'The Grandmaster': Wong Kar Wai delivers martial arts masterpiece
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Movie lovers who hold the idea of the "director's cut" sacred have been scared out of their wits waiting for the U.S. release of "The Grandmaster," directed by Hong Kong master Wong Kar Wai. The long-awaited movie, Wong's adaptation of the life story of the legendary martial arts instructor Ip Man, represents the director's first action-themed movie since 1994's hallucinatory "Ashes of Time." And it's his first feature in half a dozen years and a return to his native land after the U.S.-lensed "My Blueberry Nights," a typically visually beautiful but often dramatically problematic effort. So the news that the U.S. distributor would be The Weinstein Co., whose head, Harvey Weinstein, has a notorious reputation for tinkering with the work of master directors, was understandably terrifying. And the subsequent news that the U.S. cut of "The Grandmaster" is about 10 minutes shorter than the version that was Wong's biggest hit overseas is making some cinephiles believe their worst fears have come to pass.
But wait. The story's actually even more complicated, and it has an upbeat resolution, at least so far. I speak as someone who has seen both the 130-minute Hong Kong version of "The Grandmaster" (an advantage of living in a metropolis with many thriving Asian communities and associated retailers) and the nearly two-hour version coming to U.S. theaters this week. It's not a matter of a perfect cut compromised by philistine American meddlers; the movies are two different entities, each a valid work in and of itself. Those who have dug deeper into the story know that the director himself felt that a version with more historical context for Western viewers was something he wanted to do, and that this version was prepared not just with Weinstein but with Annapurna Pictures, the visionary and sensitive auteur outfit that helped finance the picture. And, yes, this "Grandmaster" does hold the hand of the American viewer a bit more, with explanatory titles discussing the Sino-Japanese war and the other events that had an impact on the life of Ip Man, a South China aristocrat who was able to become a kung fu master in part because he didn't have to earn a living.
After the breakout of the World War II, calamity befalls Ip Man (played here by Wong stalwart and stone-cold-charismatic movie star Tony Leung) after he refuses to collaborate with the Japanese and is sent to Hong Kong to make his living as an instructor. (It's here that he'll meet his most famous pupil, Bruce Lee, who's unmentioned in the Hong Kong cut but alluded to in a title here.) This is the major rift in Ip Man's life, and what enlivens the story as told by Wong is a drawn-out scenario in which the fighter duels an aging grandmaster from the North. After their unusual match, Ip Man gets a demand for satisfaction from that master's only child, a woman, who therefore cannot be his fighting legacy. And yet: Gong Er (the exquisite Ziyi Zhang) is a formidable fighter, bearer of the "64 hands," and her match against Ip Man is thrilling in both its force and meticulousness. "Kung fu is all about precision," Ip Man notes before their ballet begins, and Wong's way of staging and shooting and editing action emphasizes that more than it emphasizes brutality. The wistful regard in which the family-oriented Ip Man and the never-to-marry Gong hold each other is in the grand Wong tradition of possibly unrequited passion (see his great "In the Mood for Love"), and in the U.S. version, a march-of-history narrative is rejiggered into a more explicitly "Dr. Zhivago"-like romance.
A romance with a lot of kung fu fighting, I might add. Wong cobbled both of these films out of a shoot that at first yielded a four-hour cut. The best outcome for this movie would be a Blu-ray version with the Hong Kong version, the U.S. version and that first edit, because the U.S. version doesn't just cut; it restores. There's a character in both versions nicknamed "The Razor." In the Hong Kong version, he meets Gong on a train, fleeing from soldiers, bleeding from an injury. He is later shown starting his own martial arts school but doesn't interact with any other characters from the main narrative again. In the U.S. version, the train scene is gone, as is the school scene, but there IS a terrific fighting match between The Razor and Ip Man. To see a version of this movie in which all those scenes fit, that would be something. In the meantime, though, the version of the movie opening this week is exquisitely beautiful and supernaturally exciting, a ravishing movie experience.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.