Directed by: Wong Kar-wai Written by: Wong Kar-wai, Zou Jingzhi & Xu Haofeng Based on a story by: Wong Kar-wai
Ip Man: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai Gong Er: Zhang Ziyi Cheung Wing-sing: Song Hye-kyo "The Razor" Yixiantian: Chang Chen Ding Lianshan: Zhao Benshan Gong Yutian: Wang Qingxiang Ma San: Zhang Jin Chan Wah-shun: Yuen Woo-ping Sanjiangshui: Xiaoshenyang Tiexieqi: Cung Le Jiang: Shang Tielong Uncle Deng: Lo Hoi-pang
Rated PG-13 for violence, some smoking, brief drug use and language. Running Time: U.S. Version: 108 minutes; Chinese Version: 130 minutes
Kung fu: two words – one horizontal, one vertical.
If we take that creed and place it in a broader context, then it isn't a great stretch to say that one version of The Grandmaster, the newest film from legendary auteur Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express, 2046) – and one only – will be left standing at the end of all this. Unfortunately for Harvey Weinstein it won't be the American version in theaters currently. That version is an occasionally stirring, still beautiful bastardization of a work far more interesting, coherent and powerful. The theatrical version shown in Hong Kong and China – all 130 minutes of it – flirts with near-perfection and the status of being yet another masterpiece for a man regarded by many as one of the world's greatest living filmmakers. The version shown to you and I? That film is a frustrating, incoherent, dumbed-down shell. You can see something truly grand and special in its pieces, but the whole never really reveals itself. Wong Kar-wai knows how to make movies. Harvey Weinstein knows how to win Oscars.
That may sound like a harsh assessment, but in all the years I've watched and cared about movies, I've rarely seen a film this fundamentally changed by someone for commercial (or other) reasons, especially from someone the stature of Wong Kar-wai. We're not simply talking about the difference between a theatrical version versus an extended “Director's Cut”, so often sold as a DVD or Blu-ray special feature. Perhaps the more apt comparison would be something along the lines of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner or Terry Gilliam's Brazil, films that came to define the 1980s and have become recognized as science fiction masterpieces, but have had to fight tooth and nail (and multiple studio executives) to get to a definitive edition, both having multiple endings and alterations that fundamentally would have changed the meaning of each film. The Grandmaster may not be science fiction, but Wong Kar-wai has never trafficked in simple genre conventions, easy answers or happy endings...things found all too often in mainstream American movies.
So it's unsurprising that The Weinstein Company would struggle with how to sell a movie to an audience not intimately familiar with the Hong Kong filmmaker or his signature, renowned romanticized style. Their answer? Much as how FilmDistrict marketed Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, they sold it as something it wasn't. Drive was as much a Fast and Furious-style car chase movie as The Grandmaster is a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style, Ip Man or Jackie Chan martial arts movie. Sure, there's kung fu and exquisitely shot and choreographed fight scenes in The Grandmaster, but at its core, the film resembles the director's previous martial arts film Ashes of Time as well as most of his other work. It is a melancholy, elegiac tale of love lost, time outpacing tradition and the ways that history is ultimately defined and remembered by the shared experiences between human beings. The Grandmaster is a beautiful, entrancing work of art. Well, “The Chinese Cut” is at least. The American version? Not so much.
The basic story is the same for both: Ip Man is drafted to challenge the Northern Grandmaster Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) who has announced his retirement and is looking to pass the torch to a new generation of martial artists. Having previously named Ma San (Zhang Jin) his direct successor at a ceremony in the North, the legend of Ip Man has already reached him. When Ip Man defeats the elder Grandmaster in a battle of wits rather than skill, his daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) vows revenge on Ip Man and struggles seeing her father bested and the family name – previously undefeated – threatened. Ip Man and Gong Er than have their own battle, this time of skill, as it becomes obvious that these are not only equal fighters, but two more of Wong Kar-wai's star-crossed lovers. When Gong Er wins (on something of a technicality), the two exchange letters as Ip Man promises to travel north with his family to see her again and so that he can once again see “the 64 hands”, a Gong family style that only she has been entrusted with (over the obvious hothead Ma San).
