Many critics agree that the version of “The Grandmaster” that Hong Kong didn’t submit for this year’s Oscar race is better than the one it did.
Technically, Hong Kong was within its rights to submit a version of Wong Kar-wai’s film for Best Foreign Language film that was recut and refashioned specifically for the U.S. market.
But the submission of the 108-minute U.S. edit gives the sense that the country is taking the safe route here — and it briefly raised a red flag within the Academy, whose rules specify that a film submitted in the category “must be identical in form with the final version in general release in the country submitting the motion picture.”
“The Grandmaster” was released in Hong Kong and China in a 130-minute version last January, a month before the Weinstein Co. bought the U.S. rights to the martial arts drama about kung fu master Ip Man, whose students included Bruce Lee.
Wong Kar-wai subsequently prepared a shorter, 122-minute cut for the Berlin Film Festival in February — but it wasn’t until TWC began planning a stateside release that he came up with the 108-minute version aimed specifically at the U.S. audience.
The American version of “The Grandmaster” has already played at the Academy, during a tribute to Wong Kar-wai in August. It will screen again for foreign-language voters on a double bill with the Croatian entry, “Halima’s Path,” on Oct. 27, the only Sunday screenings in the nine-and-a-half week period during which voters will see and judge all 76 foreign-language entries.
The new version is more linear, with explanatory text added for viewers less familiar with the story. And its submission caught the notice of the Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee, which knew that it wasn’t the version originally released in Hong Kong.
But according to chairman Mark Johnson, when the committee researched the Hong Kong release of “The Grandmaster,” it found that the 108-minute version did have a theatrical run of at least a week. It came out after the original version had played to big business, grossing more than $50 million in China and almost $3 million in Hong Kong.
The later release enabled the Weinstein-distributed cut to qualify as “the final version in general release in the country submitting the motion picture,” despite the fact that it was specifically made for an American audience.
But reviewers who’ve seen both versions, most of whom praise the U.S. cut, are almost unanimous in saying that it feels truncated and incomplete, and the original Chinese cut is a better film.
The headline to Alonso Duralde’s review at TheWrap called the film “sweeping, gorgeous, exciting – and butchered,” while a favorable New York Times review by Manohla Dargis concluded, “It’s too bad that the American distributor didn’t have enough faith in the audience to release the original.”
In a lengthy review that details all the differences between the two cuts, David Ehrlich at Film.com wrote, “While Wong is rather transparent about how the American cut is a concession to cultural ignorance rather than an artistic statement, he’s profoundly mistaken in thinking that such a concession was required in the first place, and may be too close to the material to recognize that the American cut is insanely reductive and, at the same time, also harder to understand than the original.”
Given that the whole point of the category is to recognize foreign films, and given that voters wouldn’t put in the work to see 20 or 30 or more contenders from around the world unless they were truly interested in other voices, it’s natural to wonder if the full-length, full-strength “Grandmaster” might not be more appropriate for an Academy system that has embraced films like “A Separation,” “Amour” and even “Dogtooth” in recent years.
Still, it’s not as if the U.S. “Grandmaster” is a studio cut prepared without the input of a director long known for tinkering with his films after release. Like it or not, it is clearly the result of artistic decisions made by the filmmaker, and perhaps prompted but not dictated by his distributor.
“The luxury of creating a new cut for U.S. audiences was the opportunity to reshape it into something different than what I began with,” wrote the director in the Huffington Post. “We always … wanted to have a U.S. version that was a bit tighter and that helped clarify the complex historical context of this particular era in Chinese history.”