Opens Fri., Aug. 30 at Varsity and other theaters. Rated PG-13. 108 minutes.
The housekeeping part first: A film by a major international director is being released in the U.S. in a version that strongly differs from its original cut. We are told that scissor-happy producer Harvey Weinstein is not behind this particular reduction; Wong Kar-wai himself has fiddled with The Grandmaster, already having crafted different cuts of his film for the Asian and European markets.
That’s their story, and maybe it’s true. It would be consistent with Wong’s tendency to fuss over his projects—he’s on record as saying that if it weren’t for the deadlines imposed by major film festivals, he might never finish his movies. Whatever peculiar cultural emphasis the U.S. cut of The Grandmaster has, it is one odd picture, with too much kung fu for discriminating arthouse audiences and too many dreamy pauses for the grindhouse crowd.
This is the often-filmed life of Ip Man (1893–1972), the celebrated martial-arts master who redefined kung fu and eventually tutored an eager young Bruce Lee. He’s played by Tony Leung, the ridiculously cool star of Wong’s In the Mood for Love, whose serene half-smile is as powerful a weapon as his fighting moves. Ip Man’s first triumph comes in the rivalry between martial artists in the north and south of China—far more graceful than the feud between East Coast and West Coast rap, though apparently just as geographically nonsensical.
A fair amount of 20th-century Chinese history is alluded to, including the Japanese invasion preceding World War II, but mostly as backdrop. More compelling is a long-burning attraction between Master Ip and the alluring Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi, who played opposite Leung in Wong’s 2046), which culminates in something dreamy and romantic in the final reels. Even when Gong Er is deploying the mysterious “64 Hands” technique in battle with Ip Man, the two of them are clearly gaga for each other. (The fights are choreographed by the well-traveled Yuen Wo-ping, whose fists of fury have punched up The Matrix as well as many a Hong Kong action picture.)
Even the movie’s felicities, including the fluttery slow-motion fight scenes and the swoony movie-star glamour of Leung and Zhang, are tossed up like shards of a much grander design that doesn’t actually exist (or only exists on the cutting-room floor). The 2008 Ip Man, starring the engaging Donnie Yen, is better at the biopic stuff. You sense that Wong would rather be photographing furtive glances and cigarette smoke; by comparison, staging action and telling a story are unwanted—if beautifully executed—distractions.