Wong Kar-wai is known for directing by the seat of his pants, often writing scenes the day he shoots them, constantly reorganizing and reshaping his films to find them in the editing room. When working with a simple story, such as the minimalist love-and-loss outline for In the Mood for Love, this method can create amazing works of cinematic art. Within the wuxia/martial arts genre, however, he seems to get lost. His first wuxia production, The Ashes of Time, was so frustrating for him that he had to make another film the middle of editing to clear his senses, and is now only available in a re-edited version he put together years later. The Grandmaster, his return to the genre, already has three different edits: one for its Berlin festival debut, one for its Chinese release, and one for its American release, with the promise of a four hour director’s cut to come on DVD. Having only seen the American version and not knowing the exact details of the differences between versions, I can’t say if the other versions are better, but what I saw was lacking in balance and narrative focus.
Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy seeing it, because it’s certainly something to see. Wong Kar-wai’s got an impeccable sense of visuals. Philippe Le Sourd delivers gorgeous work as the newest in a long line of international cinematographers working with the Hong Kong director. Working in a black-heavy palate, he creates beautiful reflective visual patterns, does interesting experiments with slow- and fast-motion, and perfectly showcases the fight choreography of Yuen Woo-ping (the genius responsible for the fights in Crouching Tiger, The Matrix, Kill Bill, Kung Fu Hustle, and almost every other great martial arts movie you can remember). After the messy boring hackwork of Kick-Ass 2, the last action film I saw in theaters, Grandmaster‘s pure artistic skill is something I relish.
The film’s story is centered around the life of Ip Man, portrayed by Tony Leung, the kung fu master best known in the West as Bruce Lee’s trainer and the subject of many a movie in Asia. It would seem that the biggest differences in the American versus the Chinese cut is that where the Chinese cut presumes familiarity with the history, the American cut tries to clarify said history through title cards and the rearranging of scenes. The rearranged film runs linear throughout Ip Man’s life for most of its run, but in some places it’s clear linearity wasn’t what was originally intended. The WWII scene in particular, while a powerful scene on its own, is disconnected from what comes before and after it by both title cards and a number of years, leading me to believe it was supposed to be a flashback or some similarly impressionistic device rather than placed linearly. The structure also seems weirdly off-balance; constant action at the beginning gives way to a long stretch with very little action. Towards the end, the movie goes non-linear to refocus itself on the main woman in Ip Man’s life, Gong Er played by Zhang Ziyi. We get some more action, and also a sense that Gong Er’s a more interesting character than the movie’s supposed lead. Again, the balance of the movie feels off.
The Grandmaster, in this form at least, is something of a failure as a whole, but an interesting one that on a visual and a scene-by-scene basis actually achieves some impressive success. Having seen too many actively bad, boring, and insulting movies this summer, I can’t be too hard on movie that’s doing so much right, even if it’s a little off. And who knows: maybe there’s a cut out there which gets everything right.
The Grandmaster opens in limited release Friday August 23rd.