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The Grandmaster

tn_grandmasterNOTE: A couple weeks ago I watched Wong Kar Wai’s long-awaited Ip Man movie THE GRANDMASTER on an import DVD. I loved it so much I decided not to post a review until the U.S. theatrical release so more people would be able to see it and discuss it.

Then I saw an ad on TV calling the movie “Martin Scorsese presents THE GRANDMASTER,” talking about “THE MAN WHO TAUGHT BRUCE LEE,” and showing a bunch of fight scenes with an aggressive hip hop soundtrack. There’s an even more extreme one online now that uses the theme from THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS.

These ads gave me a laugh, because as great as the fights are in the movie the emphasis is on characters and metaphors and beautiful imagery, and it’s as much about Zhang Ziyi’s Gong Er (a fictional character, I believe) as a biography of Ip Man. I was excitbtisled to see it on the big screen, but dreading the possibility of an audience angry at the long breaks between punching.

What didn’t occur to me is that maybe the breaks aren’t that long anymore. It turns out the U.S. theatrical cut is a Weinsteinized version that’s 22 minutes shorter. David Ehrlich of film.com explains that the new cut was done with the participation of Wong, and details all the things he noticed that were cut out. I won’t spoil whether or not he likes the new version, you’ll just have to read his article Kung Foolish: How The American Cut of ‘The Grandmaster’ Ruins a Masterpiece to find out for yourself.

I still plan to see it, but based on Ehrlich’s list it sounds like half of the themes and scenes I talk about in this review aren’t even in the movie anymore. So fuck it, here is my review of the 130-minutes-including-credits Suitable-For-The-Entire-World-Except-For-America-Because-How-Could-They-Ever-Understand-It Cut.

You know, I’ve been hearing about Wong Kar Wai for years, but I don’t remember if I’ve even watched any of his movies. If I did it was CHUNG KING EXPRESS back in the days of being wild, and it quickly left my brain. I know people who swear by 2046, IN THE MOOD FOR THE LOVE, etc. I know his reputation but I can’t pretend to know his work. It’s clear now that he has a big pair of artistic balls, though, to want to do a movie about Ip Man when he did.

Think about it: IP MAN is a modern martial arts favorite around the world, it spawned an also great sequel and unofficial prequel, and also a FINAL FIGHT and maybe a part 3D? It also won the Hong Kong equivalent of the best picture Oscar. Think about it. What if, I don’t know, David Cronenberg or somebody said “Nah, fuck ARGO, I’m doing my Tony Mendez movie.” That’s kinda what he’s doing here. “My style is better.”

But to tell you the truth there’s not that much overlap between this and the other Ip Man pictures. We see a bit about his privileged upbringing and mansion life, a bit about how much he loves his wife, a bit about opening his first school. Even that part, the teaching, is not heavily emphasized. As in the others, the Second Sino-Japanese War is crucial, and the bombing of his home is dealt with in text. But it isn’t another movie about suffering humiliation and oppression under the Japanese occupation. It mostly takes place before and after the war, dealing with the old “martial world” – the clans that followed codes of honor and protected family legacies – and how its survivors deal with the modern world of wall-to-wall kung fu schools. Whether they choose to evolve with the times or stay behind.

You assume the title refers to Great Grandmaster Ip Man, but I’m not so sure. In a way it’s just as much about the Grandmaster of the North, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) who upon his retirement offers a challenge for the greatest fighter from the south to take him on. Of course the masters all get together and point their fingers at Ip Man (the great Tony Leung Chiu-Wai of HARD BOILED, CHUNGKING EXPRESS, HERO, INFERNAL AFFAIRS, RED CLIFF, etc.). Even though he’s younger than them at 40 and doesn’t think he deserves it he gets pushed into it. He acquits himself well, fulfilling Yutian’s secret goal of creating opportunity for younger martial artists and for the region. Moving things along.

mp_grandmasterBut the Grandmaster’s two successors – total asshole student Ma San (Zhang Jin) and stubborn daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) – don’t take it in the spirit intended. They are not sportsmanlike about it at all. In fact Er challenges Ip Man to a fight. Since it’s inside a place full of opulent decor they agree that the first to break something loses (reminiscent of the great IP MAN fight where there’s alot of concern about the safety of Ms. Ip’s furniture and vases).

