Mark Reviews Movies

The Grandmaster


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Kar Wai Wong

Cast: Tony Leung, Ziyi Zhang, Chang Chen, Wang Qingxiang, Shang Tielong, Zhao Benshan, Zhang Jin, Xiao Shenyang, Song Hye Kyo

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence, some smoking, brief drug use and language)

Running Time: 1:48

Release Date: 8/23/2013 (limited); 8/30/13 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 30, 2013

The American version of The Grandmaster gives one the impression of the template of a better movie and leaves one with the overwhelming desire to see it in its original form. This is not the first time the movie, which is 130 minutes in its native China, has been edited (Its European cut is just over two hours), but for its release in the United States, the Weinstein Company, the movie's distributor stateside, has deemed it necessary to reduce the original running time by 22 minutes while rearranging some scenes, incorporating new scenes, and adding a series of intertitles and subtitles that give us various historical and character-oriented details (In other words, the original version has been cut by more than 22 minutes). Many of these facts, by the way, end up being asserted in the dialogue almost immediately after the titles disappear.

That this reconfiguring of the movie was overseen by co-writer/director Wong Kar Wai is of minimal comfort. We can sense the overarching concerns of the movie pre-editing, and it only makes the version forced upon us in the U.S. all the more frustrating.

Here is a movie battling with itself for no apparent reason. The characters are not concerned with history or the making of it, as events greater than the characters unfold in the background. They speak of philosophy—of kung fu, revenge, and, above all, how to confront the trials of life. The various pieces of text that appear in the middle of scenes and in between transitions, on the other hand, are entirely about specifics—that someone did this at that point, that the invasion occurred in this year, that a character made that decision this many years ago. Beyond weakening the methodical flow of the narrative, the constant interruptions shift focus away from who the characters are to what they represent.

Kar Wai's impeccable use of visual cues and motifs tell us one story—that of two people who collide, are changed by the clash, and eventually meet again after learning that the world has all but dismissed any reason for them exist as the people they once were. Somewhere along the way of piecing this version together, the obvious, natural, and chronological narrative apparently has been lost, only to appear in the final act, which is crammed with information about a character who is suddenly vital after a long stretch in which she disappears entirely.

Of course, this is only speculation on my part, given that I have not seen the original version (Based on limited reports of that cut of the movie, though, it seems that my initial suspicions that the entire structure of the movie has been realigned in the American release are correct to one degree or another). This presents a quandary. On one level, this is a complete story about the legend of the life of Ip Man (Tony Leung), a master of the Chinese martial art of Wing Chun (Americans may only consider him relevant for the fact that he trained Bruce Lee, about which the movie's epilogue makes a great fuss). On another, what we see in action and hear in dialogue is very different from what we read on screen. The intertitles tell us biographical details about his life; Kar Wai is showing us a character through a specific story about the man.

That story is his relationship with Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the daughter of the martial arts grandmaster (Wang Qingxiang) who has united every school in the North of China. She would be the rightful heir to his title save for the fact that she is a woman. Instead, her father passes his title on to his student Ma San (Zhang Jin). The grandmaster wants one final challenge, tasking the Southern masters to choose a competitor. They select Ip.

At this point, it becomes clear that the screenplay by Kar Wai, Jingzhi Zou, and Haofeng Xu are not interested in a straightforward biography. Instead, they present Ip's life as a series of trials, beginning with his training for the fight the Northern grandmaster to his exile in Hong Kong after the Japanese occupation of China before and during World War II, where he encounters various potential foes who still cling to the old ways as he does. Kar Wai shoots and edits each confrontation in a way that is unique from the previous one. One may concentrate on the movement of arms, while another may play with the speed of the camera to emphasize Ip's swiftness. An opening fight in which Ip takes on a group of challengers in the rain is at once gorgeous (The rain swirling off his fedora) and brutal.

The key, though, is the movie's final act, which brings Er back after a long absence, to tell her tale of revenge in flashback (One suspects this sequence of events plays out chronologically within the rest of the narrative in the original version). Having her story come at the very end keeps the relevance of the two characters' connection at a distance (It's a credit to the two performances that it has any emotional resonance), even though it is clearly the heart of the movie. As such, we watch this version of The Grandmaster not for what it is but what might be.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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