Film Review – The Grandmaster
Wong Kar Wai (WKW) likes to take his time. For his latest film, The Grandmaster, some reports state the project was announced almost ten years ago. Others claim it took nearly five years to be completed, including one entire year just for editing. This is nothing new, as WKW is notorious for shaping and reshaping his work continuously. He approaches the material like a sculptor, always trimming around the edges until he finds a form he is satisfied with, but aware he could come back to fix things if needed. His vision of Ip Man—the famous martial arts master who would one day train Bruce Lee—was crafted from the eye of the ultimate perfectionist. During the long production process, four other Ip Man movies were released, including a well-received one in 2008, starring Donnie Yen.
If you think this will be similar to the earlier film, it would be best for you to turn and walk away now. WKW is not an action director. Instead, he uses action as a backdrop to magnify his themes: love, loneliness, and a romantic nostalgia for the past. It’s what made him a well-known name in art house circles. His masterpiece, In the Mood for Love (2000) is a complete tone piece, leaning more towards emotion, mood, and atmosphere than specific events or plot details. His latest is no different. Yes, there are some nicely constructed fight scenes, set upon beautifully shot set pieces (the credited cinematographer is Philippe Le Sourd), and designed by the legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping. But we quickly realize they are used only as a foundation for WKW’s other, more valued interests.
There’s disappointment in how the film is being marketed. Trailers would have us believe it is action-oriented, centered around Ip Man (Tony Leung) and his encounters with other opponents. The reality is that he is not the lead, but the co-lead. We are shown two stories: one of Ip Man, and the other of Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter to the head of a rival clan. While Ip Man is chosen to represent his fighting style in a showcase conducted by Gong Er’s father, Gong Er gets torn between fighting for her family’s honor and her father’s wishes for her to become a doctor. The story becomes less about the action and rather concentrates on the martial arts as a way to maintain a family’s own legacy. Time is a major component, and as the Second Sino-Japanese War changes everyone’s plans, the importance of Ip Man and Gong Er continuing their traditions escalates tenfold.
There is a critical factor to account for here, and it is which version of the film you end up seeing. The world premiere version (known as “The Chinese Cut”) runs at around 130 minutes. After it was bought by The Weinstein Company at the Berlin International Film Festival, drastic changes were made. The runtime was shortened, scenes were rearranged, expository titles were interspersed, and character titles were included. It is front-loaded with Ip Man’s scenes while Gong Er’s are moved to the back. “The American Cut” attempts to make the core story about Ip Man, with Gong Er as a side plot, whereas “The Chinese Cut” is about the martial arts and kung fu in general, with the two stories sharing screen time. Needless to say, The Chinese Cut is the far superior film. It’s disorienting to see how different the two are. The American Cut feeds us unnecessary information about side characters and historical context. The Chinese Cut does some of that, but not to such redundant extents.
The American Cut is passable, but disjointed. The Chinese Cut is one of the better films of the year. In it, Ip Man’s and Gong Er’s stories flow much more smoothly. They are spiritually connected by their passion, for good or for worse, and how each is able to handle that as the passing of time determines their respective fates. When we can remove ourselves from the expectation of this being a “kung fu film,” that’s when we can start to see WKW’s artistry. Some of the better scenes have nothing to do with the action at all. One such emotional scene involves Ip Man’s sacrifice to provide for his family, just as the Japanese invade their homeland and strip them of their wealth. Another features the consequences of Gong Er’s own personal torment, and the struggles she has to overcome it. Both Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi are in good form here, wearing WKW’s characters like second nature. They have both worked with him before, and execute his rhythms with expert precision.
If you are able to see The Chinese Cut of The Grandmaster, I recommend jumping on the opportunity. Wong Kar Wai is a master of building a highly stylized world and filling it with characters longing to connect with each other. That’s what The American Cut misses. It wants to fit itself within the confines of a specific genre, but the director is one whose ambition transcends beyond that.
The American Cut: B-
The Chinese Cut: A-