DIRECTED BY: Wong Kar-Wai
WRITTEN BY: Wong Kar-Wai
STARRING: Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Zhao Benshan, Song Hye-Kyo, Wang Quingxiang
I can’t really make up my mind about The Grandmaster. On the one hand, visually, it’s an absolutely incredible film. The cinematography and fight choreography are excellent, even beautiful sometimes. On the other hand, though, story-wise, I can’t really convince myself it’s anything other than a giant mess. If I were to apply an analogy, it’d be that this movie is like a juggling act where all but two balls have been dropped by the end of the show. Director Wong Kar-Wai has been called by some the Chinese Terrance Mallick, and with good reason too. Like Mallick, he’s acquired somewhat of a reputation for shooting his movies without what most people might colloquially refer to as a “script”. Sure there may be a general idea of where he wants to go, but his movies apparently tend to go into production without knowing exactly what’s going to come out. The results are movies that are “made in the editing room” so to speak. Whole characters, sub-plots, even sometimes main plots are often axed and left on the cutting room floor leaving the final product a very different thing than what it was before. There’s also this strange tendency to go into long bouts of scenic digression, dwelling on a nice looking building or street corner for longer than usual. Sure it’s beautiful, but like many things in this movie it feels like it’s inclusion was cobbled together haphazardly after the fact (and given the version of the film I watched, that may actually be the case).
The story centers on legendary martial artist Ip Man, now known by and large as the man who trained Bruce Lee. Well…that’s how the movie starts at least. As the movie goes on it seems to become less and less interested in Ip Man’s story and more into that of the character Gong Er. Her tale of vengeance eventually becomes the centerpiece of the film and kind of takes over. Initially, though, these stories are at least relatively intertwined. The movie itself is kicked off by the retirement of Gong Er’s father, Gong Yutian, a highly respected martial artist who is responsible for uniting the various schools of northern and southern martial arts. The movie opens with him coming to Foshan, the city where Ip Man lives, in search of one who can succeed him in the leadership of the southern schools. Now by this point he’s already named a northern successor, his ruthless student Ma San who’s skill is only surpassed by his cold ambition and ferocity. Martial Arts action ensues, stuff happens, Japan invades. Really, the “plot” has very little to do in my mind with what this movie is actually about. Like I said, characters have this tendency of popping in and then disappearing without a trace at a moment’s notice. Sub-plots, and even Ip-Man’s story grinds to a narrative halt because it decides that this other character is more interesting.
What’s even worse about all of this is that despite all of this criticism, I can’t even really say I actually watched the whole movie. This isn’t even a joke about zoning out towards the end (which I kind of did) but a reference to fact that at least 20 minutes were lopped off the original Chinese release of this film for American theaters. I don’t know whose bright idea it was. I can’t imagine the reasoning being much beyond either a) appealing to some vague notion that American’s can’t watch a 2 hour movie with subtitles, or b) they wanted to fit as many showings in the day to maximize revenue or something. On top of all of this, the scenes they left in the movie were apparently out of chronological order. Moments of character growth are relegated to brief flashbacks and relationships are stunted by either shifting or removing them entirely. What this means then is that I can’t tell you if I even saw a serviceable version of the movie or not. I’ve heard that the original cut IS available legally if you’re willing to front some money to import it, but my guess is they’ll probably have the original cut on the home video release whenever that’s out. At that point, I can then see it for myself and…you know…actually watch the movie.
In any case, the cuts in place here do a horrid job in giving this movie any sense of pacing or narrative flow. Even what it has left mostly consists of long, drawn out scenes punctuated by jumps through vast swaths of time with nothing but a simple written explanation to tell us what happened. Not only is that in itself kind of infuriating, but it actually makes me feel a little bit cheated. Eventually, the movie just started to feel like a blur to me. Granted, it was a blur that seemed to aspire to emotional depth and beauty here and there, but it felt like it didn’t really decide what all that amounted to until towards the end. For all the sumptuous visuals and visceral panache, I couldn’t feel anything but a cold indifferent “meaningfulness” that I couldn’t quite place. I don’t feel this is exactly the best introduction to Wong Kar-Wai’s work I could have gotten, especially since I didn’t actually see his original version of the film. Who knows, maybe I’m wrong. I’ll just have to wait and see until I see it.