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The Grandmaster (2013)

September 7, 2013

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written by: Wong Kar-wai

produced by: Ng See-yeun, Megan Ellison and Wong Kar-wai

directed by: Wong Kar-wai

rating: PG-13 (for violence, some smoking, brief drug use and language) 

runtime: 108 minutes

U.S. release date: August 30, 2013

 

In scrolling through your preferred movie streaming venue, you may have come across a movie called “Ip Man” and its sequels. Maybe you’re like me and knew nothing about this Ip Man character let alone that he was actually a real person. It took doing a little prep work in anticipation for director Wong Kar-wai’s latest film “The Grandmaster” to understand the significant impact of the martial arts legend. Anyone expecting to see a kung fu action movie should adjust their expectations and prepare for an ambitious epic drama that covers a historical period of time in China and a decades spanning love story. It’s Wong Kar-wai after all. But something happened to this film on the way to the States.

I really don’t know all the details (it would probably depress or frustrate me), but for some reason 22 minutes of “The Grandmaster” has been snipped and you’ll find what’s being called “the American cut” in theaters with a running time of 108 minutes. You can thank The Weinstein Company for that. The original Chinese cut, released earlier this year, was 130 minutes and then there was a festival cut, which was whittled down to 123 minutes.  Aren’t we lucky?

Having only seen the American cut, with its “presented by Martin Scorsese” by-line, I can attest that it seemed disjointed and dumbed-down, even without knowing what I was missing. The film may still carry Wong Kar-wai’s trademark visual beauty and meticulous detail to editing, but it’s easy to tell something’s not quite right here. For shame, Marty! Couldn’t you have intervened and ensured the integrity of the picture? But, apparently he was as involved as the director.

 

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The story, which starts off in late 1930s China, is often hard to follow even though its broken up at times by explanatory text cards intended to catch us up to speed, providing historical context in an effort to movie along the glacial pace. It’s more of an annoying nuisance than it is helpful Cliff Notes though, disrupting the audience from developing a connection to the characters and unfolding story.

What we’re given to read on-screen tells us of the rift at the time between the martial arts of  southern and northern China and how the highly-regarded grandmaster, Gong Yutian (Qingxiang Wang) is looking to retire and replace himself with someone who could bring the two regions together. The patient and quiet Ip Man (Tony Leung) hails from the South and is chosen by his peers to come forward and compete in a showdown for the title. He is a calm force who’s martial arts know-how has earned recognition, yet he is something of a nomad.

Ip Man is an unwelcome presence for two particular key figures connected to Gong Yutian, his successor Ma San (Jin Zhang) and his daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), both of which  confidently see their place as leaders. While Ma San becomes a spiteful rival of Ip Man’s, we start to see a rapport develop between he and Gong Er, one of mutual respect and eventually love.

The Japanese invasion causes unrest, breaking everything and everyone up, causing Ip Man to migrate to Hong Kong where he and the other kung-fu grandmasters have exiled in the late 1940s. It is here where Ip Man encounters a rogue named The Razor (Chang Chen), who becomes forceful and opposing presence. Ip Man also reconnects with Gong Er in Hong Kong, after years of separation. But the two are separated by their own different destinies. As Ip Man begins to build an institute (eventually taking in a young Bruce Lee), Gong Er chooses revenge for her father’s death and seeks out Ma San in her obsession.

 

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“The Grandmaster” is another typically beautiful film from Wong Kar-wai. It’s at times, elegant and sensual, which is no surprise coming from the man who brought us “Chungking Express”, “In the Mood for Love” and “2046”. Working with the director, famed stunt choreographer Woo-ping Yuen (“The Matrix” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) carefully provides the actors with emotional opportunities during the flurry of matched limbs and defense moves in the many showdowns between opposing candidates for the grandmaster title. Cinematographer Phillipe le Sound places the characters in sequences drenched in rain as well as quiet snowy landscapes, purposely establishing a palpable mood for each frame.

As expected, Leung and Ziyi are standouts here, provided committed and physically demanding performances. In a Q&A that followed the screening I attended, Leung discussed his extensive training and confessed that he learned kung fu for the first time in his life, at the age of 47, which resulted in breaking the same arm twice. Leung is not only handsome and a commanding presence on-screen, he thankfully portrays Ip Man as an influential zen master instead of a powerful man of action. It’s a fitting character for Leung and having not seen any other actor portray Ip Man in other films was probably to my benefit.

Regardless of the film’s positive qualities, it still has it’s problems. The considerable edits made (assumingly involving the director) for chronologic sake seems jolting and incohesive, resulting in frustration for the viewer. Particularly so, when story elements are spelled out for us in text, rather than told to us visually. Even moreso, is what appears to be the sidelining of Ziyi’s Gong Er, unfortunately missing out on building up a character with emotional impact. It also feels like those involved in this cut had no time for any symbolism or physical longing, wanting instead to move along the story (even though it still feels dragged out) to the beat of the short attention span  of an American audience.

I’m certain the Chinese cut of “The Grandmaster” is superior in many ways. Hopefully it’s easier to follow and provides more mystery and inspiration. I got into reading classic literature by Dickens and Stevenson when I was a kid, but they would lead me to the dense source material. I’m hoping that is the case here.

 

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RATING: **1/2

 

 

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