Like Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, this is a film about the nostalgic evocation of time, space, style, and tradition.
Dir. Wong Kar Wai
2013 | Hong Kong/China | Action/Biography/Drama | 130 mins | 2.35:1 | Mandarin, Cantonese & Japanese
PG13 (passed clean) for some coarse language
Cast: Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen
Plot: The story of martial-arts master Ip Man, the man who trained Bruce Lee.
Awards: Nom. for 2 Oscars – Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design; Official Selection (Berlinale)
International Sales: Wild Bunch
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Viewed: In Theatres
First Published: 26 Jan 2013
In one sequence in The Grandmaster, Wong Kar Wai used an arrangement of ‘Deborah’s Theme’, originally composed by Ennio Morricone for Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984). That very moment when this evocative piece played, a sense of warmth filled my heart.
It was not any common kind of warmth, but the kind that emerged from both nostalgia and the assurance that you were in the hands of a master filmmaker. It was a beautiful marriage of music and visuals that captured the vision that Wong had laid out for his film.
Read what you will about Wong’s patient but labourious process of filmmaking, with The Grandmaster reportedly taking 12 years to make from conception to exhibition. In that context, die-hard fans of Wong will be disappointed to learn that a four-hour original cut was trimmed to about two hours for commercial release.
The result is still a breathtaking experience. It is not a masterpiece by any means, but it will prove to be Wong’s most commercially successful feature to date, after two decades being involved in arthouse films such as Chungking Express (1994), In the Mood for Love (2000), and 2046 (2004).
The Grandmaster tells the story of Ip Man (Tony Leung), at first through physical action choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, but later through the people he meets, in particular a highly-skilled female martial artist, played by Zhang Ziyi. Because the two-hour cut has been drastically edited, some of the stories of supporting characters become relegated to only a few scenes.
Ironically, Zhang’s role has the most screen time, and at times one might question if this is a film about Ip Man. Despite that, it is still a marvelous work that has the auteur’s signature touches imprinted over it, though the overuse of the slow-motion editing technique in its fight scenes appear to be too self-indulgent.
“Every great age presents a choice: to go forward, or stay back. I prefer to stay back, in the happiest times of my life.”
Despite its action set-pieces, The Grandmaster is still a slow-burning film. Its deliberate pacing will enthrall Wong’s fans, and brings tremendous focus to the cinematography by Philippe Le Sourd, which I must proclaim comes close to being perfect.
It is a film of two halves really, with the first hour gearing towards more action, and a second half that sees Wong returning to familiar dramatic themes of yearning, regrets, time and memory.
Wong’s treatment of the martial arts subgenre also alludes more to the nostalgic loss of a tradition than delivering the kind of grandeur and mysticism associated with and propagated by films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Hero (2002).
It is with fear that mainstream audiences may see Wong’s film as a meandering (or even poor) attempt at an entertaining action film, and thus unfairly labeling it as inferior to the Donnie Yen ‘Ip Man’ films that preceded it.
However, it is with hope that The Grandmaster will open new doors for audiences to take interest in the auteur’s earlier works. It is with even greater hope that the four-hour original cut will eventually come to light, and that we could one day appreciate Wong’s vision for The Grandmaster in its completeness and totality.