Movie Review ~ The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of martial-arts master Ip Man, the man who trained Bruce Lee.

Stars: Zhang Ziyi, Tony Leung, Hye-kyo Song, Chen Chang, Yuen Woo-ping, Shun Lau, Siu-Lung Leung

Director: Wong Kar Wai

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I have the distinct feeling I’ll wind up writing two reviews of The Grandmaster.  There’s the review you’re reading now of the US version that just opened, and then there the version originally released in China that’s 22 minutes longer with scenes in a different order and lacking the slightly troubling voice-over narration imposed upon it by the studio heads at The Weinstein Company.

Now that’s not to say that the 108 minute film available to audiences in this country isn’t worth seeing — because it would be recommended on the striking visuals alone.  Still, knowing that another cut of the film is out there waiting to be taken in always makes me curious to seeing what exactly of The Grandmaster was tinkered with as it crossed to our shores.

In brief, The Grandmaster is a look into a specific period of Ip Man, a legendary figure in martial arts history.  Though not exactly a biographical film, it does use the life of Ip Man to chart historical developments in China during from the late 30’s to the early 50’s.  In that time Ip Man asserts himself as a worthy master of the Southern kung fu arts, though he is briefly challenged by the Northern master who arrives as the recently named successor of the visiting Grandmaster.

Tony Leung (reunited with his 2046 and In the Mood for Love director Wong Kar Wai) takes on this famous figure with a muted performance that’s more reflective than action-oriented.  Though the script doesn’t allow Leung to go very deep for the first hour there’s a rewarding final act that fleshes him out to be more than just quiet reserve, knuckles and perfectly delivered kicks.

Though I’ve read that in the original Chinese version Zhang Ziyi had a more rounded lead role, her truncated screen time here is maximized for the most impact.  I found myself more interested in her role, as the well-trained daughter of the aged Grandmaster, than I did about the leading character the story revolved around.  Still remembered for her roles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Memoirs of a Geisha, Ziyi makes the character more than the icy porcelain veneer she gives off, which leads to a stunning (and gorgeously sad) transformation for the actress as the film winds down.

The fight scenes (choreographed with razor sharp precision by Yuen Woo-ping and captured elegantly by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd) feature some truly thrilling visuals…but an overuse of grainy slow-motion gets old fairly fast and one wishes for a fast-forward button to see these near-perfect scenes up to speed.  Accompanied by a heart-poundingly resonant score from Shigeru Umebayashi and Nathaniel Méchaly, these aren’t your run of the mill Matrix-y battles with gravity defying roundhouse kicks.  Though wires were clearly used, the movie is conceptualized and edited so well that it’s easy to lose yourself in these moments.  A late in the picture nighttime fight at a train station may be one of the best constructed scenes end-to-end in film this year because it tells an entire story in about five minutes.

There were times in the film when I questioned whether another fight sequence was necessary to advance the plot.  Even though he never sought out a battle, the movie makes it seem like everything in the life of Ip Man was settled with a kung fu battle…I was waiting for the scene where his newspaper was delivered late and he had to fight the paperboy to protect his honor.

A lot of ground is covered in the film and I can see why the voice-over narration was added and the non-linear storytelling was put in chronological order for a more mainstream audience.  The sacrifice in that, though, is that the film winds up feeling choppy.  There are large leaps in time and enough important moments in history are barely touched on before moving to the next fight sequence.  I think US audiences would have been willing to stick around a little longer to feel like they’ve had a bit more of an all-around look into the life of Ip Man and the various people he met along the way.

Ending before the later years (that involved opium use and possible mismanagement of funds) of Ip Man’s life, The Grandmaster is a carefully constructed film that’s half biography and half historical drama.  Between fight scenes and bittersweet musings on love and family, there are enough beautiful moments in the film to overcome any problems that have popped up in tampering with the original material.

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