Having been pummelled with production problems and suffered through a lengthy state of development hell, The Grandmaster has probably battled past as many obstacles as its eponymous martial arts master on its journey to the screen. Despite having fought so valiantly though, the overwhelming power of Harvey Weinstein’s editing scissors was one fight too many for director Wong Kar Wai’s labour of love.
Cut from a considerable 130 minute running time to a more meagre 108 minutes, the film we are left with is a compressed epic that’s frustratingly fragmented. The story is drawn from the life of Ip Man (Tony Leung), the legendary Wing Chun grandmaster who is chiefly remembered as the man who trained Bruce Lee. Starting in Southern China, where he’s forced to fight against a young girl named Gong (Zhang Ziyi) who’s desperate to defend her family’s honour, Man soon finds himself at the mercy of the Second Sino-Japanese War and struggling to provide for his family having moved to Hong Kong.
Despite Wai insisting that this slimmed down version in no way detracts from the film’s overall effect, many have been most vocal in declaring Weinstein’s cut to be inferior to the original. And given how disappointingly disjointed the narrative comes across as being one would be inclined to agree.
Certain scenes appear to have been shamefully glossed over, with brief explanatory text cards used to plug the gaps and propel the plot forward. There’s simply no fluency or depth to be found here. The emotionally articulated performances of Leung and Ziyi, him cool and commanding and her strong and striking, are impressive, but are never afforded enough opportunity to intimately connect with the audience.
What holds The Grandmaster together in its slim line form is Wong Kar Wai, whose inspired direction is as exciting to experience now as it ever was. Visually, this is a magnetic masterpiece. Wai’s highly stylized compositions are rich in texture and ripe with atmosphere, augmenting perfectly with Shigeru Umebayashi and Nathaniel Méchaly’s powerful and poignant score. As with his greatest works, namely Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love, colour plays a key role in reflecting mood, particularly during the second half where piercing greens and cold blues are used to echo the tragedy and turmoil of Gong and Ip’s lives.
The fight scenes meanwhile, allow the auteur to experimentally draw from different fountains of creativity in order to craft one hypnotic whole. Wai himself has cited Bruce Lee as an inspiration, and there is certainly intensity akin to that of Enter the Dragon to be found in some of the later set pieces. But a more salient source of influence is the Wuxia genre. Taking his cue from the likes of Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Wai delivers gravity-defying spectacle and astonishing fluidity of motion that simply takes your breath away. He immerses you within the combat, allowing Philippe Le Sourd’s camera to skilfully glide around the participants with a perpetual sense of awe.
Indeed, Wai’s wondrous direction is almost enough to distract from the film’s deficiencies. But sadly, having been apparently butchered in the editing suite, the great film that you can see within The Grandmaster never manages to break free.
The Grandmaster is out on DVD on 30 March.