Unfortunately, historical circumstances get in the way as the Japanese invade China and Ip Man's home city of Foshan, shattering his rather content existence and taking the lives of some of his family. As Ip Man travels to Hong Kong to teach, Gong Er returns home to learn that not only has Ma San betrayed her father and their clan, but is also conspiring with the Japanese puppet government. Against the wishes of elders and her father, she vows never to teach, marry or have children in order to take the path of vengeance against Ma San. Over a decade after last meeting in Foshan, Ip Man finally reconnects with Gong Er, wanting a rematch and implying she should resurrect her family's martial arts school. She declines, as a flashback to 10 years earlier shows us the brutal fight between Gong Er and Ma San on a train station where her vengeance was quenched, but at a steep price. Gong Er sticks to her vows, her health rapidly deteriorating as a result of the injuries inflicted by Ma San and the film ends with Ip Man forced to stay in Hong Kong after Gong Er's death and the closure of the border with China, never to see his family again as he goes on to become of the most famous and influential martial artists in the world. The 64 Hands and Gong family legacy fades into history, taken to the grave by Gone Er.
The version of The Grandmaster shown in China and Hong Kong is 130-minute-long sweeping historical epic that divides its time between both the legendary Ip Man and his Northern rival Gong Er as they struggle to hold on to the traditions and virtues of their respective regional fighting styles as well as with the distance (both literal and figurative) between them, keeping them apart and charting their fates. He struggles as he watches history change around him, almost helpless as he loses everything but his skill at martial arts; she struggles as a woman in a man's world, unable to turn away from vengeance, giving up everything – including her martial arts – in order to exact it and take back her family's name and honor. Both are equally important to the film's balance and themes, yet neither is “right” in the end.
The American version says “uh, no thanks” to that and distills it into a forced biopic structure, practically cutting Gong Er's character and screen time in half – lessening the romance between the two in the process – and all but eliminating the influence of the Second Sino-Japanese War (which turns the already enigmatic “Razor” character – a Nationalist fighter who Gong Er covers for in one scene exclusively found in the Chinese version – into an almost completely mystifying and random figure), choosing instead to focus on what it thinks American audiences want to see: action, action, action! Cutting 22 minutes and moving scenes around all over the place, what was originally a beautiful, touching, elegiac arthouse movie, has now been transformed into an Ip Man-themed episode of “This is Your Life” with neat, but empty stylized fight scenes. It is such a compromised version that I can safely say the following: the American version of The Grandmaster is one of the worst things Wong Kar-wai has ever had his name attached to; the Chinese/Hong Kong version of The Grandmaster is one of the best. That's the gulf we're talking and that is why it is so important to differentiate and understand the differences between the two.
Either realizing that their alterations make the context of the film's events and action more confusing, or simply believing that American audiences needed their hands held for a foreign film with subtitles, Weinstein and Wong's answer is to insert even more intertitles and character identifiers into the film. This means that rarely does 10 minutes go by without a title card or the movie explicitly telling you who a newly introduced character is via on-screen text. The original Chinese Cut has a few of them in order to better bridge the gaps in time that such a historical epic such as this covers, as well as during a sequence in which Ip Man and Gong Er exchange letters. The American additions not only feel redundant and insulting, but because there are such awkward jumps and introductions – especially because the impact of the Second Sino-Japanese War is reduced – it actually makes things more incoherent. The American version unfortunately believes that telling you things is a fine substitute for actually showing you, despite countless examples (and reasons) to the contrary.
