I stalled on seeing Wong Kar-Wai's The Grandmaster because the U.S. release is 22 minutes shorter than the 130-minute version released in China. Wong reportedly doesn't share my concerns, claiming that he rose to the challenge of refashioning his film for (my words) attention-deficit America. So be it. What's on screen in The Grandmaster is off-puttingly disjointed, but it's also dazzling in its startling action and ravishing romance. Who'd expect less from the Hong Kong visionary who ranked No. 3 on Sight & Sound's list of the Top 10 directors of the modern era. On the basis of Ashes of Time, Chungking Express, Happy Together and 2000's transcendent In the Mood for Love, you'll get no argument from me. Wong, 57, doesn't make movies that evaporate as you watch them. He crafts movies you live and breathe in until they're absorbed into your system. In short, his movies are the stuff that dreams are made of. The Grandmaster is no exception. At first, you might mistake the film for a biopic with the great Tony Leung cast as Ip Man (1893-1972), the martial-arts virtuoso who taught Bruce Lee. But as we watch Ip Man interact with other kung fu fighters in scenes of clashing styles and rigid methodology, we see that Wong is capturing a long view of Chinese history that extends to the world outside. With the invaluable help of fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping and the superb cinematographer Phillippe Le Sourd, Wong turns these acts of violence into a brutal ballet. Asked to show what he's got for legendary master Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang), Ip Man achieves a strangely peaceful victory that sparks a rivalry with the old man's daughter Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), who appears to take flight as she takes him on. Zhang, so memorable in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is truly poetry in motion. Her scenes with Leung, a mesmerizing screen presence even (or especially) when silent and standing completely still, simmer with erotic tension. As ever with Wong, the longing is all. Has any filmmaker ever made melancholy this seductive? You leave this deeply flawed, deeply beautiful film with no doubt that you've seen an indisputable cinematic grandmaster in action.
Courtesy The Weinstein Company