Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Grandmaster

While flying home from LA on a business trip, I was stunned and delighted to find that the selection of movies included a martial arts movie: director Wong Kar-wai's Ip Man biopic The Grandmaster! Thank you, United Airlines, for not limiting my choice to the usual airline fodder: the latest attempts at comedy from former SNLers and formulaic rom-coms.

From what I understand, three cuts of The Grandmaster have screened (insert annoyed growl). There's the original Chinese theatrical release (130 minutes), a version shown at Cannes (123 minutes), and the typically slashed US version (108 minutes). From what I gather in the always helpful consumer reviews on amazon, no 'full' or 'uncut' version of The Grandmaster exists because new scenes were added to the Cannes version that did not appear in the Chinese release. So buying a copy of this movie right now is risky, as the situation cries out for a Director's Cut or Collector's Edition. I'm not sure which version I saw, but I'm 99% positive it wasn't the US version because a) what I saw had to be a minimum of two hours, b) there was no option for dubbed English, and c) dialogue concerning martial arts philosophy is what usually ends up on the cutting room floor in US versions of martial arts movies.

So, with that out of the way, the other elephant in the room is how Kar-wai's The Grandmaster stacks up against what (I imagine) is its key competition, Donnie Yen's Ip Man and Ip Man 2 (click to get to reviews on Zen Throw Down). My conclusion is that the Kar-wai and Yen movies are so different in approach and style that it's a bit hard to compare them. Yen's Ip Man (the original, that is, the sequel is pretty lame across the board) is the better picture in terms of fight scenes. While Leung reportedly studied martial arts to star in Kar-wai's movie, Yen is without question a far better martial artist. Ip Man has far more satisfying displays of martial arts than we get in The Grandmaster. The latter movie uses a too much wire-fu, slow-mos, cuts, and slick art direction to compete on this score. For example, the first fight in the movie employs a ludicrous amount of rain to dramatize the scene. It's like the actors are fighting in a pool of water! It's not that the fight scenes in The Grandmaster are bad; they're just not intended to be as direct and visceral.

That said, the fight scenes in The Grandmaster are given a far better context than Ip Man provided. Ip Man was a bit dark in tone and lacked much focus on martial arts philosophy. The Grandmaster delivers this content in spades. Over and over, the dialogue - and perhaps the whole theme of the movie - is steeped in martial arts philosophy and questions of honor. Several fights are driven by or preceded by such content. For me, this makes the fights resonate more. For a fan of martial arts movies, I think both are worth seeing depending on your mood. If you want straight-up fight scenes, then Yen's movie is your choice. If you want something deeper then opt for Kar-wai. For those not into martial arts movies as a genre, The Grandmaster is the best choice.

The Grandmaster has flashes of the cinematography and graceful wire-fu that made Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero beautiful to watch. Wisely, Kar-wai doesn't take his film anywhere near as far in this direction as those movies. The Grandmaster and remains mostly grounded in reality. This approach fits the more dramatic tone of the movie, yet does not make us question whether the movie belongs in the genre. The Grandmaster is also propelled by the performances of an excellent cast. Tony Leung's portrayal of Ip Man outshines Yen's for, while Yen is without doubt the better martial artist, Leung is without doubt the better actor. The Grandmaster also offers the always compelling Ziyi Zhang. She very nearly steals the movie as - strangely - she has more storyline than Leung!

As a biopic overall, The Grandmaster works better than the Yen franchise. The Grandmaster covers the same historic timeline as the two Ip Man movies however, since Ip Man 2 is a very weak movie, The Grandmaster does a better job telling the whole story. Both films also have brief references in their endings to Ip Man meeting the young Bruce Lee. In Ip Man 2, this meeting is handled in an embarrassingly ham-fisted manner. In The Grandmaster, it is quite subtle. The facial resemblance of the child playing the young Bruce Lee to the actual actor is the only cue we're given and we are allowed to make the connection ourselves.

I'd highly recommend The Grandmaster, even if you have seen Ip Man. It's a different take on the story and a different kind of movie altogether, and it's a satisfying viewing experience filled with dialogue and fights that breath in the spirit of the martial arts.

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