The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi, Hong Kong-China 2013)

Tony Leung as Ip Man

Tony Leung as Ip Man

It’s been a long time since Wong Kar-Wai’s previous full-length feature, 2007’s My Blueberry Nights. I gave that a miss and the one before that, 2046 in 2004, although clearly important didn’t really work for me. So, like many others I suspect, I was hoping for a return to the Wong of In the Mood For Love, one of my favourite films of the last twenty-five years. The Grandmaster seems to have taken Wong nearly a decade to prepare and shoot/post-produce and it is in many ways an impressive piece of work. Unfortunately, however, the UK release is the severely shortened version of the original 130 minute Chinese cut. But this is a Wong Kar-Wai film and he has often re-cut films after festival screenings etc. The difference here is that although he has re-cut it, it would seem that Mr Evil – Harvey Weinstein – is once again involved as a distributor.

Wong’s purpose appears to have been to address ‘cultural difficulties’ expected to face Western audiences. Some (quite a lot) of material was removed and the nonlinear Chinese cut re-organised into a more conventional linear narrative. I’ll have to watch the Hong Kong Blu-ray from YesAsia to see what all this means.

The 108 minute film I watched in the cinema offers a narrative with four possible strands. The first is a partial biopic of ‘Ip Man’, the Southern Chinese master of Wing Chun kung fu who settled in Hong Kong in 1950 and proceeded to teach a succession of martial artists including Bruce Lee. The second strand is about the history of kung fu in China during the 1930s/40s and the ‘succession’ to the Northern ‘Grandmaster’ Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang). Ip Man is part of this story which is set in the context of the Japanese invasion of first Manchuria and then Southern China after 1937. This story, which involves the different forms of kung fu (three from the north), involves ideas about honour codes that link this narrative to both Japanese samurai stories and the American Western (and possibly the gangster film – the music for Once Upon a Time in America is listed in the credits). The third narrative strand concerns the potential relationship between Ip Man (Tony Leung) and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) – the daughter of the Northern Grandmaster. Finally, the film explores a personal Wong Kar-Wai story, familiar from most of his films – the experience of Chinese ‘exile’ in Hong Kong in the early 1950s (complete with some Hong Kong archive footage ‘squashed’ into the wrong ratio which won’t please Keith).

None of these four strands is fully worked out – or, at least, that is how it seems from a first viewing. Neither the kung fu fans or the arthouse fans of Wong are likely to be satisfied. Even so, there are many pleasures to be had from the film. Enormous care has been taken in choreographing fight scenes (credit to Yuen Woo-ping) and production design by Wong regulars Chang Suk-ping and Yay Wai-ming. Japanese composer Umebayashi Shigeru’s score is immediately recognisable, though here he is joined on the soundtrack by French composer Nathaniel Méchaly – who IMDB lists as working on several French-produced ‘international’ thrillers. The cinematography is by another Frenchman Philippe Le Sourd whose previous credits are not extensive but who acquits himself well here.

Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er

Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er

Given the focus on martial arts skills there is a great deal hanging on the performances of the two leads Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi. Both have previously worked in wu xia films, the best known being the Zhang Yimou epics such as Hero in which they worked together. These required wire work and swordfighting skills. For The Grandmaster they needed to be world-class kung fu artists and there are many stories about the length and the extent of their training. I’m not a kung fu expert but the moves look impressive to me. Tony Leung is about as good as it gets as an actor in global cinema but I think he isn’t given enough to do in The Grandmaster (having said that he ‘does nothing’ wonderfully). Zhang Ziyi actually has a bigger role than the film’s overall story might suggest. Other than the two leads, the mystery for me is why two of the other leads are marginalised in this shorter version. Chang Chen who is given third billing in the credits has had a major sequence removed and the Korean actress Song Hye-keo who plays Ip Man’s wife also disappears from the narrative in the second half of the film. There is no explanation (that I remember) of why she can’t join her husband in Hong Kong after 1950.

My understanding is that the 130 minute cut is superior – but still has the mix of genres and with a non-linear narrative poses other issues for audiences. I think that I still want to see the longer cut. My sense is that the film will not do very well in UK cinemas but that a full length Blu-ray might do well. This comparatively expensive ($25 million) film did very well in China and other East Asian territories plus France and the US to reach $64 million worldwide.

Here’s the US trailer for the shortened version:

and this is the version promoted by Shaw Brothers Cinemas in South East Asia:

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One comment

  1. keith1942

    I rather shared Roy’s response, though I have not seen the longer version. Intriguingly the film uses a Morricone composition, ‘Donna Romantica’ from Cinema Paradiso.
    I note Roy’s comment that Wong Kar-Wai often recuts films. Even so, this seems rather extreme. Martin Scorsese is listed as a Producer – given his involvement in the World Cinema Foundation, I would have expected better.
    Moreover, the film benefited from the bfi distribution fund. Not a system that impresses me. What is their criteria if they fund this sort of treatment?

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