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Film Review: The Grandmaster

Wong’s lack of interest in traditional movie action smacks you in the face.

Photo: The Weinstein Company, License: N/A

The Weinstein Company

The Grandmaster

The Grandmaster

Directed by Wong Kar-wai

Opens Aug. 30

AKA I’m in the Mood for an Ass-Kicking. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong’s master of neo-Nouvelle Vague romance, spent nearly a decade on this unlikely passion project: an epic biopic of kung-fu icon Ip Man. The result is both a most unusual Wong film and a most unusual kung fu film, and not entirely successful on either score.

The Grandmaster opens with a classic kung fu trope: the master (Hong Kong screen grandmaster Tony Leung) schooling a passel of fighters from a rival school—in a lashing rain, no less. But right away, Wong’s lack of interest in traditional movie action smacks you in the face. Even with cool gags like a carriage kicked to flinders, Wong’s lens is much more likely to obsess at length over, say, the way drops fly from the spinning brim of Ip’s signature straw Panama. It’s not so much that The Grandmaster’s copious and often dazzling action is edited too chaotically to scan (the usual sin these days), it’s that he shoots it too close and consistently veers away from physical-space sense toward sensuousness. (The uncharacteristically dark, dingy color palette doesn’t help.) This is a martial arts film sure to disappoint martial arts fans.

Yet, The Grandmaster has none of the brooding existentialism of Wong’s last wuxia foray, Ashes of Time. Indeed, in many ways, it is his most conventional film in decades, though no more successful for delivering something like a linear story rather than his usual elliptical, Impressionist gossamer. Accounts have surfaced of a four-hour cut, a shorter Chinese cut, and an even shorter cut reengineered for America (Wong is a notorious tinkerer, as is Harvey Weinstein, the film’s distributor). Regardless, there is simply too much happening here to work inside a relatively tidy 108-minute running time. In addition to sketching the differences between the main kung fu schools of 1930s China and tracing the saga of Ip defending and preserving his wing chun style against rivals, real life, and the forces of four decades of Chinese history, Wong weaves in a tragic love story between married Ip and Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the daughter of a rival grandmaster, who is also out to preserve her own family’s kung fu legacy against a brutal rival.

Quietly pining love is a Wong specialty, and the rare occasions when Leung and Zhang share the screen transport. Their balletic kung fu-battle-as-simmering-courtship-ritual whips all the other hand-to-hand scenes here, in fact. But the fits-and-starts flow and the slew of title cards needed to try to explain whole chunks of history and story rob the film itself of any semblance of a grandmaster’s precision or grace.

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