The Grandmaster was massively fucked with on its way to U.S. theaters. Is it clearly the case that the changes that director Wong Kar-wai executed under the watchful eye of chop-happy impresario Harvey Weinstein make the film worse? Search me. But it's just not possible to watch the film as it exists in North America at this time, and wonder: are those erratic, jarring cuts (of which there are a noticeable number) part of the compromised version we're getting here, or was that what Wong had it mind all along? Are the strange narrative elisions there on purpose, and the title cards are there solely to connect the dots for Westerners? Or are those cards summarising scenes that stayed behind in China? Is Zhang Ziyi's character supposed to wander in and out of the plot so randomly, or does she have more to do in the fuller version (this, at least, I can answer: yes, she does a lot more, and that knowledge alone is enough to piss me off; what little bit of Zhang we get in the American cut is enough to mark her out as the best actor in the whole cast).
But let me be fair and review the movie I saw, and leave reviewing the movie I didn't see for what I hope will be an awesome Blu-Ray set containing all three cuts of the film released across the world.* Viewed in that light, The Grandmaster U.S. is hardly a disappointment, though a lot of it feels like the Romantic stylist in the director's chair is on autopilot for large swaths of the film, and while Philippe Le Sourd's cinematography certainly showcases one utterly gorgeous chiaroscuro tableau after another, I pang for the loss of Wong's longtime collaborator Christopher Doyle, who could do utterly gorgeous tableaux like nobody's business, and also make them feel "meatier", like the beauty serves any kind of purpose besides just being nice to look at. No sane person with eyes could deny that The Grandmaster is eye candy of the first order, but there's nothing really about this story, set in this period, that requires this visual style. It is, in effect, a Wong Kar-wai film noir, and though writing it like that gets me all kinds of hot and bothered, there are plenty of films in his career where that construction would have made a hell of a lot more sense than it does here.
The film is - in its Weinstein-backed incarnation, anyway - a biopic of Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu Wai - of the the two Tony Leungs, the one who's done more films with Wong), the man chiefly responsible for spreading the wing chun style of martial arts through China and then the world. "And he taught Bruce Lee!" pipes up the marketing campaign. Yes, he did, but The Grandmaster isn't founded on that fact and doesn't really give a shit about it, except in title cards that are known to be an addition for the distributor's idealised Stupid As Fuck Americans.
In the decade that it took Wong to bring this story to fruition, Ip Man's life has been the subject of a handful of other biopics, but The Grandmaster isn't looking to tell a clear-cut "this is what happened" kind of tale, and thus doesn't feel redundant. It take the matter of Ip Man's life as a means for exploring emotional states (the director's specialty, overall), not for tracking the spread of wing chun, nor of clearly depicting the movements in Ip's life, which is all wobbly-paced in this telling, anyway. The opening act consists of the time that Ip was present at the visit of Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), the greatest grandmaster of northern kung fu, to the leaders of southern fighting styles; the southerners all decided that Ip should be their chosen fighter in combat with Gong, to prove the worthiness of their philosophies and abilities. At this time, Ip also meets the grandmaster's haughty daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), and they have a spirited fight with one another that ends in victory for her, and a promise from him that they will have a rematch someday.
This does not happen: instead, Japan invades China and Ip's life goes to hell. Divided from his family, obliged to eke out a living teaching wing chun in Hong Kong during and after World War II, he can rely only on his well-honed philosophies to keep him content and alive. Gong Er loses, arguably, even more: her very sense of self is damaged in the war as her father's chosen successor Ma San (Zhang Jin) becomes a collaborator with the Japanese, leading her on a lifelong quest for revenge.
In this iteration, The Grandmaster has been streamlined and filled with exposition to make it as clear as possible what's going on, and this has the profoundest negative effect I can imagine: it is a film which lifelessly synopsises everything in momentum-crushing asides that leave the connections between moments we actually see pointlessly vague, and while very nearly every individual scene in the movie works on its own merits, the whole film is a disjointed, meandering mess, following multiple plot threads without elegance or clarity. And perhaps I am just a stupid American who doesn't know remotely enough about the 20th Century history of kung fu to follow the rhythm of this film, but since that's precisely the issue that this cut of The Grandmaster was meant to address, I think it's fair to say that it failed.
Still, the minute-to-minute experience of watching the film is always engaging and sometimes quite rewarding, particularly since Ip Man and Gong Er are two such complex and interesting people, though as Gong has the more tragic arc, it's hardly surprising that she ends up making more of an impression, and the fact that the material plays very much as "greatest hits" material for the character means that Zhang has a lot more dramatic beats per minute than Leung does, whose performance ends up receding just a bit as a result.
Wong being not much of an action director but very much a director of character drama, the martial arts sequences end up playing like the songs in a musical or the duets in a ballet: they are the stand in for psychological development, and they do this quite well (the first action scene, maybe less so: though the slow-motion-in-the-rain concept behind it is so perfectly, quintessentially Wong Kar-wai pictorialism that I will forgive all lapses). Legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping doesn't reach the heights of invention and intensity of his best stuff, of course - Leung studied martial arts diligently to take the role, but not for the lifetime it would require to become an actual grandmaster - but allowing that the fighting is required to operate in a much cooler register than "real" martial arts action films permit (for this is no action film at all), it's cunningly reduced to focus, not on the pyrotechnic fighting that we're missing, but on the narrative quality of what we're given.
I find myself torn: this is beautiful, poetic, elegiac filmmaking, and its depiction of time passing and things being loss is mournful without being obnoxiously sad, just sort of melancholy and nostalgic. But it's a strange movie, that builds this way and then peters out, introduces subplots randomly, forgets about characters even in the act of introducing them, and there's absolutely no flow between scenes, just a hectic attempt at back-and-forth structure that doesn't pay off the way I think it's supposed to (ideally, this seems like it ought to be about the way that the present tense and memory interact; it only very rarely achieves that). I can't imagine that the Chinese cut isn't superior, but I'm not discussing the Chinese cut. The American version is beautiful and moody, and it is muddy in expression, but probably worth seeing anyway. Still, this film, in this cut, is the least coherent and engaging film that Wong has made in his home country, and as likable as it is, it's definitely not worth the many years it took to complete it.