The Grandmaster (2013)

aka Yi dai zong shi

2015 #160
Wong Kar Wai | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong & China / Mandarin & Cantonese | 15 / PG-13

As a Western viewer, if you know anything about Ip Man beyond “he’s the chap who trained Bruce Lee”, it’s probably thanks to the pair of eponymous biopics starring Donnie Yen (soon to become a trilogy). Heck, if you know that much there’s a fair chance it’s due to those films. This take on the man, directed and co-written by Wong Kar Wai and starring Tony Leung as Ip, is tonally very different.

Some of the facts remain the same, naturally: Ip is a master of Wing Chung in Foshan, China, until the Japanese occupation ruins everyone’s lives. Post-war, he moves to Hong Kong and sets up a school there. Concurrently, there’s something about being the grandmaster of martial arts in all of China, or somesuch. When the previous incumbent is murdered by his disciple, the old man’s daughter, Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), has revenge in mind.

The Grandmaster is very much more an arthouse version of the story than the Ip Mans’ accessible action-movie stylistics, with elliptical storytelling and a carefully-measured pace, even in the action sequences. I’ve seen at least one review criticise Wong for leaning too heavily into ‘genre’ pictures — I guess that critic doesn’t actually watch too many genre pictures, because a good number of genre fans criticise this for being too arty. It is more “arty” than “genre”, even given its inclusion of numerous fantastic fight scenes. The duels are stunning, though pure adrenaline-junkie viewers seem to find even those a disappointment. Well, they’re wrong.

It helps that it’s gorgeously shot. Ultra-crisp blue-black rain-soaked night time duels; rich golden hues in pre-occupation Foshan; cold bright-white snowy landscapes; a train platform fight that’s almost sepia-like. Between the photography and the ever-excellent action choreography of Yuen Woo-ping (The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Kill Bill, et al), the film is immensely satisfying on a visual level.

One factor that may — or, as we will see, may not — have an effect on how the film fares beyond the purely visual is that there are at least three different cuts: a 130-minute original cut, a 122-minute international cut, and the 108-minute version released in the US by the Weinsten Company. “Ah,” you might think, “yet another Weinstein hack job.” Well, Wong himself says otherwise:

As a filmmaker, let me say that the luxury of creating a new cut for U.S. audiences was the opportunity to reshape it into something different than what I began with — a chance one doesn’t always get as a director and an undertaking much more meaningful than simply making something shorter or longer. The original version of The Grandmaster is about 2 hours, 10 minutes. Why not 2 hours, 9 minutes or 2 hours, 11 minutes? To me, the structure of a movie is like a clock or a prized watch — it’s about precision and perfect balance.

We always knew that we wanted to have a U.S. version that was a bit tighter and that helped clarify the complex historical context of this particular era in Chinese history, focusing further on the journeys of Ip Man and Gong Er. While the previous version was more chronological, adding narration and captions to explain certain plot points gave us the freedom to bring more life to moments in the characters’ stories. I also aimed to enhance the audience’s understanding of the challenges faced between North and South, especially during the Japanese invasion.

Well, the narration and explanatory title cards are at times useful, but at others feel heavy-handed. I guess that’s the result of them being added retroactively as an explanatory device — if Wong had felt that information needed to be in the film throughout production, I’m sure it could’ve been better integrated into the storytelling.

However you look at it, the other Ip Man films are undoubtedly more palatable to a mainstream audience. Does that mean they’re worse? No. Better? Not necessarily. But I don’t think The Grandmaster is all it could’ve been. It seems to run out of story and lose its way as it gets towards the end. The focus shifts entirely to Gong Er, and it feels less clear what it’s meant to about as a whole film. It becomes a movie of great moments, and maybe even scenes, but an unsatisfying whole. But oh, the images…

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Hard Boiled (1992)

aka Lat sau san taam

2008 #43
John Woo | 122 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Hard BoiledThe first John Woo film I saw was Mission: Impossible II. I think. It may’ve been Face/Off, which I love, but this works better with M:I-2 because most people don’t like it. Personally, I like M:I-2. It’s not the greatest action thriller ever, but it has its moments and the plot isn’t half as complex as some like to claim. It’s certainly more fun than Brian de Palma’s Euro-thriller first film, which in retrospect looks a bit like a proto-Bourne. Of course, what M:I-2 really had going for it were its action sequences, which are occasionally a bit out there but always expertly done. Face/Off’s are even better again. Anyone with a basic understanding of structure can’t fail to see what I’m going to say about Hard Boiled.

I don’t think realism is Woo’s strong point — at least, not in his straight-up action movies. That’s not a flaw, though, but a deliberate choice — he dispenses with the realism of what a gunfight would be like (presumably, bloody scary and with fewer shots fired) and pushes the male fantasy of mindless slaughter to the limit. Which means his action sequences are pure adrenaline-pumping fun. Chow Yun-Fat single handedly slaughtering a warehouse full of heavily armed gangsters? Well, of course! Or directly hitting a small object wedged in an electrical pipe with a shaky shooting arm? Naturally! The action may have all the realism of a Dali painting, but it also has all the gleeful fun of repeating everything your sibling said when you were five — except with more choreography. It’s a cliché, but there’s something about Woo’s action that makes you want to use the word “balletic”. Not that I’ve ever really watched ballet. I expect it involves fewer guns.

These sequences seem to have been designed with one thing in mind — cool. And they are. There are a few holes in the plot and characters’ logic, but that doesn’t matter when they can leap around firing two pistols at once and always hit their target, while the bad guys — who could shoot just fine when they slaughtered some innocents a few minutes ago — keep missing them… with machine guns. If you think about it too hard then of course it’s nonsensical, but somehow, in some way, this sort of action seems to appeal to most men (not all, of course, and if you enjoy it then don’t worry, it doesn’t mean you’re a bloodthirsty braindead weirdo). One particularly astounding sequence is achieved in a single long take, as Yun-Fat and Tony Leung make their way down several corridors killing Very Bad Men literally left, right and centre. It’s both exciting and technically impressive, considering how many squibs, blood packs, weapons and extras must have been involved to pull it off in one uncut shot.

If you don’t care for people shooting at each other, especially when it pushes believability beyond the limit, then there’s not really anything for you here. There’s some male bonding stuff, and other bits about duty and honour and sacrifice, and a climactic subplot involving lots of cwute lickle baby-wabies; but Hard Boiled is most at home when the bullets are flying and things are blowing up. And what a lovely home it is.

4 out of 5