You can smell the greatness struggling to blossom when viewing the beautiful and sumptuous “The Grandmaster” from Wong Kar-wai, and you find yourself wondering if any of the various cuts would’ve gotten him there. Unfortunately, I found out too late that I received the truncated U.S. theatrical cut that clocks in at 108 minutes with credits(damn you Netflix!). Thankfully, I found the DVD option that let me play it in the original Mandarin with English subtitles, instead of some cheesy dub. That helped. But I bet that 130-minute fills in some of the gaps in the one that I saw. I’ve heard that the director tinkered with longer versions as well, and also that there’s an “in-between” 123-minute cut that ran at the Berlin International Film Festival. Hey, I’m pleased as punch that The Weinstein Company managed to get some version of the renowned director’s latest work released here in the first place. Anything is better than nothing. But I’ll hold out hope for eventually experiencing the full vision. As it is, it’s pretty damn good. But it falls a little short of the hoped-for masterful.
“The Grandmaster” chronicles the life of the legendary Ip Man, the Wing Chun martial artist who would eventually go on to train the world-famous Bruce Lee. Ip Man is portrayed by the incredible Tony Leung(star of Kar-wei’s masterpiece “In the Mood for Love”, as well as the great “Hero” from Zhang Yimou), and it’s an impressive performance that imbues Ip Man with his expected gravitas and reverence. The film follows Ip Man’s life in straight narrative and flashback form, with emphasis on his adult life in 1930’s Foshan, and the rebuilding of his legacy after the war-torn period in between. He suffered much personal loss during this time, including two daughters to starvation after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. But the bulk of “The Grandmaster” is spent witnessing Ip Man attempt to establish himself as a true southern Master, after a martial arts giant retires and begins appointing successors. Then, when beautiful international star Zhang Ziyi(the aforementioned “Hero”, as well as Ang Lee’s record-breaking smash, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”)arrives as Gong Er, the fun really begins.
The fight choreography for “The Grandmaster” has been created by the remarkable Yuen Woo Ping, who also coordinated Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill”, among others. The battles are incredible for their look and precision. “The Grandmaster” was nominated for two Oscars this year, for Philippe Le Sourd’s astonishing cinematography and William Chang’s breathtaking costume design. Unfortunately, the narrative is as choppy as the combat is smooth. But it’s easy to get lost in the look and feel of “The Grandmaster”. It establishes a melancholy and elegiac tone that is palpable, and watching the plight of its characters is infectious. The movie is a marvel of design, and it enables you to forgive its occasional trespasses. I honestly hope I’ll be able to revise after getting ahold of that longer version, but until then you can enjoy the somewhat butchered “The Grandmaster” anyway. I’ve heard that the Hong Kong cut may be available on VOD, so there is a ray of light. But any of the cuts is worth a look, so be sure to seek one out. Grade: B