THE Screened Review by
With an over abundance of information for the audience to consumer the American Cut of The Grandmaster transforms Wong Kar Wai's visually rich film featuring the mythic Ip Man into just another Ip Man movie. Stunting and shunning the more philosphical ideas expressed, ones that would force Harvey Weinstein to trat his audience with a bit of respect.
A common tool used when critiquing art is to compare the subject to something close to it. That’s how genre classification works. This idea becomes even sticker when comparing different cuts (or versions) of a given film. With a couple of changes you can turn anything into something else. Just look at how many different versions of Blade Runner are out there. So when viewing the recently released Grandmaster distributed by the Weinstein Company with their own “American Cut”; I compare this American Cut with the original Chinese Cut which is available on region free blu ray.
To be blunt, this American version is a bastardized and stunted vision of Wong Kar Wai’s film. The 22 minutes and sequencing of events not seen in the American cut turn The Grandmaster into just another Ip Man movie. Is it more palatable and understandable? Yes, but it is just another movie with some hints of style. This version of The Grandmaster is generic in the worst ways possible. Shown as just another biopic of the Ip Man with vague allusions to tradition, the passage of time, and connection. All of which are staples of Wong Kar Wai’s filmography. These staples go underdeveloped and left me as a consumer of Kar Wai’s work wanting more.
The Grandmaster follows about 20 years of the Ip Man’s life,played by Kar Wai regular Tony Leung. As the Wing Chun master becomes caught up in the second Sino-Japan war and other cultural events. Eventually losing his family and moving to Hong Kong. Where he would eventually train the legendary Bruce Lee. Surrounding him in these events are a dozen or so other master practitioners of Kung Fu schools. All of whom deal with how to properly modernize and pass on ancient traditions in turbulent times. But like I said such philosophical waxing goes underdeveloped and only show brief hints.
The Hong Kong portion of Grandmaster is perhaps it’s most interesting. A central setting in most of Wong Kar Wai’s films he finally shows off an older version of the city. One still under British control but no less cautious about the future and who will be in charge. It becomes a refuge for old masters as they flee the mainland. Formerly dignified members of society become waiters or barbers but never forget how things used to be. As an old Tachi master explains to Ip in a bar, he could offer a cigarette to any man and even if the man did not smoke he would still take it. That man knew it would be insulting to refuse. These social mores are lost in Hong Kong.
The biggest change from American to Chinese is the inclusion of title cards to just about everything. The opening title card setting up the early 1930’s setting and explanation for how Kung Fu is divided between North and South in China is most effective. It adds the right amount of context to the audience and begins to build some of the themes seen in the film. After that the title cards get worse.
Giving too much information and allow for portions of the film to be to easily cut out, like the death of his family for one, or pigeon hole the film down a distinct path. The American cut makes everything very Ip Man centric and viewed simply as a biopic. Without this information The Grandmaster becomes something more (an entire half of a sub plot is left out) that can be argued and poked at. Can’t really poke at a biopic.
Most of this information isn’t even useful or all the necessary for the story to function. Proper dissemination of information is key to telling a good story, The Grandmaster gives to the point of uselessness. It’s all redundant. The fact these nuggets are told to us and not shown lessen the impact. Nuggets that would have been key emotional moments become footnotes. Harvey Weinstein treats the audience like children. As if they can’t pay attention or recognize a face. Major masters and other recurring characters were often outed via a title card before someone says something that signifies who they are and what school they come from moments later. A redundancy shown early on with a card proclaiming “The Golden Palace” right before Ip Man goes on to explain this brothel and calls it “The Golden Palace”. Cutting these cards would have allowed better flow.
Unnecessary redundancy takes away from some of the deeper more mythic shorthand the viewer would come up with. Northern Grandmaster Gong Yutian is visually foreshadowed by cutting to his entrance just as Ip mentions finding old masters. Five minutes earlier in the American cut he was shown with a title card giving away his identity. Other smaller characters who get title cards are just that small characters that are not significant. Which makes one wonder why they needed a title card in the first place since they explain their school and style to Ip as he climbs The Golden Palace early in the film.
Film is a visual medium “show don’t tell” is a constant phrase, making voice over an irksome narrative tool. It is the reason the recent Great Gatsby was so insufferable. The Grandmaster has many voice over monologues by the Ip Man. Unlike Gatsby these are not there to set up scenes or foreshadow a characters true intents ie. just tell us exposition (they already have title cards for that). Grandmaster uses monologues to become philosophical for a moment as a montage of images come into the viewers eyes and help contextualize them. It gave these moments a universality which reinforce those underdeveloped themes that seem to be just a little below the level.
An over reliance on title cards and different sequencing of events aside this is still a movie directed by Wong Kar Wai with fight choreography by Yuen Woo-ping (The Matrix and all the kung fu films The Matrix apes). It’s really hard not to make these fights visually interesting. Kar Wai’s cutting to abstract objects or bits of clothing and close ups of fist meeting body tell the story of the fight and combatants better than any title card. The action becomes even more stylish when the frames per second begin to very. For these reasons alone i’d recommend seeing this on the big screen and not on your likely adequate HDTV. The theater experience is almost worth a narratively stunted film.
Viewing The Grandmaster is a funny thing. There are now three separate cus of the film to consider. With always the possibility of more, a four hour work print exists. Wong Kar Wai recut his first wuxia film Ashes of Time in 2008 birthing Ashes of Time Redux which is now considered the definitive version. Editing of film is an underrated power. And even if Wong Kar Wai tackled or supervised a sub 2 hour cut of this film or Harvey Weinstein did it himself it doesn't really matter. The Grandmaster American Cut currently in theaters is emotionally and filmically inferior to the Chinese Cut.