein shatters with every shoehorned bit of condescending exposition.[/notification]