When writing a film review, it’s always pains me to have to draw attention to the business aspect of showbusiness. But in the case of Wong Kar-Wai’s newest effort, The Grandmaster, that aspect needs to be addressed firstly and foremost, as it is the elephant in the room when it comes to the film. In the simplest terms, Wong Kar-Wai uses the story of Ip Man to give a hard-hitting, yet visually potent story about pride, legacy and dedication, but there’s an odd atmosphere that surrounds the film. With every lapse of time in the narrative or excursion into new territory, there feels like much is missing from the story, and the poetic nature of Wong’s dialogue rarely fills in the blanks. There’s been much conjecture in the past about The Weinstein Company shedding off nearly 22 minutes to make the film more marketable to an audience, and that would make much sense as when the end credit roles, a gorgeous and stunning martial arts epic about humility feels ever so hollow and boasting.
The story, based on historical fact, is somewhat convoluted yet straightens up more so in the second in third act. Following the retirement of the #1 Grandmaster in China, Ip Man establishes himself as the best chance for the two factions of kung fu practitioners to unite. During this time, Ip Man faces several struggles, including his flirtatious confrontational relationship with the retired Grandmaster’s daughter, his philosophy of non-aggression and the pains of his family during Japanese occupation. The film immerses you in its visual style, mixing slow-motion, almost Malick-esque attention to tiny detail with knock-down, drag-out action. And while the drama of The Grandmaster should be able to keep you afloat between the action, as Wong’s a veteran of that emotional exploration, the film feels all to stilted and unevenly paced to land as incredibly as it should.
Technically speaking, The Grandmaster is inarguably a masterpiece, offering a slew of sensory delights throughout the story, which benefits greatly from the visionary eye of Wong Kar-Wai. Working together with the phenomenal Phillippe Le Sourd as his Cinematographer and Yuen Woo-ping as Fight Choreographer, Wong paints a gorgeous yet all-too-human tale of Ip Man unlike the others that have come in the past, making the action count when needed but also showing that Ip Man’s pride may have been his most costly vice. The editing by William Chang is absolutely pitch perfect, giving most of the film a rhythm unlike any other martial arts epic, at least until the obvious studio cuts and place-cards bring things to a corpse-like stillness. Credit should also be given to Frankie Chan for creating one of the most impressive and engaging martial art films scores in recent memory, complimenting every scene appropriately and in a sense even raising the stakes of the action.
The acting in the film is rather great as well, especially amongst the leads. Tony Leung adds a proverbial gravitas to the role of Ip Man, displaying extreme confidence and believable honor towards the performance. Zhang Ziyi is also extremely good in the film, giving Leung a run for his money as the emotional voyager of the film and proving she’s as beautiful as she is transparent within the character. Furthermore, Wang Qingxiang and Zhang Jin steal their scenes with performances that are grounded but never low-key, especially Jin who shows off a great talent for playing wounded characters that are, in fact, internally vicious.
However, in watching this cut of The Grandmaster, this critic in particular feels robbed of the true cinematic experience that this film requires, as the shortened and spoon-fed version here feels almost condescending. Action that was integral to removed storylines is given as a pre-credits montage sequence, organic transitions are replaced by frustrating exposition text cards and several characters feel woefully undeveloped for the amount of attention paid towards them. I understand that the film business will always side with shorter products and more palatable narratives, but Wong Kar-Wai has never offered himself as anything but an independent, art-focused filmmaker and unfortunately, his final film is not the one given to American audiences.
Overall, fans of artful storytelling and hard-hitting action will both be satisfied by The Grandmaster, but the promise that the international cut may have is certainly not met in the domestic release. Wong Kar-Wai’s poetic and patient storytelling mix well with the breathtaking imagery when not compromised by distributor mandates, and Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi are great enough under Wong’s direction to earn your ticket price alone. The Grandmaster is definitely, and commendably, good, but with all the elements in place, the film should have been a groundbreaking martial arts effort, and whether or not that film exists in some form on foreign shores is to be seen.
– By Ken W. Hanley