Sunday, September 08, 2013

The Grandmaster (2013 film)

Note: This Review is Based on the Original 130-minute full-length Chinese Cut of the Film.

Directed by Wong Kar-Wai and screenplay by Kar-Wai, Zou Jingzhi, and Xu Haofeng from a story by Kar-Wai, The Grandmaster is the story about the life of Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man who was famous for teaching kung fu where one of his greatest students was Bruce Lee. The film tells the story of Ip Man’s life from the 1930s to his time in Hong Kong following the Second Sino-Japanese War as he is played by longtime Kar-Wai regular Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. Also starring Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Zhang Jin, Song Hye-kyo, and Wang Qingxiang. The Grandmaster is a majestic yet exhilarating film from Wong Kar-Wai.

The film is essentially about the life of Ip Man in the course of thirty years of his life where he starts off as this revered master in the small town of Foshan who was considered the best martial arts master in the South of China to being a man who would popularize kung fu after the Chinese Civil War where he moved to Hong Kong for the rest of his life. During his journey, Ip would encounter many things that would shape his life where he successfully defeated the revered Northern grandmaster Gong Yutan (Wang Qingxiang) in a game of wits only to later be challenged by his daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) where they both had a mutual sense of respect towards each other. Yet, war would eventually emerge when the Japanese take over China where Yutan’s successor Ma San (Zhang Jin) would join the Japanese only to lose his own path as he, Ip Man, and Gong Er would all feel lost in changing times as they’re in Hong Kong.

The film’s screenplay isn’t a traditional bio-pic though it does have a unique structure that does tell the story. The first act is about Ip Man’s reputation as a master and how he proved himself to be worthy of being Gong Yutan’s successor for the South as well as Ip Man’s complex relationship with Gong Er where they would correspond through letters after their battle. The second act is about the Second Sino-Japanese War in the 1930s in which Ip Man’s family life is ruined as he is forced to live in poverty while Gong Er tries to challenge Ma San over his actions in the hopes to defend the honor of her late father. The third act is about all three individuals in early 1950s Hong Kong though only Gong Er and Ip Man would contact each other during this period where Ma San finds himself lost and having to deal with a master known as the Razor (Chang Chen).

Much of the film’s narrative is quite straightforward as it includes some voice-over narration from Ip Man as some of it is told from his perspective. Yet, the second act is more about Gong Er’s conflict with Ma San who would collaborate with the Japanese during the Second Sino-Japanese War where a confrontation would eventually occur. Yet, that confrontation would be unveiled in the film’s third act in a flashback scene that would have some serious repercussions into the fates that they would live in the years to come. The third act is very melancholic in not just what happen to both Ma San and Gong Er but also the loneliness that Ip Man would deal with as he is someone who is still able to pass on his knowledge to the world as he spends that portion in the film trying to find himself again.

The direction of Wong Kar-Wai is very stylish which is really nothing new to say since Kar-Wai is always a filmmaker who is known for style over substance. Still, what he presents is definitely just entrancing to look at from the fight scenes to the exotic imagery that Kar-Wai creates in the drama. With the help of action choreographer Woo-ping Yuen, Kar-Wai’s approach to action isn’t about the energy but rather the way the movements feel and how there’s a certain dance to these confrontations. Some of which are quite lavish from fights in the rain to others that are just intense as there’s a lot of stakes that get involved. All of which is important to the story as well as what these characters are fighting for.

Kar-Wai would balance the film with some drama as well as a bit of romantic tension between Ip and Gong Er as they respect each other but there’s also something about them that has them wanting each other. Yet, Ip has his family and Gong Er knows that as she would devote her life to reclaim her family’s honor but she would eventually pay the price for her actions. Many of the compositions that Kar-Wai would create would have this very lingering gaze to not just the way he creates pictures but also play into changing times as it’s seen from Ip’s perspective as he realizes what he has to do. Overall, Wong Kar-Wai creates a very mesmerizing yet thrilling film about Ip Man and his legacy that would bring kung fu into the world.

Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd does fantastic work with the film‘s cinematography from the use of low-key, sepia-drenched lights for some of the film‘s nighttime scenes and interiors to the use of colors in the scenes set in the snow to play up the sense of moodiness in the film. The work of editor/Production-costume designer William Chang, along with co-art directors Tony Au and Alfred Yau, is brilliant where Chang creates that element of style in the editing to play up some of the emotion and action that is quite prevalent in his work while his set/costume design is just amazing to watch in the way it plays to the look of the times.

Visual effects supervisor Isabelle Perin-Leduc does superb work with some of the film‘s visual effects such as a few backdrops for the fight scenes as well as some of the slow-motion elements that occur in the fights. Sound editor Robert Mackenzie does excellent work with the sound to create an atmosphere in some of the dramatic moments while using some nice sound effects for the fights including the sound of punches and kicks. The film’s music consists of pieces by Frankie Chan, Stefano Letini, Traithep Wongpaiboon, Nathaniel Mechaly and Shigeru Umebayashi that plays into many of the film’s different tones from some bombastic orchestral pieces to some somber yet serene moments involving the string arrangements as its soundtrack, that includes some Chinese opera and pop songs of the times, is truly incredible to listen to.

The film’s cast is marvelous for the ensemble that is used as it features some notable small appearances from action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping as Ip Man’s master Chan Wah-shun, Song Hye-kyo as Ip Man’s wife, Lo Hoi-ping as Ip Man’s uncle Deng, and Chang Chen as a master named the Razor who would run a small crime organization in Hong Kong. Shang Tielong is terrific as Gong Yutian’s longtime right-hand man Jiang who would later become Gong Er’s protector as he would also befriend Ip Man. Wang Qingxiang is superb as Gong Yutian as an old grandmaster who tries to find his successor but tries to deal with changing times and Ma San’s affiliation with the Japanese. Zhang Jin is excellent as Ma San who would become a successor of Gong Yutian only to use his skill to advance himself in power where he is forced to deal with his choices.

