Wong Kar-Wai’s gorgeous martial-arts biopic jumps from event to event like a very long “Previously on ‘Homeland’…”
You have to hand it to Harvey Weinstein: The mogul who once got the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman to provide a blurb hailing the wafer-thin “Chocolat” as a moving treatise on discrimination has now convinced master Chinese filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai to write — or at least sign — an online op-ed in which the director gushes about the wonderful opportunity of creating a shorter edit of “The Grandmaster” for U.S. audiences.
Lest anyone try to pin the blame on “Harvey Scissorhands,” Wong’s editorial claims that the 108-minute version we’re getting Stateside (as opposed to the 130-minute cut that unspooled in China) actually “clarif[ies] the complex historical context of this particular era in Chinese history.”
By that logic, just imagine how clear all that context would be at 90 minutes, or 75.
I bring up all this backstage business because “The Grandmaster,” while being sweeping, gorgeous and exciting, also feels like a highlight reel of the life of kung fu legend Ip Man (played here by Tony Leung Chiu Wai), jumping from year to year and turning the film’s narrative sweep into “Previously on ‘Homeland.’”
Still, a butchered Wong Kar-Wai movie is better than most filmmakers’ purest work, so even if the plot occasionally zips by at too quick a clip, “The Grandmaster” is a lush, albeit rushed, meal that’s worth consuming on the big screen.
Ip Man, perhaps best known in the United States as the man who taught kung fu to Bruce Lee, is a national hero in China, and Wong shows us why: A master of the Wing Chun technique, Ip Man helped to unite the Northern and Southern Chinese schools of martial arts.
Over the course of the film, we see Ip Man lose his family fortune, endure the Japanese invasion of the 1930s, battle any number of would-be challengers and fall passionately, albeit platonically, in love with Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), who has inherited her father’s deadly “64 Hands” technique.
Every time we might get swept up in the action, the romance, the setting (kung fu brothels!), up pops another inter-title to tell us that years have passed and now some other big life event is about to unfold for Ip Man. If you’ve fallen under Wong Kar-Wai’s spell in his finest films, you’ll be disappointed that this ride is so bumpy.
While Wong is best known for dreamy, atmospheric and passionate love stories like “In the Mood for Love” and “Chungking Express,” he previously explored the world of martial arts in 1994’s “Ashes of Time.” The director’s exquisite visual sense makes “The Grandmaster” one of the most spectacular-looking films of its kind.
So many images from the film have stayed with me, whether it’s Leung besting dozens of fighters in the pouring rain, or a shot of a fur-clad Zhang battling at night, her costume and the darkness framing her face in the center of the screen.
Leung and Zhang, whom Wong previously paired in “2046,” do tortured, romantic longing like almost no one else in contemporary film; pining is something movie stars used to do a lot of in American movies, but there doesn’t seem to be much call for it lately. We know these characters can never be together (he’s married, she made a vow of celibacy in the pursuit of avenging her father’s death), but their ache is something to behold.
“Ashes of Time” did eventually give way to a director’s cut, “Ashes of Time Redux” — which was, admittedly, shorter than the previous version — so we may not have seen the last of “The Grandmaster.” For now, even just this truncated experience of Wong’s full vision merits a look.