I’d been warned that the fights aren’t shot clearly despite being choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping. I’m happy to disagree. It’s a somewhat different approach, fetishizing impact: hits sending people hurling through the air, closeups of nails tearing through wood as it splits, a head crushing the edge of a brick wall, shards of glass hitting pavement. Precipitation is important – more than one fight takes place in a rain storm, Ip Man and his opponents splashing water from the flooded streets like the final dance in STEP UP 2. Other scenes take place in a beautiful snow fall. There are closeups of rain drops hitting, or blood drops hitting puddles of rain. There’s alot of focus on a wrought iron gate reflected or shadowed in puddles. I think it’s the same gate that Ip Man busts open using Cung Le as a battering ram in the opening fight. I think it means something. I’m not sure what yet.

Another obsession: feet. He likes shooting just their slippered feet, showing their delicate steps or their footwork. It shows how nimble they are. Fighting as ballet.

The fight with Gong Er is a great one not just because of the acrobatics and the don’t-break-anything-gimmick (in a movie where the camera seems obsessed with the effects of people thrown through windows, mirrors, tables, walls, etc.) but because it spins the story off in a different direction. It becomes about this unrequited love story of a woman who clearly has a thing for Ip Man but also takes a vow against ever marrying or having kids. From Ip Man’s perspective I think you could read it as longing (don’t worry, he has lost his family to the war at this point) or merely as a genuine interest in convincing her to share her unique fighting style with the world. Or at least with him.

That’s the other great thing about the fight: she uses the 64 Hands, which her father has taught only to her. And it’s treated not as a deadly style, but as a beautiful expression. Using it against Ip Man is sharing herself with him, and she later speaks of the style metaphorically. She’s trying to teach him with it. That’s my favorite thing about THE GRANDMASTER is the way it uses fighting styles and moves as metaphors. They’re not just ways to kick ass, they are ideas.

Another example of this happens when Ma San (SPOILER) kills his master, inspiring Gong Er to sacrifice any happiness in life to get revenge. Before his death Yutian reveals to Ma San that the key to his “Supreme Move,” which is called “Old Monkey Hangs Up His Badge,” is to look back. He’s not just revealing his fighting secret, he’s offering his heartfelt advice. Fighting is talking about life.

(In related news, I gotta come up with my Supreme Move. I don’t think I have one yet.)

These fighters are poets. They love metaphors. They talk about their actions as a blade inside a sheath, or a log in a fire, or a pot of snake stew. They talk about their lives as seasons, as opera, as chess.

There are alot of interesting characters besides Ip Man. One in particular, The Razor Yixiantian (Chen Chang), leaves you wanting more. I kinda forgot who he was by the time he showed up in the later days working in a barbershop. You have to wonder – did he always like cutting hair, and that’s why he was nicknamed the Razor? Is The Razor ending up a barber an ironic coincidence? Is it a code so that people can find him? Is it his idea of a joke? I don’t know, but any of those are pretty awesome. It definitely seems like there must’ve been more about this guy in Wong’s unreleased 4 hour version.

Leung and Ziyi both give some of their best performances, both emotionally and physically. Hats off especially to Leung for being a non martial artist who trained in Wing Chun and made it look good. And I appreciate that even after decades pass they aren’t hidden behind old age makeup. Wong figures fuck it, gives them subtle signs of age, and lets them just play it as older.

