Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster is a tricky film to write about, namely because the version we have here in America isn’t the movie the rest of the world is seeing. This isn’t the 130-minute Chinese cut, nor the 123-minute version that premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. No, what we’ve gotten is a 108-minute version that, if you listen to those who’ve seen each cut, is chopped up, rearranged and regrettably dumbed down. That Wong himself oversaw the edits is little consolation, since this reeks of Weinstein Company tampering (Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer will reportedly meet the same fate when the Weinsteins release it later this year), ignoring the fact that a subtitled kung-fu art film already has a limited audience to begin with. Even accepting this as a filmmaker reimagining his own work is awkward, since Wong himself has said that this American version has been simplified and turned into more of a straightforward action picture, so as not to confuse or lose American audiences. In this sense, it’s difficult — and even a bit distracting — to watch a movie that openly thinks you’re too dumb to follow it.
The movie, which tells the story of legendary martial artist Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Lust, Caution), is mostly being sold to American moviegoers with the fact that Ip would go on to train Bruce Lee — a tidbit that adds nothing and is needlessly shoehorned in at the last minute. The pacing often feels off, shifting back and forth from Wong’s usual elegance, to a rushed, constant parade of fight sequences. The front end of The Grandmaster is loaded with action, but when the film finally shifts into something more intimate in its final reels — and finally begins to resemble a truly great movie — it’s jarring, an out-of-place addition. My suspicion — and some articles back this up — is that the main thing cut from the film is nuance. Text constantly pops up on screen, killing the film’s momentum for the sake of over-explaining the plot, all the while turning the movie into something that treads dangerously close to standard biopic fare.
All this being said, I can only review the film in front of me, and that film is merely pretty good. Wong has made what’s perhaps the year’s most beautiful film, often stately and even dreamlike. The performances are on point, while the fights are imaginative and clever. Cutting story for the sake of packing the action scenes closer together is an obvious mistake since The Grandmaster has no room to breathe and becomes a bit overwhelming. Even the most gorgeous kung-fu scenes start to run together. For all its technical prowess, The Grandmaster feels shallow. Once we get toward the film’s end, the doomed romance between Ip and fellow grandmaster Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang) begins to give the movie some shape, but instead of feeling tragic, it feels wasted, flimsy and tacked on. There are the obvious hints of true greatness (or at least a film greater than this), but none of it quite coalesces. What remains is a movie worth seeing, but one that’s also infinitely frustrating. Rated PG-13 for violence, some smoking, brief drug use and language.
Playing at Regal Biltmore Grande