There are several cuts of The Grandmaster at the moment. The original film ran approximately 130 minutes, but the version featured at the BIFF was the American cut of 109 minutes. While each cut has its own ‘uniqueness’ to it, the featured version at BIFF felt like an incomplete film. The cinematography was beautiful and the action sequences were spectacularly crafted, but the whole film was muddled by poor storytelling.
The film’s main protagonist is Ip Man (played by Tony Leung), who is the man that popularized the Wing Chun form of kung fu and he just happens to be Bruce Lee’s master. While we’re all lead to believe the film is about the titular character, the film evolves into a Chinese history tale told from Ip Man’s perspective. Throughout the film, title cards would appear to indicate what is happening in the movie as it jumps forward in time quite a bit. I don’t know whether to appreciate the fact that the director wants to keep us up to speed with the movie or whether to feel like he’s taking the easy and lazy way out in terms of filmmaking. Eventually the film moves onto the almost non-existent love story between Ip Man and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi). Gong Er is the daughter of the northern grandmaster, whom Ip met early in the film. They find their way to Hong Kong in the post World War II era, where their relationship develops. The American version of the film seems to focus on this unconsummated love, which feels rather unsatisfying because this love feels thin and easily forgettable, even if it doesn’t seem to be the case for the characters.
There are certain sequences in this movie that stand out as being some of the most beautiful moments in film this year. From the beams of light cutting across snowflakes to watching the wind blow across a fur hat, Wong Kar Wai certainly knows how to capture the moments and let us all absorb into the beauty of it all. The action sequence in the train station was a wonder to behold and it is the highlight of the entire film. Then there’s also a scene featuring Gong Er practicing her father’s art, and the way that whole sequence was shot, you can just feel the snow brush off her sleeves. Perhaps all the focus was on these moments that he lost the big picture in the film. The story often felt fragmented, switching from biography to martial arts epic to a pseudo-love story, but it never melds into anything that feels uniform. It’s as if through the 5 years of film development, all these ideas were dumped into a large pot and the end product is a mash of everything.
The American cut of The Grandmaster feels like an unfinished product. Too many things were left to be desired. I must say it is a beautifully shot film, but its lack of purpose and focus detracts the film from its full potential. The film starts off with the intent on telling the story of Ip Man and his journey to become a renowned grandmaster but then it leaves to focus on Gong Er’s story (which surprisingly is the more interesting part of the movie). I may not have seen the other cuts of The Grandmaster, but I can’t help to think that the other two are better versions of this movie.