IP MAN is appealing for its balance of spectacular fights and effective character drama, but it’s definitely a fight movie. THE GRANDMASTER leans away from fight movie and more into operatic melodrama and visual poetry. But it still includes a ton of my favorite fight movie elements: challenge fights, one-on-many street brawls, loyal bodyguards (this one with a pet monkey!), legendary fighting styles, training by a series of specialists, revenge for the killing of a master (and father). These things don’t feel like the point of the movie, but they deliver above and beyond the call of duty.

Take for example the scene in 1950 when Ip Man is questioned about his skills by young thugs allegedly interested in joining his school. This is one of the few scenes that plays like a standard IP MAN or FIST OF FURY type badass teacher scenario. They outnumber him and are trying to intimidate him, but he scares them by demanding “Lock the gates!” Then he proceeds to demonstrate each of the Wing Chun kicks, in order, on them. He allows himself a rare bit of cockiness here, telling a guy “That one’s free” after a painful “lesson.”

But while generously giving us the goods, Wong also explores the ethics of martial arts in interesting ways. When Er decides to seek vengeance she’s going against her father’s dying wish, as well as his students’ very convincing arguments. She and Ma San represent the last vestiges of his teachings, his unification of styles. If they fight it breaks that unity and will forever end one of his two styles. It would bring shame upon the school and end his legacy.

But she decides she won’t be at peace without revenge, so she does it anyway, and what’s worse as part of her quest she takes a vow to never marry, have kids or teach. (I’m not sure if that’s based on an actual tradition or is just a convenient gimmick to get to the emotions Wong wants to get to.) So she’s lonely and sad and can’t pass on the 64 Hands. Ip Man tries to convince her to teach it, or at least show it to him again. As a teacher, we’re told (and already know), he goes on to influence many people and pass on a legacy. As much as we admire him and his cool white hat we’re left mourning all those who weren’t able to do that, those who left behind nothing but the group photos we keep seeing them pose for. Their beautiful movements and metaphors, for whatever reason, evaporated with the rain.


VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 21st, 2013 at 1:32 am and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

24 Responses to “The Grandmaster”

  1. I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of Wong kar wai’s movies, but I recognize him as an important film maker. And you just don’t butcher the work of important film makers. What do they hope to achieve? Sure, you can rope in some action fans that wouldn’t normally go to see a film like this, but those who know anything about movies see both Tony Leung and Wong kar wai’s name on the poster and know immedeately what kind of movie this is.

  2. I really like a lot of Wong Kar Wai’s work, though his only other martial arts film ASHES OF TIME left me a little perplexed. Apparently the REDUX version is a lot stronger, but I haven’t seen that one.

  3. I just wonder why Scorcese, who is one of the biggest lovers of true movie magic out there, would be willing to give his name for the Weinsteinized version.

  4. Hey Vern, what kind of player do you have for imports?

  5. If only all filmmakers had the balls that Mayazaki and his producer have, and just said NO to Weinstein.

    From the Guardian in 2005:

    There is a rumour that when Harvey Weinstein was charged with handling the US release of Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki sent him a samurai sword in the post. Attached to the blade was a stark message: “No cuts.”

    The director chortles. “Actually, my producer did that. Although I did go to New York to meet this man, this Harvey Weinstein, and I was bombarded with this aggressive attack, all these demands for cuts.” He smiles. “I defeated him.”

    http://www.theguardian.com/film/2005/sep/14/japan.awardsandprizes

  6. you don’t fuck with the Miyazaki

  7. Side note of interest dealing with the underlying man/character. IP Man : The Final Fight is out on vod. This is the a continuation film from Herman Yau that also did The Legend is Born: IP man. I’m kinda interested. Plus it stars Anthony Wong. Hands down one of my absolute all time favorite actors. I can’t watch it until the weekend because of work, but I have it downloaded.

    I have not seen Grandmaster yet and according to the news and Vern’s review, I will be ordering an import as well and holding off until that gets here.

