Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Grandmaster (2013)

There are few modern films with histories as storied as The Grandmaster, the latest film from Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love). The project spent years in development, thanks to cast injuries during martial arts training and a relatively large budget. When it was finally finished, multiple cuts of the film were release: one for the festival circuit, one for Chinese audiences, and a significantly shorter, Harvey Weinstein-approved American cut. The lattermost is the one that I watched for the purposes of this review, and it left me wondering what the other versions of the film looked like. In its current form, the film noticeably feels disjointed, as if there were pieces of it missing.

The Grandmaster is a biopic of Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), the martial arts master of wing chun who helped popularize the former, particularly through his mentorship of Bruce Lee. The film spans a period of about 20 years, from when the Northern grandmaster Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) comes to his home in Foshan to announce his retirement and witness Ip become the South's grandmaster to Ip's exile in Hong Kong during the 1950s. During this time, Ip maintains contact with Gong's daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), who challenges him to a fight of their own. He also witnesses the half-century of turmoil China faced between the Japanese invasion, civil war, and Communist revolution, as well as the threatened end of martial arts.

More after the jump.

Weinstein has earned a reputation for making significant cuts to films his company acquires, to the point where he's picked up the nickname "Harvey Scissorhands." The Grandmaster suffers as a result of his cutting. The film feels like it has major gaps in its narrative, filled in with brief title cards that explain what's happened between scenes. In a way, it almost feels like a long-lost film that's finally been recovered, only to find that a few reels are missing and have to be covered up with explanations of what happened. The result is a narrative that feels disconnected, and though there is enough continuity to make the film hum along pleasantly, there seem to be character beats missing, making it feel more like a patchwork quilt than a grand tapestry. That being said, it is worth noting that the film's writing isn't exactly its strongest suite to begin with, and it's not as emotionally vibrant as Wong's prior work.

However, the film's greatest strengths are its terrific cast and stunning setpieces. It's a shame that Zhang's Hollywood career never really took off after Memoirs of a Geisha, but she puts forward a terrifically quiet-storm performance here. As a woman, she's not allowed to enter the world of martial arts, but her secret study of the form becomes her source of pride. Leung, a frequent Wong collaborator (this is their seventh film together), is equally great, perfectly balancing Ip's stoicism with his inner emotional plight. The two play off each other well, too, with palpable chemistry even when the writing shortchanges their complicated relationship.

The fight sequences are the true stars of the film. Shot by cinematographer Phillipe Le Sourd and choreographed by the great Yuen Woo-Ping (The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), they have an exquisite beauty in their slow-motion action and staging. The opening fight - in the middle of a street during a torrential downpour, with Ip surrounded by opponents - is a marvel to behold, with soft lighting nearly putting the entire thing in silhouettes. The real showstopper, though, is a train station-set fight between Gong Er and Ma San (Zhang Jin), the heir to the Northern grandmaster. The sequence is underscored by emotional motivations - Gong never liked her father's choice of the slippery Ma as heir - and it lends their fight real stakes. Moreover, it's visually beautiful, as Wong and Le Sourd frame it against a moving train leaving the station, creating a hauntingly gorgeous scene.

When the film reaches these action scenes, it comes alive, inventively presenting the story of Ip in an accessible way. Unfortunately, the rest of the film can't match the highs of these sequences, and it suffers as a whole from being cut down from it's original form. The Grandmaster strives to tell the story of the man behind the martial arts. It's at its best, though, when it lets the fighting do all the talking. B

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