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Movie review: The Grandmaster

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The Grandmaster is a gorgeous, ornate visual feast. The tone is reserved, melancholy in the best sense of the word. The martial arts scenes are pure poetry, visually coherent with every frame meticulously composed. The stars of the film are charismatic actors Tony Leung (Lust, Caution, In the Mood for Love) and Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Memoirs of a Geisha). The movie comes from gifted filmmaker Wong Kar-wai (Chungking Express, Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love), who spent the last five years working on the production after rolling around the idea for much longer.

The big question is whether to see the film in a theater, where the spectacle is best presented, or on video (a 2-disc package is currently available), where you can see longer versions of the film. There are at least three versions floating around. The one in American theaters is 22 minutes shorter than the version most widely shown elsewhere. Thank the Weinstein Company for that - they ordered the chopping, along with the addition of lots of exposition to clarify the story. I hate it when a studio messes with an artist's work. Wong supposedly gave his approval to this version, but still...

I've only seen the version of The Grandmaster playing in Indianapolis theaters, so I can't speak to the other editions. I can tell you that the film I saw was confusing. The exposition - through voiceovers and onscreen text - offers explanations, but all the yakking blurred together after a while. The philosophy is stated upfront: "Kung fu equals two words: horizontal and vertical. The one lying down is out, only the last man standing counts."

The story is a stylized bio of Ip Man, the martial arts master best known for teaching Bruce Lee and popularizing the Wing Chun style of kung fu. The story addresses a national crisis that requires the masters of different forms of kung fu to come together. Ip Man, played by Yeung, is a crucial figure to the process of unification. He spends most of the movie dueling/demoing his way around the country and having a doomed-from-the-start would-be romance with the very proper Er (Zhang). Ip Man is married with children, but they are marginalized in this version of the story (the tragic fates of his children are mentioned only in passing).

I could paraphrase the plot in detail from the press notes, but that seems like a cheat. My experience with the film was this: I marveled at the beauty, tone and martial arts majesty throughout the less-than-two-hour running time. Story wise, I felt oriented at first, only to grow confused as the story progressed. After a while, I stopped trying to make sense of the plot and contented myself with enjoying the production's audio-visual assets. I was bored by a few scenes and became achingly aware of the film's lack of even a hint of humor. But despite the problem areas, I felt enriched by the experience of The Grandmaster. It's a shame what it isn't, but what it is is still remarkable.

Related Film

The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi)

Director: Kar Wai Wong

Writer: Kar Wai Wong, Haofeng Xu and Jingzhi Zou

Producer: Kar Wai Wong and Jacky Pang Yee Wah

Cast: Tony Leung, Ziyi Zhang, Chen Chang, Cung Le, Siu-Lung Leung, Hye-kyo Song, Benshan Zhao, Julian Cheung and Qingxiang Wang

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