    By the way, I understand the cutthroat nature of the business. Any deal is better than no deal. But seriously, why does anyone still go with the Weinsteins? Fucking egomaniacal, statue chasing, business savvy but story deficient douchebags. Really, Snowpiercer is getting the same treatment after Korea lapped it up in the uncut version with a spoon.

    Sooner or later, film needs to be film again. Directors and writers and actors collaborate on a vision and that is what the audience has the chance to see. I hate to see the decline of my interest in going to the theaters but I am seriously loving VOD as it seems to offer options above and beyond what DTV used to. Interesting dynamic and I am afraid no one will be making serious bucks on movies that matter, but that in and of itself means the movies will matter because they will be a passion project and not a cash grab. Sorry for the rant.

  8. So fuck it, here is my review of the 130-minutes-including-credits Suitable-For-The-Entire-World-Except-For-America-Because-How-Could-They-Ever-Understand-It Cut.

    Actually Wong already recut the film for the “international” release (Europe, Japan, South Korea, Russia, etc.). It’s an “intermediate” cut that runs a bit over two hours.

  9. Apparently the REDUX version is a lot stronger, but I haven’t seen that one.

    I’m sure there are people who think the Redux version is better. I don’t think it’s possible to make an argument that it’s “a lot stronger.” It cuts out a couple of action scenes that Wong apparently only inserted at the behest of his producers, which is no great loss, but it also replaces Frankie Chan’s absolutely iconic original score with some rearranged orchestral versions that I can only describe as “wank.” It also fucks up the opening scene with some jarring CGI and gives the whole movie a new custard-yellow color scheme that looks interesting but also looks nothing like film. I would say it’s a fascinating alternative, except Wong has decided to bury all the pre-Redux versions, so from now on there’ll be nothing except the Redux and crap 1990s-vintage video releases of the longer cut.

  10. Bob – My understanding is the Berlin Film Festival cut was 130 and the one you’re talking about is 122… the Hong Kong DVD I watched is 130, but that’s including credits, so I’m not sure which it is.

    Either way, no other country is getting this “explanatory text and Zhang Ziyi’s not in it very much” version. That’s an American exclusive I believe.

  11. The Berlin cut was the international cut. It does in fact have some additional explanatory title cards, though maybe not as many as the U.S. version. It doesn’t trim much of the Zhang Ziyi material though, and in fact expands on it a little with an extended flashback scene (which is also in the U.S. cut, according to the linked article) and an additional, rather pointless scene with Chang Chen that isn’t in the Chinese or the U.S. cut (they coincidentally walk into the same restaurant in Hong Kong but don’t acknowledge each other).

  12. So just to clarify, there’s three cuts of this in circulation now:

    1) Chinese cut (130m)
    2) “International”/Berlin cut (122m)
    3) U.S. cut (108m, which will probably be released in other English-speaking markets where the Weinsteins have the rights, like the UK and Australia)

    If you want to be really technical, there’s actually four cuts, since the Hong Kong Blu-ray has some small differences from what was actually released in theaters–music substitutions, a different closing credits sequence, and some minor wording changes in the intertitles. Not really surprising given that post-production was clearly a mess (it missed its original release date by three weeks, Wong was still shooting just a couple of weeks ahead of the opening, it barely passed Chinese censorship in time for the premiere, and half of the Hong Kong prints had no English subtitles because they weren’t ready in time).

  13. Bob:

    By “stronger”, I suppose I mean “more cohesive as a whole”, though with a film-maker like Wong Kar Wai, it’s a very difficult (and hugely subjective) thing to quantify. Adored the one-two punch of IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE and 2046, though I seem to recall the latter went through some pretty radical restructuring as he was shooting/editing.

    Looking forward to this, but which cut (leaving aside the 108 min version) should I be trying to track down?

    Crawford:

    That’s a lovely Miyazaki anecdote, cheers.

  14. Speaking of alternate cuts, has anyone seen the multitude of Oliver Stones ALEXANDERses? Have you ever reviewed that one, Vern?

