Arriving quite a long time after it as premiered and in a truncated form, Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster finally gets a begrudging release here. The stories of its different versions are legendary, no surprise when Harvey ‘Scissorhands’ Weinstein becomes involved. There are mentions of the original cut by the director being a masterpiece but this is almost always the case with”
passionate fans who can be somewhat blinded by their enthusiasm for purity (see the original cut of the awful and heralded Snowpiercer for example). So what to make of the version that we see in our cinemas? Well it is the only version that can be reviewed. We can only wonder what the longer cut has that this one doesn’t. Wong Kar-Wai is a wonderful director, stylish with a beautiful eye and can create a mood in a film that few could match. His telling of the story of Ip Man, a story that has been told before, should surely have all his usual skills on show. And this is the thing about a new cut: all the signature stylistic touches are here, just not necessarily in the right order.
As mentioned, The Grandmaster tells the story of legendary martial arts instructor Ip Man (a wonderful Tony Leung) who, amongst other things, is famous for being the trainer of Bruce Lee. The film is concerned with more than this, however, and we begin the story in China’s Guangdong province where there are many Kung Fu school rivalries. An early scene involving a fight between Ip Man and an entire gang in the rain is balletic and sets the tone. There are grudges and rivalries in the north and south, with Ip Man being asked to represent the south. We are introduced to Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang) daughter of the North’s Grandmaster, forbidden as a woman to become his successor but very much capable of doing so. She challenges Ip Man and their (Brief) encounter is charged with a feeling that fans of In the Mood for Love will recognize. It is beautifully done, visual and sensual as only a Wong Kar-Wai fight could be. No sooner are we invested in this, we get the Japanese invasion. This is not quite given the time it needs, and it is not long before Ip Man is forced into exile in Hong Kong, leaving his family and family tragedies behind. He opens his famous Wing Chun martial arts academy here but soon others from his past appear.
The most obvious thing to say is that the film is beautiful. And we are talking really beautiful. Kar-Wai’s framing is wonderful (a touch too much slow motion perhaps the only quibble) and the staging of the action scenes is sublime. The problems here are clearly in the edit. Scenes have a sense of random placement, particularly towards the end. The intertitles that presumably have been added to this cut are so explanatory as to bleed any ambiguity and thus a lot of the tension from the story.
And yet, for all its faults The Grandmaster (just about) works on its own terms. Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang light up the screen. There is enough here to suggest that there is a great version of it either available elsewhere or on the proverbial cutting room floor. Indeed one of the best compliments that could be paid to it is the fact that a viewing of the imported blu ray of the Chinese cut is now considered a priority. Even in truncated form it is great to have Won Kar-Wai back on our screens.