Grandmaster, The (US - BD RA)
Gabe is mesmerized by Wong Kar-wai's dreamy version of the Ip Man story...
If you were thinking to yourself ‘Boy, it certainly feels like there is an excess of bio-pics about Wing Chun master Ip Man coming out of China lately,’ you would not be alone. In 2008 and 2010, Wilson Yip released Ip Man and Ip Man 2, starring martial arts superstar Donnie Yen. Herman Yau’s The Legend Is Born – Ip Man, starring Dennis To (alongside actors from Yip’s films), was also released in 2010, while a Bruce Lee television series starring Yu Chenghui as Ip Man ran on Chinese television. Then, in 2013, Yau released a sequel, Ip Man: The Final Fight, starring Anthony Wong as an older grandmaster, and Yip helped produce a Ip Man television series with Kevin Chang as the titular character. That’s a lot of Ip Man. But retelling historical stories through the prism of martial arts action films is nothing new for Chinese/Hong Kong cinema. Tai Chi master Zhang Sanfeng has inspired novels and film for decades (most famously, Yuen Woo Ping’s Tai Chi Master, 1993), folk hero Fong Sai-yuk was the subject eight movies (three of them between 1993 and 1994), and revolutionary/physician/drunken master Wong Fei-hung motivated more than 100 films, serials, and TV shows since the 1940s (including Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China series). Due to renewed interest in Bruce Lee, it seems fitting that Lee’s teacher, Ip Man, is the latest subject of endless film adaptations.
The latest film in this series (or at least the latest to hit home video stateside) is Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster. This story covers a substantial period of time, beginning in the 1930s, where Ip Man, played this time by Tony Leung, is forced to deal with the Japanese invasion/occupation of China (a hardship covered in much more detail during Yip’s first Ip Man film). The story extends all the way through to the 1950s, where Ip Man is reunited with Bagua style master Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), a one time love interest who is hampered by her devotion to her father.
Despite the glut of similar productions, Wong’s name on the marquee as co-writer and director is certainly a reason to stoke enthusiasm. Not to diminish Yip or Yau’s skills, but Wong is high among the most important and influential directors currently working in China. Now, here’s the part where I admit I am woefully undereducated in Wong’s abilities, having only seen two of his movies – Chunking Express and Happy Together – and having seen them a very, very long time ago. But I knew enough to be aware that The Grandmaster was not Wong’s first foray into wu xia – in 1994, he made Ashes of Time (also starring Tony Leung). I was able to watch a copy of the re-released, reedited 2008 version of that film, retitled Ashes of Time Redux, while prepping for this review. Assuming it is a fair representation of the original (it is several minutes shorter), it is precisely what I’d expect from a Wong Kar-wai kung-fu epic. It’s a dreamy, poetic, dialogue-driven piece with limited locations and a sharp focus on melodrama over action. What action is included is every bit as epic and fanciful as the films Tsui Hark was directing and producing during that early/mid-‘90s era, which seemingly proved that Wong was happy to appease popular standards without obscuring his unique voice.
The Grandmaster is, generally speaking, a much more mainstream movie, though the story is still told via poetic dialogue and a collage of aggressively intimate images. Wong’s films are (as far as I’ve seen) embroiled in dramatic, character-driven conflict, but their unifying element is their unrestrained beauty. Sure enough, despite being overlooked for a Best Foreign Language Film nomination, the Academy bestowed The Grandmaster with well-deserved nominations for Best Cinematography (Philippe Le Sourd) and Best Costume Design (William Chang Suk Ping). I don’t believe Wong and company haven’t surpassed the exquisite allure of Zhang Yimou’s more spectacular martial arts concoctions, specifically Hero and House of Flying Daggers, but none of the digital effects-heavy Chinese action movies released in recent years are anywhere near as elegant. Wong occasionally threatens to unwind the film’s grandeur with jittery, low frame rate, slow motion shots, which he integrates somewhat ambivalently with the more flowy, over-cranked shots. Fans of his other work will likely be accustomed to this look, but I’ve never been a fan of it – not even when it shows up in classic kung fu cinema (where it was used as a cost saving measure) or Peter Jackson movies (where it often ruins an otherwise brilliant moment of action or violence). However, once I became accustomed to the almost musical rhythm of the films unconventional mosaic editing I found myself appropriately mesmerized.
The bad news is that this version of The Grandmaster has been heavily cut from an original runtime of 130 minutes down to a paltry 108 minutes by the sinister hands of Harvey ‘Americans Won’t Get It’ Weinstein (another international version runs 123 minutes). Those are some heavy cuts and enough to make me think I’ve only seen an outline of Wong’s intended film. Indeed, some of the overly sharp storytelling might be the fault of Harvey’s editors, not Wong or his editor, William Chang. The first act, where a wave of characters is introduced without enough time to absorb their purpose, and some of the scenes connecting time-spans (there are an awful lot of title cards that pop up to tell the audience what happened over a period of time) seem especially truncated. There’s also the matter of Ip Man disappearing for a significant amount of time towards the middle/end of the film – perhaps this imbalance would feel more natural with the original footage intact.
Edit: I'm being told that Wong himself prepped the US cut, making the broken story strands and stuttering narrative his fault, not Harvey Weinstein. I couldn't find any info proving this, but welcome any corrections.
