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Grandmaster, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Third Cut Is The Leastest?"
4 stars

Thanks to an utterly mesmerizing approach to cinema that favors emotional resonance and lush visuals over everything else and odd and usually digressive narratives that are oftentimes being made up even as they are being filmed, Wong Kar-wai has been justly celebrated as one of the world's greatest living filmmakers, even by those who haven't always connected to his films as strongly as his more ardent supporters. The problem is that while his unique style has yielded enormous dividends when he is working on such singular efforts like "In the Mood for Love," "2046" and his sadly underrated English-language debut "My Blueberry Nights," the results are not quite as strong when he attempts to apply his enigmatic approach to an established genre. Twenty years ago, he set out to make a large-scale martial arts epic in his particular filmmaking manner but the project, "Ashes in Time," was an enormously troubled production (so troubled that he was able to make one of his most celebrated films, "Chungking Express," in a few days during one of its numerous delays) that thoroughly confused most viewers when it was finally released and even a 2008 revision, "Ashes of Time Redux," did little to clarify matters despite (or possibly because of) a shorter running time than the original

Wong has now returned to the world of martial arts with the historical epic "The Grandmaster" and, like his previous stab at that genre, it is a work that is as baffling as it is beautiful and it is most certainly beautiful. Action fans who have been lured by an ad campaign stressing the fight scenes and testimonials by such arbiters of cool as Martin Scorsese and Samuel L. Jackson (while barely mentioning Wong at all) are likely to be enthralled by the brawls but bored stiff with the elliptical story telling while Wong's acolytes are likely to be equally rattled by the clunky and glaringly obvious removal of nearly 30 minutes of footage for this U.S. release that effectively make hash of both the narrative and Wong's intricate method of relating it. And yet, even though the film is an oftentimes confounding mess--and not just because of the various edits that have resulted in no fewer than three versions of it floating around--it is an undeniably fascinating one and contains moments that are as thrilling and rapturous as anything that Wong has ever put on the screen before.

Opening in 1936, a time when the northern and southern China were still divided by, among other things, differing approaches to the practice of martial arts, the story opens as the legendary grandmaster Gong Baosen journeys from the north to the southern village of Foshan to announce that he has retired and has named one of his students, Ma San (Zhang Jin), to be his successor. He also wishes to find and fight the best that the south has to offer, partly because he believes that the region needs a leader for a new generation as well and partly out of a desire to see both sides united at last. Ip Man (Tony Leung), whom we have already seen decimate a dozen opponents in the rain-swept brawl that kicks off the film, is chosen to represent and after a battle that turns out to be more intellectual and spiritual than physical, he is declared the be the true heir, a declaration that does not sit well with Gong's daughter Er (Ziyi Zhang), who challenges Ip to a fight that does nothing to conceal the undeniable, though ultimately denied, feelings the two have for each other.

Before long, however, the Japanese invade China and in the ensuing decade or so, Ip loses everything and eventually makes his way to Hong Kong in the hopes of establishing his own martial arts school amidst an already crowded field. Over the years, his school will flourish and his teachings will become even more widespread thanks to the worldwide fame of his best-known student, the one and only Bruce Lee. Before then, on Chinese New Year's Eve 1950, he unexpectedly reunites with Gong Er and tries to convince her to once again teach martial arts and to give him a rematch to their long-ago fight. She declines both offers and in a flashback to exactly 10 years earlier, we learn that she decided to avenge her family's honor by challenging Ma San, who went on to betray both his former mentor and his people by killing Er's father and collaborating with the invading Japanese forces, to a fight. The resulting rumble on a train platform is one for the ages but her triumph there comes at an enormous personal and professional cost.

This may all sound reasonably straightforward as I have described it but I have seen the film twice now and I still needed to look to other sources to help me piece all of the salient points together, a job made exponentially more difficult due to the various edits out there. As I have said, Wong has long favored a narrative approach that could politely be described as oblique, but that has been taken to such extremes this time around--whether by design or as the result of the Weinstein-mandated cuts that he has publicly given his blessing to (either out of a genuine belief that they have made his film better or out of contractual obligation)--that it is virtually impossible to sink into it as one could with his earlier films. There are the usual klutzy maneuvers that seem to have been deployed to make the film more accessible to American viewers--voiceovers, extensive title cards and an ending that seems to value to Bruce Lee connection over all else.

. A bigger problem is that it seems as if what should be the emotional center of the film--the ultimately unfulfilled relationship between Ip Man and Gong Er--has been largely cast aside in order to give more focus to the plot and the fight scenes. This is the kind of thing that Wong does best and there are glimmers of it here and there, Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang practically burn up the screen whenever they are together, but it comes across here almost as an afterthought, especially in the fairly rushed second half. At least they get some time in the second half--although we are introduced to Ip's wife early on in the proceedings, she has only a limited presence then and then basically disappears for good, leaving another emotional black hole in its place. Whether this is all the fault of the reediting or because Wong let the story get away from him cannot be determined until I see the longer versions but whatever the reason, it makes for a bumpy moviegoing experience.

Surprisingly, the most emotional moments in "The Grandmaster" are the exhilarating fight scenes put together by Wong and master choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping. The film begins with a jaw-dropping duel between Ip and a dozen opponents in the rain that is such a spectacle to behold that it seems impossible that Woo and Yuen could ever hope to top themselves, though the "Dr. Zhivago"-inspired bout between Er and the vile Ma San is just as awe-inspiring. They must have realized that as well because instead of trying to ramp up the kinetic thrills, they have chosen to focus on having the subsequent fight scenes actually mean something to both the story and the characters as the best song-and-dance numbers sometimes do in certain musicals. Whether they are meant to represent respect amongst peers, the sublimated romantic yearnings between two competitors or the determination to avenge lost family honor, there is always more at stake during the fights than who wins or who loses and that is ultimately what sets "The Grandmaster" apart from most other films of the genre. Some purists may argue that Wong shoots the action a little too closely for its own good but to these eyes, it adds a certain intimacy to the sequences that further amps up their emotional resonance.

"The Grandmaster," at least in its U.S. incarnation, is a deeply flawed work that tries and fails to weld Wong Kar-wai's unique directorial stylings to a relatively conventional narrative. Not surprisingly, it does not quite work as a straightforward drama but it also disappointingly fails to reach the soaring emotional peaks that he has scaled so many times in the past. And yet, even though it doesn't "work" in a conventionally satisfying manner, there are undeniable flashes of brilliance strewn throughout and it contains the most lyrically beautiful martial arts sequences to appear in a film since Ziyi Zhang and Chow Yun-Fat took to the trees in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Is it worth seeing? Yes, if for no other reason that anyone with even the slightest interest in the cinema should see any new film by Wong Kar-wai, even one that is far from his best work. Maybe in a few years, Wong will give this the redux treat it deserves and perhaps then, "The Grandmaster" may be revealed as the masterpiece that it should be rather than the fascinating mess that it is right now.

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originally posted: 09/03/13 05:04:11
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/07/13 Pearl Bogdan This was a lot better then the thing I had heard about it 4 stars
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  23-Aug-2013 (PG-13)
  DVD: 04-Mar-2014



Directed by
  Kar Wai Wong

Written by
  Kar Wai Wong
  Haofeng Xu
  Jingzhi Zou

  Ziyi Zhang
  Tony Leung Chiu Wai
  Cung Le
  Hye-kyo Song
  Chen Chang
  Woo-ping Yuen

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