BIFF 2013 Review: The Grandmaster

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In those halcyon pre-Internet days, we didn’t know when a movie had been screwed with. It jut felt lackluster in ways we couldn’t pinpoint. Now, film fans tend to know before they walk in that a studio has taken a lawnmower to the preferred cut, and it’s hard to know how to judge the result. Are the flaws we see the result of recutting, or a product of the original version?

So it’s difficult to review the Weinstein Company’s cut of Wong Kar-wai’s martial arts drama The Grandmaster, which was widely publicised as being restructured for the US market. BIFF tried valiantly to secure the 130-minute Chinese cut, but was forced to settle for the 108-minute version because the Weinsteins hold the Australian distribution rights (as they do Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, sadly). But unlike most films streamlined by the Weinsteins, Wong worked on the new version himself. If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t have bothered attending this screening.

The response has been mixed. Some critics who’ve seen both versions say it ravages a masterpiece, others that it makes little difference to a flawed film. I can’t be sure which problems are specific to the recut, but a beautiful, transcendent film is clearly struggling to get out.

The Grandmaster is Wong’s take on Ip Man (Tony Leung), the Wing Chun kung fu legend who trained Bruce Lee and united the northern and southern schools of Chinese martial arts. Rather than telling his life story, Wong focuses on the 1930s and the second Sino-Japanese War. Reflecting on martial arts and its relationship with Chinese identity and spirituality is more Wong’s speed. A comprehensive biopic would limit his voice.

Nonetheless, the film still contains far more dialogue and incident than his more typical work like In the Mood for Love or Chungking Express. That’s fine, because Wong has infused The Grandmaster with such beauty and grace that its concessions to more conventional, unambiguous storytelling are balanced out. Or at least, they probably are in the Chinese cut.

The Weinstein cut tries to make life easier for Western audiences unaware of the Chinese history and culture surrounding Ip Man. It slathers on title cards, on-screen captions, and newly-recorded Leung voiceover that explain the historical context and even who is appearing on screen. One title card even recaps the scene we just watched. The intentions are good, but their clumsiness jars with the delicacy of Wong’s direction. The rest of the film doesn’t offer enough raw information to co-operate with the guidebook elements, so they reinforce what we don’t know rather than filling in what we need to. They tell us we’re not equipped to experience the film properly, and so keep us at arm’s length rather than welcoming us in. ‘Just try your best’, it says.

Knowing Wong’s films, I’d wager it doesn’t matter if we know every character’s allegiance or the story’s historical background. He’s a sense-based filmmaker, not a plot-focused one. Being informed who Ip Man is and getting an impression of his key relationships through implication rather than infodump is probably all we need to get full satisfaction from such a gorgeous, tactile experience. The Chinese version isn’t even told linearly, strongly suggesting that narrative is not this film’s main agenda. At the end of a lecture preceding the BIFF screening, critic Sam Ho showed a 30-second clip from The Grandmaster. It must have been from the Chinese version, because in even this brief glimpse, the order of shots differed to what I later saw in the Weinstein version, alternating between encounter and aftermath. How radically different might the two cuts be?

The Weinsteins are holding down such a light-footed film by trying to jerryrig a patronisingly straightforward narrative using heavy-handed editing and blunt-force exposition. It is of course a purely commercial concession to our supposed need to know and understand everything we’re watching, lest we throw up their hands and tell our friends how difficult the movie was. But when it vandalises the film and diminishes even its superficial entertainment value, why go to such lengths? It’s hard to believe that those who love and would recommend this version of The Grandmaster wouldn’t love the original version too. Its most absorbing qualities aren’t impacted by the Weinsteins’ helping hands. (If only they learned from their release of Zhang Yimou’s artistic 2002 wuxia film Hero, which they finally released uncut in 2004 at Quentin Tarantino’s behest only for it to be a surprising minor box office success.) I won’t have my concerns about The Grandmaster validated or otherwise until I see the Chinese version, but the sense that this film has been transformed and distorted is impossible to shake.

The film seems to have been reconfigured as a tournament film about Ip Man fighting to unite the schools. Due to its brevity, a background romance with Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang) feels as perfunctory as a tacked-on romance in a Hollywood blockbuster. But even with the title cards and character tagging, this supposedly straightforward journey narrative is difficult to follow. David Ehrlich reports (in an essential piece describing the differences in this version) that Gong Er’s story is more or less equal to Ip Man’s in the Chinese cut. No wonder, because the shreds of her story that remain hang loosely in isolation, clearly circling a significant absence (her major fight scene is left intact, of course). When a major storyline has been gutted, no wonder the resulting reassembly is hard to understand.

Where The Grandmaster is valuable is in its beauty, composition, and immense control. This is a ravishing film, and not just visually. The acting – particularly from Leung and Zhang, unsurprisingly – is so delicate and precise that it’s breathtaking to witness. In one shot as he listens to Zhang, Leung doesn’t blink or move, but his expression conveys so much. He continues to be a captivating screen presence, and that control extends to the martial arts sequences choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping (The Matrix; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Although too obfuscating by rarely showing connecting blows, they’re still stunning dances of exhilaration or fury.

Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography is radically different to Christopher Doyle’s, although some signature Wong techniques remain. He presents us with an entirely different kind of Wong Kar-wai film, darkly lit but with greater detail and rich varieties of black, silver, and gold. Some sequences mirror Doyle’s precise composition, however, with snow scenes and a train station fight painterly and hyper-real. The film is punctuated with beautiful, evocative scenes that are surely meant to sit alongside the dialogue-heavy scenes more deftly than they do here.

If Wong Kar-wai fans have no way to see the Chinese version, they should still watch this one. Too much of Wong’s beauty and grace and subtle implication remains to ignore it entirely. The Chinese version may share some of its flaws anyway. But this feels like an incomplete film begging to be seen properly, so it’s hard to recommend it to either Wong Kar-wai newcomers or martial arts film fans. Perhaps The Grandmaster will be as fortunate as John Woo’s Red Cliff and the original version will eventually be released on disc in the West, and we can watch the Ip Man story Wong really wanted us to see.

The Grandmaster screens again at BIFF on Friday November 22 at 6.30pm at Palace Barracks.

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One thought on “BIFF 2013 Review: The Grandmaster

  1. Heather Reed says:

    Can’t tell you how much I love the films of Wong Kar-wai – this sounds wonderful in spite of the ravages wrought by Western commercial constraints. Great review!!

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