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Hong Kong 2014
Directed by
Wong Kar Wai
112 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Andrew Lee
3.5 stars

The Grandmaster

Synopsis: The story of Ip Man (Tony Leung) and his reserved and doomed romance with rival Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi).

Imagine the child of Ashes Of Time and In The Mood For Love grew up to become an investment banker. That’s a harsh assessment of The Grandmaster, but it feels apt given what we’ve been presented with. Apparently when The Weinstein Company acquired the film for distribution in the US, they required it to be re-edited to make it more palatable for their imagined audience. Wong Kar Wai accepted the challenge and recut his film from what has been described as a lyrical paean to lost way of life into a pedestrian biopic punctuated by some excellent fight sequences. In other words, a work of poetry was transformed into a chop socky action film. (I swear I heard the Batman Begins soundtrack halfway through the first fight scene.) I haven’t seen the other version of the film, but I can only imagine it’s better than what we’ve got. The best way to take it, I think, is as a sly commentary on how dumb film marketers believe their audience to be. Here’s some examples in support of the hypothesis:

A character appears on screen, a brief subtitle explains who he is and what style of kung fu he is a master of. Shortly thereafter, a conversation takes place where who he is and what style of kung fu he’s a master of is explained.

Intertitles explain the passage of time, changes in location, historical facts. The next few scenes will comment on the passage of time, relocation, and some historical facts.

It’s really disappointing, because there are moments in the film where you can see in it the stuff of greatness. The aforementioned strategies get your back up, and the film feels dull and pointless for a good twenty minutes at the beginning, but life enters both the film and the fight sequences when Gong Er shows up. The fight between Ip Man and Gong Er is lusciously filmed, and really does sell a romance that will never come to fruition. It also highlights a failing of the film. Although Gong Er has a fascinating story to explore, Ip Man is not that interesting but because Ip Man became the teacher of Bruce Lee we end up focusing more on him than on her. There could have been a more interesting counterpoint between their two stories had she been fleshed out a bit more. Every moment she’s on screen is amazing, and appears to come from a far superior film to the one we’re watching.

All Wong’s trademark obsessions and filmic techniques are on display but they fail to land their usual effect. The film is too conventionally structured for philosophical voiceover and poetic vignettes to work themselves under your skin. It’s still worth a look because there are some wonderful sequences and Zhang Ziyi delivers an excellent performance. But it’s also kind of painful, because you can see the invisible hand castrating something that could potentially have been much better. There are rumours a much longer version is going to be released on DVD at some point. Hopefully the rumour is true, because as it is, we’ve got something that’s worth watching, but barely worth remembering. From a director whose filmography is fascinated by memory, that’s an irony you’d rather forget.




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