Early Reviews: Wong Kar-wai’s ‘The Grandmaster’ Is a Dazzling and Contemplative Martial Arts Epic (UPDATED, TRAILER)

Early Reviews: Wong Kar-wai's 'The Grandmaster' Is a Dazzling and Contemplative Martial Arts Epic (UPDATED, TRAILER)

Discussing his new film “The Grandmaster” at the Academy on July 22, Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai (“2046,” “My Blueberry Nights,” “In the Mood for Love”) described the alchemy of image and sound in cinema: “It isn’t one plus one. It’s chemistry.”

This chemistry is on breathtaking, ravishing display in “The Grandmaster,” a period piece set in China from the 1930s through the early 1950s, starring Tony Leung as the titular grandmaster Ip Man, who would go on to train Bruce Lee, and Zhang Ziyi as a fellow kung fu expert to match Ip’s skill. The fight sequences — which occupy well over half of the film’s running time — are dazzling both in action and stylistic terms, with a gorgeously melodramatic score heightening the wistful yet impossible romance that builds between the two main characters. The clunky biopic aspects of the film only momentarily deter from what is bound to be one of this year’s best examples of sheer, no-holds-barred filmmaking.

“The Grandmaster” hits theaters August 23, via the Weinstein Company. Watch the trailer here.

Here’s a roundup of early reviews

UPDATE: The movie debuted with one cut in January in China, followed by another for the Berlin Film Festival in February. It should be noted that the reviews below reflect the cut seen in Berlin. At the Academy screening I saw the more recent cut, completed by Wong in July. The changes, according to one source, are Wong’s: he listened to critics, financier Megan Ellison, distributor Harvey Weinstein and others. For the final cut, Wong retains the same structure but while adding new elements, the running time is shorter. The next set of reviews before the opening will reflect the new edit. 

Variety (review from Berlin):

Venturing into fresh creative terrain without relinquishing
his familiar themes and stylistic flourishes, Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai
exceeds expectations with “The Grandmaster,” fashioning a 1930s action saga
into a refined piece of commercial filmmaking. Boasting one of the most
propulsive yet ethereal realizations of authentic martial arts onscreen, as
well as a merging of physicality and philosophy not attained in Chinese cinema
since King Hu’s masterpieces, the hotly anticipated pic is sure to win new
converts from the genre camp. Wong’s Eurocentric arthouse disciples, however,
may not be completely in tune with the film’s more traditional storytelling and
occasionally long-winded technical exposition.

Hollywood Reporter (review from Berlin):

The Grandmaster, which will open the Berlin International
Film Festival on Feb. 7, is an action-packed spectacle for sure — indeed, the
film contains some of the most dazzling fights ever seen onscreen, courtesy of
the action choreography of Yuen Woo-ping (of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger,
Hidden Dragon fame) — but the Hong Kong auteur is seemingly more preoccupied
with the introspective verbal exchanges between his battle-hardened warriors.

Indiewire (review from Berlin):

In the years leading up to its completion, the prospects of
a kung fu movie directed by Chinese art house auteur Wong Kar Wai have
fascinated those familiar with his distinct blend of lush images and poetic
encounters simply because “The Grandmaster” sounded so unlike him.
However, the finished product remains satisfyingly in tune with the
contemplative nature of the director’s other work, only breaking his
trance-like approach to drama for the occasional showcasing of martial arts

TOH! (review from Berlin):

Despite a structure that confuses at times, a subplot that
adds little beyond a scintillating fight, and a running time (130 mins) that
could be trimmed, it’s a combination hard to beat commercially, which is no
doubt why the film has already proved so successful in China, and why Harvey
Weinstein is willing to make business again with Wong’s executive producer
Megan Ellison, with whom Weinstein has had issues.

Film.com (from Berlin):

A lush visual epic based loosely on the life of Ip Man, the
legendary martial artist who trained Bruce Lee, “The Grandmaster” – like all of
Wong’s movies – is meticulously made and extraordinary to look at. Leung makes
his entrance fending off a slew of challengers with his bare hands, during a
downpour no less. As he swirls, kicks and jabs amid the raindrops, the Panama
hat he’s wearing turns damp and soft, yet it still looks great, a bit of
Hollywood glamour that can’t be destroyed even when left to the elements. Leung
and his cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd capture it all with the utmost care,
and if it had been possible to choreograph the movements of individual
raindrops, they would have.

But the self-serious precision of “The Grandmaster” may also
be its greatest enemy. This is a story told in shards; Wong is so obsessed with
visual details – faces refracted as if in a broken mirror, or fragile arcs of
blood being traced out on the pavement by the feet of two feuding kung fu
masters – that the story he’s trying to tell is partly obscured by them.

The House Next Door (from Karlovy Vary):

[The film] gives us compositions filled with slowly,
sensually unraveling smoke; fight sequences that are breathtaking in the
rhythmic precision of their shot construction and sound design; many shots of
feet (because, as Ip Man explains, it’s important to remain standing in martial
arts, whether you’re vertical or horizontal); tableaux so carefully textured
and colored that the eyes go mad trying to register it all; and, of course,
much slow motion.

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