There's a Grand Film in There...

The Grandmaster
(Hong Kong/China, 108 min.)
Dir. Wong Kar Wai, Writ. Wong Kar Wai, Jingzhi Zou, Haofeng Xu
Starring: Tony Leung, Ziyi Zhang.
Ziyi Zhang stars in The Grandmaster, an eOne Films release.

There’s a new take on The Magnificent Ambersons hitting art-house cinemas and suburban multiplexes alike. It’s a Chinese remake starring superstar actors Tony Leung (In the Mood for Love; Lust, Caution) and Ziyi Zhang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Memoirs of a Geisha) in a sumptuous martial-arts epic about history, legacy, and family ties. Like the 1942 Orson Welles original, Wong Kar Wai’s film is a gorgeously rendered and richly detailed period piece. The big twist of The Grandmaster, though, is that Wong didn’t base his film on Welles’s picture or the Booth Tarkington novel at all. The Grandmaster became The Magnificent Ambersons 2 when it suffered in the editing room and became one of Harvey Weinstein’s cinematic victims. What was one of the most-anticipated films of 2013 is now one of the year's biggest disappointments.

Clocking in over twenty minutes under the version that premiered in Berlin and caused a sensation in its native China, The Weinstein Company release of The Grandmaster just doesn’t jive. It might not be as bad a studio hack job as the 88-minute cut of Ambersons, which reportedly lopped an hour off Welles’s version, but The Grandmaster—this version, anyways—shows that artistic vision truly needs time to breathe.

Audiences who want the real deal will gladly sit through a lengthy Wong Kar Wai film. There’s no need to go on appeasing people like the Joe the Moviegoer who notoriously gave feedback at the test screening of Ambersons, saying, “People like to laff [sic], not be bored to death.” It seems as if the team behind the North American release of The Grandmaster took a cue from Joe’s desire to laff and cut out all the character development and left in all the Kung Fu. If the masses won’t appreciate a compromised cut, it seems silly to withhold the complete package from the film buffs who will. The Weinstein Company’s abbreviated take on The Grandmaster seems like a no-win situation.

The Grandmaster, or something like it, is a sweeping historical epic about Ip Man (Leung), master of the art of Wing Chun. Alternatively, as the North American trailer submits, he’s the man who trained Bruce Lee. (This fact appears as a post-script in The Grandmaster.) The Grandmaster thus works like an origins story as Ip Man shares his philosophy on martial arts and nationhood as the film chronicles his life from the 1930s through the Second Sino-Japanese War and a myriad of trials, tests, and allegiances between martial arts masters in China.

The scope and biographical nature of The Grandmaster presumably demands some exposition for non-Asian audience, and the film provides some appreciated title cards and whatnot before moving on to a breathtakingly-shot fight sequence in the rain that follow’s Ip Man’s introduction to his worldview. Much else in The Grandmaster moves fleetingly. Secondary characters and historical milestones pass through the film at a pace too rapid to grasp their narrative, historical, and thematic significance. The first act of The Grandmaster seems like a mish-mash of perfectly composed, if unrelated, scenes held together by some extended fight scenes. If only the drama had been left intact as well.

There’s only one storyline in The Grandmaster that has any depth or coherence. That’s the thread in which Ip Man meets Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the daughter of the Wing Chun Grandmaster whom Ip Man succeeds. This story, a romantic sub-plot of sorts, sees Gong Er sparring with Ip Man and using her devotion to the martial arts—and the greater philosophy and discipline behind them—to reclaim her family’s legacy as she swears revenge on Ma San, the man who killed her father. Gong Er’s storyline unfolds at a pace that allows the characters and themes to flourish. Played in one of Zhang’s characteristically strong performances, The Grandmaster gives audiences a strong character with which they can grasp the legacy behind the masters’ devotion to the martial arts. The action sequences continue to be stunningly choreographed—a battle at the rails of oncoming train is especially memorable—and the sumptuous, ethereal realization of Wong’s style brings out the best in the material.

It’s not really clear, though, if Gong Er is supposed to be the true heroine of The Grandmaster or if her storyline is supposed to complement that of Ip Man. It feels as if one steps out of one movie and walks into another one when the time ends on Gong Er’s story and The Grandmaster turns its attention back to Ip Man. Gong Er’s section of the film nevertheless provides a taste of the greatness that The Grandmaster never fully achieves.

A Wong Kar Wai film is never really about plot, though, so it’s not entirely fair to blame the disjointedness of The Grandmaster on a distributor’s revision. (It certainly doesn’t help.) His style typically works with a less conventional structure and evokes a sense of romantic nostalgia, or that passion of the missed moment that comes to life in Wong’s other films—recall the slow-mo noodle walk in In the Mood for Love. The final act of The Grandmaster, plus Gong Er’s story, has the sensational visual poetry of a typical Wong Kar Wai film, but The Grandmaster almost feels like two different movies.

The first half is intelligible and incoherent as Wong’s beautiful aesthetics clash with the swift pace of the film. His signature use of slow frame rate, languid camerawork, and varied film stock all look great in the action sequences, but they don’t help with the abbreviated character development and cheesecloth portrayal of history. To be fair, the action choreography by Yuen Woo-ping (Crouching Tiger, The Matrix) provides some of the best action sequences in recent cinema and it looks twice as good as most fight scenes do thanks to the impressive cinematography be Philippe Le Sourd. The music by Nathaniel Méchaly and Shigeru Umbayashi is equally evocative, and the efforts by the costumes and arts and crafts crew go unscathed.

The Grandmaster is certainly a visual and technical marvel, but it’s not the martial arts opera one expects to see after five years of production and an enthusiastic premiere. To dislike a Wong Kar Wai film is one of the most distressing feelings a film buff will ever have, so one hopes that The Grandmaster will appear in North America in full force so that cinephiles can appreciate it to the fullest. There’s a great film in The Grandmaster to be sure, but like the surviving cut of The Magnificent Ambersons, it just isn’t there for cinephiles to see.

Rating: ★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

The Grandmaster is currently playing in Ottawa at Empire Kanata and Silvercity Gloucester.