  15. So Vern, I posted your review at another website because I want the word spread on the real version. Enjoy the extra hits!

    I know cinema is a business but fuck when somebody wipes their ass with your film and more or less ruins it for the market you want it distributed in, why take Weinstein’s money? Surely you can find a distributor willing to release the movie with your cut (or at worst, a negotiated release) if not necessarily the same price tag. If you believe good films are wine, you treat it as such and keep it in the cellar at good wine-friendly temperatures. You don’t treat it like fuckin’ Budweiser.

    Speaking of Miyazaki, doesn’t he still have a relationship with Disney in the states with his releases?

  16. Vern, I see that the Weinstein Comapany has a tournament countdown to THE GRANDMASTER on Facebook. Are you gonna sue?

  17. Paul Whose Computer Has Packed In

    August 23rd, 2013 at 7:12 am

    You see, this would make me nervous about buying this on DVD. I normally get my DVDs from a store in the town centre, which is near where I live. (Yes, we still have those.) I wouldn’t know which version I’d be getting without any way to search the Internet, etc. I suspect I might have been burned with IP Man, since some of the stuff that’s mentioned in both Vern’s review and the subsequent comments is stuff I don’t actually remember being in the film (of course, this might just be my memory playing up.)

  18. This is why you guys need porn stores that stock Asian imports. For ten bucks, you always get the original homeland cut, and often months before the Weinsteins finally get around to releasing their butchered version. Plus, you get to support local (probably Mob-run) businesses AND keep your money out of those Hollywood imperialist pig-dogs’ pockets. It’s convenient, cost-effective, grassroots, vaguely socialist, and kind of sleazy, all at the same time.

  19. Hey, we need to be posting more about THE GRANDMASTER. It’s not all Ben Affleck and BACK TO THE FUTURE, you know.

    I only saw the U.S. version, and I didn’t FEEL like Zhang Ziyi was a minor character, although reading the description of the original cut it seems like there definitely was a lot more. I don’t know, Weinstein did release HERO pretty much unchanged, right? They shortened TOM YUM GOONG and changed the music, but it didn’t really matter. Audiences still didn’t go. It’s not like putting gangsta rap on SUPERCOP (great soundtrack though), and that was the only time they did that. They released OPERATION CONDOR dubbed and edited but it’s actually better paced then the Hong Kong cut. Then they dumped the other Jackie Chan movies straight to video. Oh, TWIN DRAGONS came out in theaters. I don’t think they changed a thing except dubbing it in English.

  20. I was excited to see this in theaters, but now I am totally bummed out by the news that it is some bastardized American cut of the film. Man I hate the Weinsteins. They could at least release an American cut and an international cut of the film in the states and let the consumer choose.

  21. I’ve now seen both the American and Chinese cuts of this. The biggest difference in the American/Weinstein version are some concessions to Western ignorance, and instead of showing them linearly it moves Gong Er’s scenes taking place during the war to a flashback told to Yip Man in Hong Kong.

    What’s funny though is, I watched the western cut first and was convinced that the movie was more butchered than it really was – that the rhythms, narration and title cards were all added in for the lowest common denominator audience. And some of them were, but a good deal were in the 130 minute version too. What’s clear to me now is that both cuts are highly truncated versions of a much longer movie, which I’d one day love to see. And I think they both have positive qualities, though I prefer the 130 minute version.

    The impression I got from the western cut is that it’s still Gong Er’s movie as much as Yip Man’s, and by the end of it I felt like I knew her better than him. Her best scenes are equally powerful in both versions – when she tells Ma San after beating him that he didn’t give her back her family’s honor, she took it back, and (in my opinion the movie’s most devastating scene) the teahouse scene in Hong Kong where she says “To say there are no regrets in life is to fool yourself. Imagine how boring life would be without regrets.”