Shorn of these 22 minutes, I find myself clinging to the majesty of the film’s epic and gorgeous wu xia sequences, choreographed by none other than Yuen Woo-ping – a grandmaster in his own right and the man behind the best modern fight choreography of the last three decades. The first fight is a multi-opponent mêlée shot in pouring rain. Wong obscures the finer movements in the dark streams of water and with impressionistic montage editing. Further fights are also shrouded in darkness and concealed by editing techniques, but the balletic physicality of Yuen’s choreography remains transparent and impactful. Wong eases us into the more clean-cut action, especially scenes involving his most vicious antagonist, Yixiantian ‘The Razor’ (Chang Chen), who is a more violent and visceral fighter. The final fight scene, where Gong Er’s battles Ma San (Zhang Jin) at a busy train station, is the high water mark of Wong and Yuen’s collaboration.
The Grandmaster is presented here in 2.35:1, 1080p HD video. The specs claim that the film was shot mostly using 35mm cameras with digital HD used for high-speed shots, but Wong and Academy Award nominated cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd’s images are so overtly colour graded and otherwise digitally augmented that it is almost impossible to tell that real film was even involved in the process. Grain occasionally clumps up enough to notice (I’m not counting the stock footage shots here) and some of the starker black edges have thin, film-like halo artefacts, but so much of the movie is so utterly clean that it really appears that it was shot digital HD. Details are tight, especially complex production design patterns, though textures are usually smoothed out by subtle gradations and the fact that so much of the film is shot in shallow focus close-ups. The bulk of the film is also filmed in low light, so some of the finer background detail is lost in deep pools of utter blackness. The palette has some subtle variations, but is heavily influenced by Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s three favorite colours – gold, red, and green. This is likely no mistake, because, despite Wong using a similar palette for 2046, Le Sourd’s early career included working assistant camera man on Jeunet and Marc Caro’s Delicatessen and City of Lost Children. These colours are normally harshly contrasted, as if the frames had been hand-painted, but there are also plenty of plush blends smeared throughout the film. The CG-assisted outdoor sequences tend to have cooler whites (kind of teal, actually) and these include minor macro-blocking issues – the only notable ones on the entire transfer.
The Grandmaster is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Mandarin as well as a 5.1 Dolby Digital English dub. Do note that the disc defaults to the lossy English dub if you don’t tell it otherwise. This review pertains only to the Mandarin track, which is spectacularly loud, crisp, and incredibly immersive. First off, the dialogue has a hypernatural quality. The voices boom from the center channel with just enough reverb to make them sound larger than life, but not so much that they sound artificial or inconsistent, as is the problem I’ve had with many recent Chinese releases. The aural environment is largely dictated by the music and dialogue, with many scenes being otherwise completely silent. The fights are obvious standouts, though there isn’t a specific set sound design for these scenes. Often, a battle’s aural tone is dictated by its thematic tones – some are hyperreaslistic, including whooshing fists and weapons, while others are more abstract and directionally busy. Other surround-enhanced moments include any number of rainy shots and the similarly stylized sounds of war (though Wong keeps most of the gunfire & explosions off screen). Composer Shigeru Umebayashi, working alongside additional music contributors Nathaniel Méchaly & Stefano Lentini (not to mention a number of classical standbys), has created a rich soundtrack that flows between romantic underscore and percussive ‘hero’ moments.
- The Grandmaster: From Ip Man to Bruce Lee (23:00, HD) – This is a relatively fluffy, but entertaining EPK disguised as a profound look at martial arts. It is hosted by MMA fighter/actress Gina Carano and features interviews with a number of celebrities and critics with a vested interest in either Wong Kar-wai or the historical Ip Man.
- A Conversation with Shannon Lee (7:00, HD) – Here, Bruce Lee’s daughter discusses Ip Man’s influence on her father’s legacy.
- The Grandmaster: According to RZA (5:30, HD) – Where the MC rambles about hip-hop and wu xia movies.
- Behind-the-scenes featurettes (50:30, SD):[list]
- Wong Kar-wai’s Journey into Martial Arts
- Focus on Fighting Styles
- Recreating Imperial China
- Tony Leung
- Zhang Ziyi
- Director Wong Kar-wai
- What Makes a Martial Artist
The Grandmaster is a gorgeous, but uneven movie that likely suffers the unkind cuts of its American distributors. I, of course, have no idea if my problems with its pacing and basic storytelling are all due to the shortened, 108-minute cut, but they certainly couldn’t have helped. Wong Kar-wai’s film doesn’t overlap with previous Ip Man movies all that much and, with the help of master choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, he achieves a number of jaw-dropping martial arts spectacles, which is more than enough to recommend watching the film, even in this truncated version. Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray comes fitted with a nearly perfect HD image, a very strong DTS-HD MA soundtrack, and a fair number of fluffy, yet ultimately informative special features.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 4th March 2014
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Mandarin, Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Extras: The Grandmaster: From Ip Man to Bruce Lee, A Conversation with Shannon Lee, The Grandmaster: According to RZA, Behind-the-Scenes Footage, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Cast: Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Zhao Benshan, Song Hye-kyo
Genre: Action, Drama, Film-Noir and Romance
Length: 108 minutes
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