The Grandmaster 一代宗師 (2013) – Hong Kong / China

Review by: Andrew Chan FCCA AACTA
Review Date: 20th January 2013
In cinemas around Asia in January / Febuary 2013

Directed by: Wong Kar-wai
Produced by: Ng See-yuen, Wong Kar-wai
Written by: Wong Kar-wai
Screenplay by: Wong Kar-wai, Zou Jingzhi, Xu Haofeng
Story by: Wong Kar-wai
Starring: Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Zhao Benshan, Song Hye-kyo, Wang Qingxiang

Hong Kong Box Office Takings: HK$21,156,949

Also Reviewed as part of 37th Hong Kong International Film Festival 2013

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Before I launch into this review, I must admit my personal affection for Wong Kar Wai’s films. Therefore, my anticipation for long awaited “The Grandmaster”, (which took more than 5 years to film and more than a decade from research to final product) is pretty much sky-rocketed. In creating this epic of a film, one can easier tell how much detail, effort and time, Wong took for every scene, every movement, and every moment to the point of witnessing the longest slow burn cigarette scene in cinematic history. However, effort does not always equate to perfection, as “The Grandmaster” is every bit unfinished, a work-in-progress and quite frankly featuring a Wong Kar Wai that is easily out of his normal comfort zone. Still, like all Wong’s films there is alot to admire, every scenes and moments are breathtaking to look at and there are bits and pieces in the film that works better than many other films combined. Despite, all its flaws, “The Grandmaster” still ranks as one of the best unfinished film ever made.

Wong Kar Wai has always been a filmmaker that tells stories in his own unique and incoherent manner; this is both Wong’s greatest strength and also his ultimate nemesis in “The Grandmaster”. In this film, Wong is required to tell a story, a bio-pic about a man, a hero and an icon, well-known to the Chinese people. This is where the issue lies, Wong is never great at story telling in the normal way, therefore whenever Wong attempts to film in a coherent manner, it feels rather out of place, distant and far from home. When Wong tries to display a scene of regrets, memories and unrequited love, it feels rather forced in the midst of Kung Fu and Wing Chun fighting. There is one scene between Ip Man (played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai “2046”) and Gong Er (played by Zhang Ziyi “2046”), where the symbol of a broken clothing button is given special meaning. Whereas, a scene with this kind of symbol works to perfection in films like “2046”, “In the Mood for Love” and “Happy Together” and pretty much any other Wong’s previous filmography. In “The Grandmaster”, the scene feels rather pretentious, forced and insignificant.

Another issue with the film is the lack of the depth and attention given to the title character Ip Man. Tony Leung Chiu Wai is a great actor and even without his famed eyes in last year’s “The Silent War”, he is still a cut above most of his peers. However, his protrayal of Ip Man lacks a motivation, a character and more importantly valuable screen time. In fact, at times, the film seems to shift its focus too much attention to another grandmaster in Zhang Ziyi’s Gong Er. I am not trying to say that Zhang Ziyi is not an interesting actress or character, but the lack of insight into the man is almost startling. This is probably due to Wong’s own proclaimation that the original cut runs at more than 4 hours, whereas the cinematic version is trimmed down to 138 minutes. If that is truely the case, “The Grandmaster” should never be just one film, but rather a film with two parts as there are many stones left unturned. Namely, the almost non-existent, but scene stealing extended cameo by Chang Chen as Yixiantian. Chen appears in the film seems as though he is from another story, far too random, it is probably easy to say, but one cannot stop and wonder, what is the motivation behind his character and essentially why is Chen even in the film for. Likewise, Korean actress Song Hye-kyo (“Autumn in My Heart”) as Cheung Wing-sing (Zhang Yongcheng) (who plays Ip Man’s wife) is given only one line of dialogue. Little is known or explored between the relationship of Ip Man and his wife, other than that it is somewhat loving with a routine edge.

As mentioned before, the film like all Wong Kar Wai productions are visually stunning to the point of being a work of art. Surprisingly with the help of action director Yuen Woo-ping, “The Grandmaster” features some of the most graceful Wing Chun or martial arts fight scenes since Zhang Yimou’s “Hero”. Almost all the fight scenes are immaculately filmed as different Wing Chun fighting style are detailed to the level of perfection. One can tell how much effort and research Wong used to depict and add realism into this aspect of his work. In fact, Wong venture personally to all over China and spoke to each of these Grandmasters of martial arts in order to understand the true spirit of the art at its core and time. Through three years of intensive training in Wing Chun, Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi looks every bit convincing in almost all their fight scenes.

All in all, “The Grandmaster” is by no means a bad movie, but it feels far too unfinished and disjointed. There are wonderful moments in the film and those moments are plentiful and worthy of cinematic viewing. There are times in the film, when Tony Leung almost gasped the image of Ip Man, in particular during Zhang Ziyi’s confession of love scene. The look and response on Leung’s face is almost priceless to endure. As an expert in engrossing the audience with emotions, Wong manages to reach a crescendo of feelings during the explosions and the invading Japanese and there is a short moment of regret as Leung spoke of seeing his wife for the last time. However, those overwhelming feelings are far and inbetween. Still, in making, “The Grandmaster”, Wong Kar Wai has become a box office drawcard in his own right. As a film, “The Grandmaster” feels every bit of a film that is still heavily within work-in-progress stage and if the rumor of a four hour film runs true, it will certainly be worth waiting for. Till such a time exist, it is probably safe for me to proclaim “The Grandmaster” as the greatest unfinished film ever made. (Neo 2013)

I rated it 7.5/10

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