And now for something slightly different….
Exquisitely crafted, as visually stunning as you’d imagine and virtuosic in its meticulously gorgeous fight choreography (which acts as a kind of throwdown to comers like the Wachowski siblings), acclaimed Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster” is nevertheless still an uneven and unbalanced affair that doesn’t track and cannot negotiate its various aims. Ostensibly a chronicle of the the story and struggles of Ip Man (played by longtime WKW collaborator Tony Leung), the seminal Chinese martial artist who famously taught Bruce Lee, “The Grandmaster” is both his story, and a type of martial arts history lesson concerning Ip’s self-defense-based discipline Wing Chun. But this being a Wong Kar-wai film, a moody, familiar unrequited love story with the daughter of a rival Grandmaster, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), also materializes to only minimally convincing (and emotional) effect. But none of these three stories add up to much of an engaging experience, outside of relishing the action sequences and admiring the elegance of the aesthetic drapes as it were.
As a story about Ip Man, the movie falters as it fails to illuminate anything profound or meaningful about the elusive, mysterious Wing Chun master. As a historical drama, the movie is upended by not only the tumult of Japan’s occupation of China, but the romantic detour the film takes when it hits Hong Kong. And the mini “In The Mood For Love” section of the film just doesn’t gel with what came before, and arguably, the POV of the movie shifts too far in the direction of Ip Man’s rival Gong Er, causing the film to lose further focus. Languidly paced, the film’s slow-burn discursiveness will not endear itself to those audiences already puzzled by its thematic muddiness and the way the picture mostly eschews the fundamentals of the basic three-act narrative.
“For Wong, emotion, and not necessarily story, is the content,” we wrote earlier in our retrospective of the auteur’s films, but like the weaker “My Blueberry Nights,” Wong Kar-wai’s latest gives ample ammo to the detractors positing the style-over-content argument, as the emotional content is simply not strong enough or evenly enough delivered. That said, Ziyi is heartbreakingly good in her segment about reclaiming her family’s honor and Leung remains a compelling elusive figure, even when his character is underdeveloped.
Bones should be picked with The Weinstein Company for trying to give “The Grandmaster” a second life (though we suppose it’s hard to fault them for trying). Given adequate, but not exactly glowing reviews in Berlin, the always-crafty company has touted a “new cut” of the film that is 10 minutes shorter. But in closely examining reviews (not to mention having play by play discussions with the writer who was there in Berlin), very little seems to have changed. One tangent with the assassin The Razor Yixiantian (Chen Chang) has been mostly excised in order to stay on track, but the nuts and bolts of everything else remain intact (though to be fair, TWC has mercifully sent about 1/10th of the promotional emails compared to the “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” bombardment so there is that).
We’ve already reviewed the film in Berlin and after carefully comparing notes, prattling on feels like enjoying the sound of my own voice. So, in the interest of time and space, if you need more, I invite you to read Jessica Kiang’s spot-on review from Berlin that articulates many of the same problems with the film. Admittedly, the movie she saw sounds a little murkier than this one and I have no complaints with the fight scenes—though I can understand how fetishizing of raindrops and whippy extreme close-ups can feel annoying—but everything else seems virtually the same. “The Grandmaster” isn’t quite a folly and is certainly a stronger work than the unfortunate “My Blueberry Nights,” but it isn’t quite the return to form in style, content and substance that we had hoped for either. [B-]