More than a decade in the making, ‘The Grandmaster’ has been heralded by its supporters for even longer than ‘Episode VII’ has by its acolytes. First announced back in 2002 by its director Wong Kar-wai and star Tony Leung, the film tells the story of Ip Man, the legendary martial artist who – amongst many other things – served as mentor to Bruce Lee.
12 years on from that initial announcement and some 23 months after it opened in China, ‘The Grandmaster’ finally arrives in UK cinemas to find itself having been beaten to the (one-inch) punch by not one but several high-profile Ip Man pictures (including the cunningly titled ‘Ip Man’ and equally cunningly titled ‘Ip Man 2’). Not that Wong is an auteur ever likely to be rushed by something as trivial as a rival project or four. This, after all, is the sunglasses-sporting maestro behind ‘In the Mood for Love’ and ‘Chungking Express’, regarded by plenty as a grandmaster in his own right for his virtuoso skill in creating extraordinary images and conveying emotions of universal power through his films.
Wong apparently had the idea for ‘The Grandmaster’ back in the late ‘90s, before submerging himself in an ocean of research. He selected his leading man and leading lady (Zhang Zihi, who like Leung has past form with the director) and duly set them to work building up their own martial arts skills – a process which took several years. Which rather begs the question: aside from the Bruce Lee connection, who was this Ip Man geezer and what makes him worthy of so much effort?
To try and answer that conundrum, let’s take it back to the beginning, which as far as ‘The Grandmaster’ is concerned is 1936 post-dynastic China. This is where we meet Ip Man, already 40 years old, married, and – thanks to the security provided by familial wealth – living a life devoted almost exclusively to his chosen martial art, Wing Chun. He finds himself pushed into the spotlight by the retirement of Gong Yutian (Qingxiang Wang), a grandmaster from the north of the country, revered for his signature ‘64 hands’ technique.
Matched against Gong in an exhibition contest, Ip Man is not only gifted the opportunity to demonstrate his sublime skill with the whole of China’s martial arts world watching intently, he also makes the acquaintance of the old master’s beautiful daughter and heir to his fighting legacy, Gong Er (played by ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ star Zhang). Around this juncture, history intervenes, with the Japanese army following its occupation of northeast China with an invasion of the south.
Faced with the unenviable choice between becoming a collaborator and abandoning all he possesses, Ip Man elects to swallow the second of those two turds. He duly washes up in Hong Kong, where he is forced to use his expertise in Wing Chun to pay his way. But while he might have left his old life behind, several faces from his past remain on the scene, including Gong Er and her father’s devilish disciple and named successor, Ma San (Jin Zhang).
One thing that needs to be made clear is that the cut of ‘The Grandmaster’ we are receiving in the UK is not the one released in China. That version ran for 130 minutes. This one clocks in some 22 minutes shorter. And yes, you guessed right – it IS indeed being distributed by the Weinstein Company. A case of Harvey Scissorhands strikes again?
Well, not this time; the truncated version we’re getting was put together by Wong Kar-wai himself, with apparent input from executive producer and Annapurna Pictures mogul Megan Ellison – who can’t have been far out of her Britney vs. Christina phase when the director and Leung held that press conference to originally announce the project, so alarmingly youthful must she have been at the time. For the record, Wong’s stars say they support the decision to deliver an edit for Western audiences which is ‘easier’ and ‘clearer to follow’.
Clearer to follow? Hmm… ‘The Grandmaster’ (or this cut of it at least) is a curious beast in terms of its storytelling, feeling sluggish at times, ridiculously circumspect at others. Intertitles feature as prominently throughout the film as hordes of shambling cadavers do in a George A. Romero flick. This is presumably in an effort to help the audience make sense of the narrative chasms created by the excisions, but they also allude to a bigger picture which, frustratingly, is being denied us.
The movie is, in many places, as visually sumptuous as you’d expect from something which weds Wong’s craft to a rich historical setting, albeit without being exclusively a thing of beauty. So while the stylised train station confrontation between Ma San and Gong Er fulsomely delivers on the loftiest of aesthetic expectations, there are plenty of shots elsewhere in the film which are distracting and downright annoying.
The problem appears to be certain images captured at a regular frame-rate before being converted to slow motion in post-production, making them jerk like a teenage boy who’s got his greasy mitts on a jazz mag. This malodorous effect is such an obvious affront to the eyes I found it hard to believe it wasn’t simply a playback issue with the print I was watching. However, looking online, it appears plenty of others have noted precisely the same, entirely perplexing issue.
Mind you, if the visuals are an occasional disappointment, the martial arts action is anything but. What’s really neat is how Wong and action choreographer Yuen woo-ping (‘The Matrix’, ‘Kill Bill’, ‘Crouching Tiger’) delve into the different disciplines, as opposed to just having one load of dudes slam into another load of dudes (though there is a little bit of that too). There are lots of loving shots of feet sliding and hands gliding, offering a real emphasis on the expertise and elegance of each practitioner. This results in some fantastic scenes; the face-off between Ip Man and Gong Yutian, for example, is superbly staged whilst being simultaneously original and surprising.
Yet, for all the fine qualities it displays, ‘The Grandmaster’ can’t help but trigger more than a few slivers of disappointment. The fact that most of the marketing touts the amount of effort which has gone into its production ahead of the merits of the movie itself speaks volumes. The level of toil being trumpeted is on so Olympian a scale you begin to worry that some chop-socky guru somewhere is going to fall down dead if you dare suggest Wong’s film is anything less than the most magnificent achievement in the history of martial arts cinema.
And, to come over all Columbo for a minute, there’s one more thing: just think of ‘Chungking Express’ or ‘Fallen Angels’ or whichever your own favourite Wong Kar-wai movie is (anyone picturing ‘My Blueberry Nights’ right now? Anyone at all?). The whole reason we all went gaga for him in the first place was because his films felt unique and original, with characters that – for all their quirks – were drawn from real life, not a screenwriting handbook.
‘The Grandmaster’, in contrast, feels far more of an orthodox affair and, for all its flying-fist action, far safer.
The Grandmaster is out now in the UK