Zhang Ziyi is remarkable as Gong Er as a woman who has these expectations to be like every other woman yet she is someone who wants to honor her father and the family legacy as she strikes a friendship with Ip Man while dealing with the consequences of her actions in the third act. Finally, there’s Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is phenomenal as Ip Man where Leung brings a restraint to his performance where he is quite stoic in his performance whether it’s in drama or in action. Leung also proves to be a badass but in a very low-key way as it’s definitely one of his finest performances of his career.

***The Following is an Overview of the 108-Minute American Cut of the Film***

The American cut of the film is quite different from the original 130-minute Chinese cut where Wong Kar-Wai and his editor William Chang created a cut under the order of Harvey Weinstein who is distributing the film to American audiences. The resulting factor isn’t a very good one and more indication that Weinstein needs to be kept out of the editing room.

There aren’t a lot of additions made to this cut as includes a brief meeting between Ip Man and Razor in Hong Kong where it’s about respect as well as a flashback scene of Gong Er reflecting on her happiest moments that includes a moment where she was a child looking at her father’s work. These are moments that do add a nice touch to the story as well as showcase more dimensions to the lead characters. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help the result of the shortened version that Kar-Wai had to present because the narrative isn’t just more disjointed but also loses a lot of its emotional impact and motivations.

Some of the material that is cut involves bits of dialogue as well as some moments about Ip Man’s family and some scenes relating to the Second Sino-Japanese War in the late 1930s. They there’s some added text exposition that is laid out on screen, it ends up being unnecessary as it tends to explain too much. Even as the original cut does have some text to fill in parts of the story but doesn’t reveal too much including any mention of Ip Man’s greatest student in Bruce Lee. In the American cut, it does mention Bruce Lee which wasn’t really necessary as the Chinese cut only implied Lee’s presence in the story. Among the things that is cut out in the American version is Ip Man’s relationship with Gong Er as a lot of it taken out for much of its second act. Even as Gong Er’s story in the second act about getting her revenge on Ma San is moved to the third act in a flashback sequence just after she meets Ip Man in Hong Kong.

In moving Gong Er’s story of her vengeance to the third act really doesn’t do much to what Kar-Wai wanted to tell originally as the third act in the Chinese cut is more about Gong Er’s own journey to get vengeance and the vows that she takes. By moving it to the third act, it doesn’t carry the same emotional impact and melancholia that Kar-Wai wanted as the sequence of Gong Er’s journey for vengeance goes immediately to her confrontation with Ma San in the train. It’s that element of the editing that really loses a lot of the film’s emotional punches as it adds to the messiness of the narrative.

In turn, the American cut of the film is only worth seeing for anyone that wants to see a Wong Kar-Wai film in the big screen. Yet, they will have a hard time dealing with the narrative as well as not grasp into some of the melancholia and emotional elements that Kar-Wai wanted in his original cut.

***End of American Cut Overview***

The Grandmaster is a sensational film from Wong Kar-Wai that features brilliant performances from Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Zhang Ziyi. The film is definitely one of Kar-Wai’s more stylish films but also an engaging one for the way it tells the story of Ip Man. It’s a film that has something for fans of martial arts films but also has something for audiences that love drama as Kar-Wai manages to put both genres into one captivating story without making it uneven. In the end, The Grandmaster is a remarkable film from Wong Kar-Wai.

Wong Kar-Wai Films: As Tears Go By - Days of Being Wild - Chungking Express - Ashes of Time/Ashes of Time Redux - Fallen Angels - Happy Together - In the Mood for Love - 2046 - Eros-The Hand - My Blueberry Nights - The Auteur #28: Wong Kar-Wai

© thevoid99 2013


ruth said...

Hi Steven! I'm very intrigued by the story of IP Man since I saw the Donnie Yen version. I really like Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as an actor so I'm curious to see his take on this character. Can you believe it I haven't seen anything by Wong Kar-Wai?? It's nuts as I'm part Chinese, ahah.

– ruth

thevoid99 said...

You haven't seen anything by Wong Kar-Wai?

OK, get the Criterion DVDs of Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love right now. Then see Happy Together and 2046 and then go for the rest of his work as there's still a few more films of his for me to see as he will be my Auteurs profile in December.

Julian said...

I went out of my way to see the original cut...and my excitement soon turned into disappointment. I wasn't able to get at all invested in Ip Man, and while Gong Er showed a bit more character it just left me wanting to know more about her. Also despite it being slow paced it seemed to fall into the biopic trap of rushing through important events,which due to my lack of investment had basically no impact on me.

Honestly, as a film i feel the Donnie yen version is better. Its definitely not as flashy,but i found the script a lot better

thevoid99 said...

@Julian-I haven't seen Donnie Yen's film version though I'm sure it's more of a by-the-books approach to Ip Man's story while I still enjoyed this film because it was different from what is expected in the genre. Whatever you do, don't go see the U.S. cut of the film.

Anonymous said...

Looks like I missed the whole point, or I should say that Harvey 'get me more Oscars' Weinstein did, because his butchered cut sucked ass.

I'll have to see if I can get my hands on the directors cut.

thevoid99 said...

@Fisti-This is why I'm always skeptical of any foreign film that's distributed by Harvey Weinstein because he's notorious for altering and re-cutting them because he really thinks American audiences are idiots. Why do you think it's taken such a long time for Bong Joo-Ho's Snowpiercer to get it released in its intended version to American audiences?