Judge Gordon Sullivan has issued three cuts of this review.
Once upon a time in kung fu.
Wong Kar Wai has made an international career based on creating stories of longing and desire that are married to sumptuous visuals. Both his attention to production design and his attention to creating different kinds of editing have won him an audience of discerning art-house connoisseurs. When it was announced that his next project, one he'd been working on developing for ten years, would be a biopic of the famous martial artist Ip Man, trainer of Bruce Lee and a Chinese legend, many were surprised. Martial arts movies are not normally associated with the kinds of aching, unfulfilled desire nor visual style that Kar Wai has perfected. The Grandmaster, though, manages to use the best impulses of Wong Kar Wai's style—and the best that martial arts has to offer—to give viewers a beautiful meditation on time, loss, duty, and desire.
Facts of the Case
The Grandmaster follows Ip Man (Tony Leung, In the Mood for Love) through the historical upheavals of 1930s China as he tries to uphold the best of martial arts amidst personal and professional turmoil.
The first thing that must be said about The Grandmaster is that it exists in three different versions. There's the Chinese version (130 minutes), a Cannes/international version (122 minutes), and the U.S. release (108 minutes) "presented" by Martin Scorsese available on The Grandmaster (Blu-ray). In general, facts like this aren't very interesting; it's pretty common for films to have multiple cuts for different markets—and many distributors like to reign in what they see as excesses in foreign directors. What's special about the case of The Grandmaster is that we're not really looking at several cuts of the film, with only a few scenes cut or added to trim running time or satisfy censors. No, with The Grandmaster, we have a situation where each cut could almost be an entirely different movie. Wong Kar Wai changes the order of the narrative, emphasizes different characters, and adds or subtracts whole scenes from the different cuts.
The fact that Wong Kar Wai could craft three different films (and they are different, though I've only seen two of the three cuts) speaks to what drew the director to the project in the first place. He's consistently interested in memory, desire, and unfulfilled love. The story of Ip Man has all of that in spades. There's the fact that he's the "champion" for his school of martial arts, but that takes him away from his family. Then there's the displacement caused by the Japanese invasion prior to World War II. There's also a relationship between Man and fellow martial artist Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
This cut of the film definitely emphasizes the more action-oriented aspects of Ip Man's story. Though not without Wong Kar Wai's sometimes-hallucinatory "digressions," this version of The Grandmaster feels satisfying as a martial arts genre pictures. If you're looking for good fighting, this is the version to choose. Yuen Woo Ping, of The Matrix fame, choreographs the fights, and Wong Kar Wai brings all his visual tricks (slow motion, step-printing) to the table. The results are visually satisfying kung fu matchups. More importantly, though, the fights are not simply an excuse for visual spectacle. Instead, they reveal character as much as they revel in destroying interiors or demonstrating prowess. Though perhaps not the ideal way to get new viewers into the kung fu genre, Grandmaster will get a lot of people watching kung fu films who would not normally watch kung fu films.
The acting is also uniformly excellent. All the actors went through some training, with Tony Leung dedicating a year to his kung fu practice. They all are convincing as elite-level artists, but they also do a fine job with the sometimes subtle, often-hushed tones that define Wong Kar Wai's cinema. Simple glances and short phrases often do the heavy emotional lifting, and all the actors, Leung especially, bring their A-game to this production.
Despite only presenting us with a single cut of the film, The Grandmaster (Blu-ray) is otherwise strong. The 2.35:1/1080p transfer is generally good. Detail is fine throughout, with plenty of texture is close-ups. There's also a fine presence of grain. Black levels are generally strong and consistent, though there is the occasional bit of blocking in darker scenes. Overall it's a fine transfer that some eagle-eyed viewers might nitpick. There's very little to nitpick about the DTS-HD 5.1 Mandarin track. The dialogue is always clean and clear, while the surrounds are used extensively to establish atmosphere and really sell the fight scenes. Dynamic range is excellent, and the film's score is well-balanced.
Extras start with a set of featurettes that look at the making of the film, totaling about 45 minutes worth of behind-the-scenes material. Then we get another featurette that looks at the relationship between Bruce Lee and Ip Man through the lens of The Grandmaster and its cast and crew. There's also an interview with Bruce Lee's daughter about Ip Man, his relationship to her father, and Lee's legacy more generally. Finally, we get an interview with noted kung fu fan the RZA of the Wu-tang Clan.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Grandmaster is a great film, perhaps my favorite by Wong Kar Wai. However, this cut is in an awkward position for some viewers. Those who want a martial arts film may tire of Wong Kar Wai's sometimes-baroque visual devices—and it's true that this is not the most straightforward, action-packed kung fu film (it's not even the most straight-forward, action-packed telling of the Ip Man story…). On the flip side, those who long for another 2046 or In the Mood for Love may tire quickly of the fairly frequent fight scenes that the genre necessitates.
For me, the longer international cut is definitely superior to this cut. In the case of the longer cut, it felt like I was more completely drawn into the world of Ip Man. Not only that, but I was drawn in such that I didn't want the elliptical, nonlinear narrative to ever end. It might only take 122 minutes to play out, but it feels like forever (in the best way possible). This 108-minute cut of The Grandmaster is satisfying, but it's much more like watching a typical biopic rather than being immersed in a carefully crafted world. Fans of the director should definitely figure out a way to see that cut in addition to this one.
Though diehard Wong Kar Wai fans will want to hold out for a release that has at least one other cut of the film, this release of The Grandmaster is likely to appeal to fans of historical drama, kung fu films, and Wong Kar Wai's singular meditations on desire.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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