Tony Leung in "The Grandmaster."
If there's one thing not to expect from cinematic grandmaster Wong Kar Wai, it's a driving plot. But that's what we love about the languorous director, who takes his time with his movies as much as he takes his time within them. Unfortunately, "The Grandmaster" -- his first feature in six years -- has been re-edited at the behest of the notoriously meddlesome Weinstein Company, who show a great deal less patience.
According to Wong, this necessitated alternate version of his "martial arts epic" has been rethought from scratch in its editing, in order to tell the story in a contractually obligated under-two-hours run time. One can feel the compromise in the loss of 22 minutes of storytelling time, a hit to the film's confidence, but "The Grandmaster" retains the filmmaker's signature beauty and spirit of reflectiveness.
"The Grandmaster" revisits the story of "Ip Man," the folk-heroic martial-arts grandmaster of the Wing Chun style. Here played by Wong veteran Tony Leung ("In the Mood for Love"), Ip Man starts the film as a potential heir in the South to retiring "Grandmaster of the North" Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang). These 1936-set scenes, then, consist of demonstration matches and discussions -- of martial arts styles -- that spin out into philosophy and cosmology. Gong's daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) practices a move called the "64 hands," inspired by Bagua's "64 transformations": Indeed, the film has nearly has many.
One might describe "The Grandmaster" as somewhat ordinary movie wrapped around five different extraordinary movies. Opening with a cliched (though impressively shot and edited) rain-soaked fight and ending with a cornball epilogue that wrongly implies this is all important because Ip Man went on to teach Bruce Lee, "The Grandmaster" is ostensibly that kind of martial arts epic that prominent filmmakers turn into a career boost (a la Zhang Yimou's "Hero" and Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), and famed action choreographer Yuen Wo Ping is on hand to oblige.
But "The Grandmaster" is also a contemplative exploration of the meaning of martial arts and its historical development, an allegory of approaches to artistry of all kinds, a romance of unfulfillment (a Wong motif), a wartime drama with long-game strategies for emotional survival (including a nod to chess), and a philosophical parable about waning time, roads not taken and passing on unfulfilled hopes.
More than anything, perhaps, "The Grandmaster" is a feminist tragedy that at least in this cut seems to lose interest in Ip Man and pass the torch to the considerably more fascinating Gong Er, who -- if not for her sex -- might have been a grandmaster. (She's told: "You're just a woman. You don't count.")
But, yeah, there are also some pretty cool fights, most especially a thrillingly conceived sequence before a speeding train on a snowy night. Along with his usual filigrees of slo-mo and lush attention to color and environment, Wong makes the best use I've ever seen of fight-scene P.O.V. to vitalize the action with a blow to your face. Ain't that a kick in the head?
Rated PG-13 for violence, smoking, drug use and language. One hour, 48 minutes.
- Peter Canavese