This is especially heinous when you remember that this is a Wong Kar-wai film. A man whose movies have been all about subtlety; a touch here, a glance there, simple-seeming but deep moments coming to define characters and entire movies. Wong Kar-wai films are powerful experiences because they are able to heart-wrenchingly show and reflect characters, experiences and interactions in an elliptical manner, even in just a fleeting moment, without going down a more linear, Hollywood progression (meet cute, courtship, misunderstanding, resolution, happy ending). Film.com's David Ehrlich beautifully puts it this way: “The films of Wong Kar-wai are as delicate as any of their characters, whose lives are often upended with a brief gesture, beautiful records that are doomed to repeat themselves as the result of a single scratch...Wong’s films don’t progress in acts so much as they travel in orbits, drawing perfect circles around formative moments like a ship that’s anchored in the middle of the sea. If a single wave is out of place – if one character disappears for too long or one detail is made too clear – his movies threaten to become sketches rather than slipstreams, and their magic is lost.”
That, in a nutshell, encapsulates what is most wrong about The Weinstein Cut of The Grandmaster. Wong Kar-wai has all but admitted that the concessions are essentially due to cultural ignorance, but he and Weinstein (and I mostly blame “Harvey Scissorhands”) are mistaken to think that American audiences need the explicit contextual help. Wong Kar-wai films are all about smooth, graceful, almost hypnotic experiences; patience is naturally required to fully fall under their spell and understand each film's subtextual nuances. The shorter cut is less interested in nuance and patience, instead hacking and piecing its way to each action set piece. There is such a lack of grace and coherence to the whole affair that the action scenes are simply that, lacking almost any true emotional resonance behind them. For most audiences and true fans of the director, it is an almost unbearable series of frustrations, as the film constantly reminds you that a “true” and “fuller” version exists – not because we know it does beforehand, but because the film is so awkward and jolting that you can't believe a filmmaker of the quality of Wong Kar-wai would intend it this way. In the end, the U.S. Version of The Grandmaster feels like a mystifying martial arts tournament film, when in fact, it is almost the complete opposite.
Perhaps most galling of all is TWC's belief that the only way The Grandmaster would be palatable to American audiences was if the central character was sold as a hero (although that is not the film's point) and if we absolutely knew that this was the man who taught Bruce Lee. Not only are scenes explicitly added to the end of the film explaining this (and showing a young Lee learning from Ip Man in Hong Kong), but much of the marketing has revolved around this (as you can see at the very beginning of the trailer below). Never mind that Bruce Lee has exactly zero involvement or significance to the movie itself. In fact, there is only the briefest and subtlest of intimations at the end of the Chinese Cut in regards to Lee. Also, the insinuation that Ip Man is “right” and that he's the hero of the film, is a fundamental change between the two versions. The true core of the film is less that than it is history’s inevitability – not as a sign modernity or of progress toward a man becoming a legend – but in constantly looking back to what he still has at the expense of all that he's lost. That is the Ip Man of The Grandmaster. Just don't tell that to Harvey Weinstein.
Both versions of the film do retain the majority of the absolutely gorgeous fight sequences, especially those between the principal players. The very first images that open the film involve Ip Man fighting over a dozen opponents in the rain, thus establishing (for those who don't know the story already) that this man is a total badass. Much of these fights are somewhat reminiscent of the fights found in Ashes of Time, although Wong uses natural elements (rain, snow, wing, steam), close-ups of faces, hands and feet as well as slow-mo and step print effects to show both the intricacies of the choreography (coordinated by renowned Hong Kong choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, who will direct Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2: The Green Destiny) and the usual sensual, dance-like interplay at work in almost any Wong Kar-wai film. Just check out the faces of Ip Man and Gong Er as they get this close to touching during their fight in the Gold Pavilion in the first half of the film. However, arguably the standout of these fight sequences is the climatic fight between Gong Er and Ma San on a train platform in the snow and steam. It holds more impact in the Chinese cut because of how the film structures itself, since we see Gong Er told not to take vengeance by the clan's elders and her ultimate decision to take Buddhist vows, before the fight. It's a clearer context for the fight, and not simply the rushed randomness found in the American cut. However, in both versions, the actual stand-alone set piece is absolutely breathtaking.
