Wai's 'The Grandmaster" paints portrait of Ip Man

Published on Thursday, 19 September 2013 22:24 - Written by By Stewart Smith ssmith@tylerpaper.com

Apparently I shouldn’t be giving the time of day to the version of “The Grandmaster” I saw in the theater.

As a cineaste, it seems I’m often “required” to put down one cut of a film over another if, say, it was shaved down by its North American distributor, and in the process a large chunk of the movie excised. This was the case with Wong Kar Wai’s latest film. Harvey Weinstein (eponymous leader of distribution house The Weinstein Company) decided that North American audiences wouldn’t be interested in the more sweeping international cut of the film, and so chopped a good 20 minutes or so, making it more action-focused.

Now, in principle, I’m mad when this happens. I’ll almost always prefer to watch a director’s intended cut of a film, especially when the alternative is to see a version intended to appeal to the broad masses. (Because a subtitled art film is just what “the masses” crave on a regular basis, but I digress.) The art and the artist — in a proper world — should always come before the business side of things.

And yet.

And yet I couldn’t help but be taken in and enveloped by the work that remains on display in this cut of the film. Should I still be angry at Harvey Weinstein? Maybe. But that’s for discussion and debate outside the film. What matters right now is if the version available now is worthwhile and enjoyable and still identifiable as the work of its director. And to that I say an emphatic “Yes.”

For those unfamiliar, Ip Man (played here with silent strength by Tony Leung) was a kung fu master of the Wing Chun style. Until he began teaching his style in Hong Kong, kung fu was rarely learned or taught outside of those fortunate enough to become a student due to their family heritage. Believing that kung fu should be for all to learn, Man’s legacy is that of helping to break down those barriers and make Wing Chun a style accessible to everyone.

If nothing else, “The Grandmaster” is full proof of just how interesting a figure Ip Man was. There have been many films about one of China’s most revered kung fu masters, but Wai’s manages to set itself apart, in large part due to his actors and the cinematic craftsmanship at the forefront.

Compared to, say, the pair of recent films starring Donnie Yen, Wai’s version feels much more restrained. Yen’s films were borderline propaganda with a major focus being on Ip Man taking on the Japanese army and becoming something of a national symbol. Wai’s film is more a portrait, taking a broader look at the man’s life and his journey as well as the philosophical underpinnings of kung fu.

Portrait truly feels like the operative word here as Wai’s filmmaking feels downright painterly. Philippe Le Sourd’s often dreamlike cinematography, the performances, Shigeru Umebayashi’s haunting score - Wai’s combines it all here in a way that (at the risk of sounding cliché) truly feels like brush strokes. There’s an ebb and flow to the film that’s enrapturing and magnetic. It’s one of the most beautiful martial arts films I’ve seen since “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

That said, I can’t deny that the film would indeed benefit from a longer cut. There are implications of an unrequited romance between Ip and Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), daughter of the North’s kung fu grandmaster Gong Yutian, who tests Ip to see if he is worthy of becoming the South’s first grandmaster. And there are also many points in Man’s life that the film only glances at before moving on.

But the fact of the matter is that this is still an engrossing, gorgeously constructed film as it is. There is undoubtedly a stronger focus on the action (all of which is marvelously choreographed and shot) than what the international cut has (an observation made purely on my own research online), but it remains a film that retains its philosophical and internalized nature. And even with much material cut, Wai makes the most of it. Take, for instance, the unrequited romance. Man and Gong Er share very little screentime together, and yet Wai (thanks to the marvelous performances by Zhang and Leung) is able to communicate so much of their internalized emotion with little more than a shared prolonged look during a fight scene. It’s remarkable in its efficiency.

And the action that is showcased feels more purposeful in its use than most any other martial arts films I’ve seen. When these men and women fight, they don’t just fight because they can, they fight because it’s who they are, as though their entire self is contained within their flying fists and feet. These aren’t just battles for physical supremacy, Wai frames them as battles for identity.

I very much look forward to seeing the full cut of “The Grandmaster,” but until then I’m satisfied just seeing this as many times as I can in the theater. This is a gorgeous film that days after I have seen it still lingers in my mind’s eye. It is easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

Grade: A+