Release Date: 5 December 2014
Running Time: 108 min
Director: Wong Kar Wai
Starring: Tony Chiu Wai Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Wang Qingxiang, Chang Chen, Zhang Jin
A wealthy young man who, having survived the brutal Japanese occupation of China, was effectively exiled to Hong Kong after the Chinese Civil War; Ip Man lived through some extraordinarily turbulent times in Chinese history. Factor in his years of struggle on Hong Kong and eventual mentorship of a young Bruce Lee and you have the kind of story filmmakers are falling over themselves to make. So much so that in the six years since work began on The Grandmaster, a kind-of-sort-of biopic of the man, there’s been four films and a TV series made about him. However with director Wong Kar Wai and stars Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi, The Grandmaster has a cinematic pedigree that none of those previous films can match.
At their core, martial arts are largely about inner stillness and peace, and not just acrobatically hoofing someone in the chops. This is something all too easily forgotten by most martial arts pictures; even modern classics like The Raid are happier showing bone-splintering carnage than moments of quiet reflection. Celebrated director Wong Kar Wai’s films are largely meditative affairs concerned with characters ruminating on fading glories and missed opportunities. Who better to bring serenity and calm back to cinematic Kung-fu than this singular, visionary auteur? Apparently the answer to that question is Harvey Weinstein. The studio boss apparently ordered an extensive re-edit of Wong’s latest film The Grandmaster in order to make it more palatable to Western audiences.
Weinstein’s interference is a real shame; the 108 minute cut of The Grandmaster released in the US and UK is transparently truncated and simplified, robbing it of the nuance and complexity normally found in Wong’s work. As well as needlessly specific title cards for every major character and an overly explanatory voiceover throughout the film, there are lengthy intertitles studded throughout the running time that describe events without ever showing them. Worse still, characters are sidelined without proper explanation meaning their eventual reappearances are marked with a condensed thumbnail sketch of their actions up to that point. It’s all a bit muddled, especially coming from a director fascinated with the passage of time and power of memory. To call this movie disjointed would be an insult to contortionists worldwide.
However, despite the weird pacing and lopsided narrative there are some beautiful moments to be found in The Grandmaster; after all this is still a Wong Kar Wai film. From the snowy mountains of northern China, to the urban bustle of Hong Kong, the film has a wintry colour palette of greys and whites that captures the mournful, elegiac tone of the film wonderfully. Certain moments of quiet, private, longing in noisy, public spaces are reminiscent of earlier films like Happy Together and In the Mood for Love. As well as all this the fight sequences – choreographed by legendary fight co-ordinator Yuen Woo-ping (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Matrix) – are slick and visually interesting, with a unique identity for each battle and a strong emphasis on the effects of the violence on the surrounding area.
The combination of Wong Kar Wai, Yuen Woo-ping, Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi is a tantalising prospect. However The Grandmaster doesn’t quite live up to these expectations and it’s hard not to wonder how the original Chinese cut of the film stacks up against it.