The performances are fantastic as well, as Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi are tremendous both in the film's high-paced fight scenes (Leung reportedly trained and practiced 4 hours a day for a year in preparation), but also in the film's many silent, contemplative moments. One of the film's very best scenes is towards the end as Ip Man and Gong Er meet one final time. Sitting together, listening to an opera that harkens back to the first time they met, Gong Er, perhaps realizing that she was coming to the end of her life, admits her feelings for Ip Man and returns the button of a winter coat he had made for the journey north that was never undertaken. The scene is even better in the Chinese Cut, as while the pair walk home alone down a street full of kung fu schools, Gong Er looks up wistfully and remarks “Is this street of schools all the Martial World has come to be?” She then turns to look at Ip Man, who has become a part of that new Martial World. It's less accusatory than it is melancholy. Later, as she dies in her own bed, we see a flashback of Gong Er at home in the snow practicing (in one of the few instances of material exclusive to the American cut of the film being worthwhile, she is also shown as a child spying on her father practicing and him reciprocating, leading to her lessons and life-long passion of kung fu). Her voice plays over the scene, declaring “A great age offers a choice: stay or move on. I choose to remain in my era, the time when I was happiest.” It's a lovely sequence, underscoring the differences between the two central characters, but also exposing that their personal connection has resulted in the both of them losing a great deal as they stick to codes and traditions going by the wayside in the wake of shifting times. The American version awkwardly hints at this, but it is really brought home and more powerful in the original.
The Grandmaster is a beautiful, melancholic ode to the end of an era for Chinese martial arts and the country as a whole, embodied by Ip Man and Gong Er and the bond shared between them as time and history catches up to and passes the old ways. The American version is not completely without value; while it is inarguably a compromised film, it does shine a light on what is so great about the original domestic version and why Wong would be attracted to this material. As Ehrlich notes, what they got wrong in editing the film for American audiences was believing that the heart of the film was a biopic whose details were necessary to understanding what was going on, when in fact, “a working knowledge of the war [and supporting players] is less essential to appreciating the film than an understanding of how it could transform two people and the way of life that compelled them to each other.” Watching how this film was intended to look and flow after having seen it in theaters here, it is practically a revelation. In time, Harvey ought to be ashamed of himself.
Thus, it leaves me and other critics with an undesired choice. Having seen two vastly different versions of the same movie, with one being decidedly superior to the other, how do we go about evaluating and recommending them? Can I unequivocally declare that everyone should go and drop $40 for a region-free, imported Blu-ray, just so they can see the film as it was meant to be seen? Should I tell Americans not to see the film being offered to them in theaters, just because it is an obviously compromised work of art? Exactly which film should I rate here, the one most of you have and will have access to? Or the better, more “true” vision that may never be made readily available to Western moviegoers? Ultimately, I can't tell you how to spend your time and money. I can only offer my genuine, honest opinion and evaluation. If you have access to the American cut of The Grandmaster, go and see it, but understand its flaws going in and don't damn the movie for concessions forced upon it by mistaken distributors. And if, by chance, you get the opportunity to see the original version of the film, count yourself lucky and do so.
Rating below is for the original, Chinese/Hong Kong domestic version of The Grandmaster. Region-free Blu-rays are available to purchase that include English subtitles and which will arrive in about two weeks.
The 411: The Grandmaster is a return to form for renowned filmmaker Wong Kar-wai after the disappointments of his English-language debut My Blueberry Nights. A film roughly five years in the making, the original 130-minute domestic version stands as some of the best work he's ever done. Beautifully shot and choreographed fight sequences have been the selling points (and are in fact some of the only selling points for the bastardized and compromised 108-minute altered American version), but much like Ashes of Time they populate a more expressionistic portrait of two kung fu artists who struggle to remain true to the principles and traditions of their unique fighting styles in the midst of changing times and unbearable losses. Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi are tremendous as Ip Man and Gong Er, in both the fight scenes and in the quieter, more Wong-like contemplative and romanticized moments. The American version is a deeply, deeply flawed film, and if I were rating it, it'd likely land in the 6s. However, if you get the chance to watch the version of The Grandmaster shown to audiences in China and Hong Kong, please do so. That film is a powerful, elegiac, insanely beautiful experience, a sweeping historical epic from one of the world's leading filmmakers that can rightfully be counted among the year's best. Recommended.