Early Review Roundup: Wong Kar-wai’s ‘The Grandmaster’ Strikes a Balance Between Haunting Style and True Kung Fu

Early Review Roundup: Wong Kar-wai's 'The Grandmaster' Strikes a Balance Between Haunting Style and True Kung Fu
Early Review Roundup: Wong Kar-wai's 'The Grandmaster' Strikes Balance Between Haunting Style and True Kung Fu

Two early reviews for Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai’s highly anticipated and long-gestating “The Grandmaster” have hit the web, both praising the film’s deft balance between being a “beautiful” kung fu genre movie and a stylish exploration of many of the director’s career-long themes. Complaints include that the film has been cut drastically from its intended length, and that actor Chang Chen is given too little screen time, while muse Tony Leung “lacks his usual intensity.” Highlights below, updates to be added as more reviews come in.

“The Grandmaster” will have its European premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.


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.

Leung, the helmer’s frequent muse, lacks his usual intensity here: His Ip Man reveals few distinct characteristics in the early scenes except humility, and shows little emotional variation even as he falls on hard times. Even less satisfyingly handled is the peripheral character of Razor (Chang Chen), a violent and enigmatic drifter whose purpose in the story is so underexplained that he could easily have been excised, despite figuring into one fabulously shot and fought action scene.


There is clearly a much longer film here. Reports abound that until very recently, Wong had a four-hour cut of the film, while the version that goes on general release in Hong Kong and China this week clocks in at about 130 minutes…

Many of the recurring themes that Wong allows to permeate his work resurface in The Grandmaster. Characters have fleeting encounters that are never built upon, but which continue to haunt them for years afterwards. Time proves once again to be everyone’s greatest enemy, not only causing people to grow old, but also to forget the things they held most dear – and in this film particularly, the idea that age makes them weak, and less able to defend themselves plagues them relentlessly. Because, of course, for all its melancholy musing and forlorn contemplation, this is a film about martial artists and The Grandmaster is one hell of a beautiful kung fu movie.

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