    Moving the story of her revenge to the third act makes it take on the quality of a revelation for Yip Man – gives it a more melodramatic edge. The Weinsten version also rearranges the moment where she renounces marriage so that she can take revenge, placing it (iirc) after she tells the story of defeating Ma San – so again that it is a late-in-the-story revelation that solves the mystery of why she couldn’t be with Yip Man. In the 130 minute cut, the Hong Kong scenes between the two of them are more explicitly about kung fu, and about his desire to pass on her family’s martial legacy. The western version makes it seem more like he’s pursuing her to rekindle an old love.

    The western version is missing a bunch of beautiful and classic little Wong Kar-Wai moments, like when Yip Man washes his wife’s feet or when Gong Er speaks into a hole in a wall (very IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE type of scene there). It does add one cool if somewhat inexplicable scene where Yip Man and The Razor have a fight of sorts, and it adds in some other moments like Yip Man trying on the winter coat; Yip Man saying in voiceover that after he wore a suit for his ID photo he would never wear one again for the rest of his life, which I really liked; scenes of Gong Er as a child.

    I love that this is a movie that takes kung fu extremely seriously, much moreso in the 130 minute version. Fights end with a cookie breaking, or a step being broken. There’s some quality asskicking in the movie, but it’s the rare martial arts film that makes you feel like it’s unimportant to see someone’s ass getting kicked. Tony Leung’s incredible performance goes a long way towards communicating this, his gentleness, humility and low-key sense of humor all feel so perfectly unforced and real. And Zhang Ziyi does great work as a passionate woman strangled by Confucian values – the tragedy of her life is the movie’s ‘real’ story.

    The note the western version ends on is pretty interesting, because it takes a scene from the beginning of the movie (flashback of Yip Man’s childhood, showing him learning Wing Chun from Foshan’s master) and places it in an end montage, with Yip Man explaining in narration that in his time Wing Chun was available only to the privileged – that you had to pay an equivalent to a dowry to be trained. I assume this is subtext that didn’t need to be explained to a Chinese audience, but for me it was new information and gave context to his decision to bring Wing Chun to the people. It then concludes with some pretty cool clips of him beating the shit out of people that weren’t in a scene in either version.

    I also want to say that I thought the actors who played the Southern masters who Yip Man tested himself against before the showdown versus Gong Yutian, were really cool. I especially enjoyed La Ga-Yung as Yong – this was his first movie since Drunken Master II! Which reminds me of one other difference between versions: in the American version it tries to build suspense about the outcome of the ‘fight’ between Gong Yutian and Yip Man, but in the Chinese version it makes it clear in several scenes leading up to it that not only does Gong Yutian expect to lose, he wants to lose so that he can pass the torch onto a younger generation.

    This is a movie that really stuck with me. I think it’s up there with WKW’s best films, no matter what version you see (though again I would recommend the 130 min cut first). The way the fights are shot is not how I would ordinarily describe my ideal fight scenes, but the movie has a specific purpose in its style; the repetition of visual themes like foot movement and the impact of blows was in my opinion incredibly beautiful and gave everything an attractive mythic/dreamy quality as opposed to a traditional way of shooting a kung fu fight. And the attention it pays to the inner lives of its characters gives it a really rare kind of emotional delicacy that you almost never get from an action film. It’s an impressive movie.

  22. Thanks Dikembe. Great write up. I should check if it’s still playing around here.

  23. Dikembe, thanks for the heads up but I don’t want the Weinsteins to get any of my money as a sign of protest. I am sick of them butchering Asian cinema. Those bastards are still holding DRUNKEN MASTER 2 hostage, and will not release the original cut of the film on Blu or DVD.

  24. “his gentleness, humility and low-key sense of humor all feel so perfectly unforced and real.”

    Putting aside the fact that he is a great actor, the man is like that in real life.

    Great review Vern, thanks. I have watched the US version in theatre and loved it. I can’t imagine how it would feel if/when I get to watch the complete version. Can’t wait!

    Miyazaki anecdote was great, thnx for sharing :) Respect to Miyazaki San.

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