LFF Review: The Grandmaster – The Weinstein Cut

grandmaster-posterStarring: Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Wang Qingxiang, Zhang Jin, Zhao Benshan, Hye-Kyo Song, Chang Chen

Directed by: Wong Kar-Wai

The Surprise Film at the BFI London Film Festival this year ended up being The Grandmaster. I’m not sure how, but I hadn’t seen a Wong Kar-Wai film until this. I’ve been meaning to watch 2046 and In The Mood For Love for ages, but it hasn’t happened yet, and after seeing his latest, I don’t know how much of a rush I’m in to catch up. I should mention this review may get spoiler-y, as I don’t think I can get my point across without discussing the plot.

The Grandmaster stars Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi in a sort of cinematic tribute to the Martial Arts, telling the story of Ip Man, the man responsible for the spread and popularity of Kung Fu, or specifically, wing chun. Starting out in Foshan, Southern China, Ip Man (Tony Leung) is challenged by the Grandmaster of Martial Arts of the North, Gong Yutian and wins, but is then loses to his daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), who is determined to win back their family’s honour. Ip Man and Gong Er are quite taken by each other, and plan a rematch in the Northeast, where the Gong family is from, but the Japanese invasion and war prevents him from travelling. Instead he ends up in Hong Kong years later, where he is trying to make a living to support his family, only to be cut off from them when the border between China and Hong Kong is closed. He is then reunited with Gong Er, who is now a doctor, as her father wanted her to be, but as taken a vow of never marrying, having children, or teaching martial arts.

Those may not have even been the actual important part of the plot, and if it isn’t, it’s not that I didn’t pay attention, or didn’t check the internet for a synopsis. That is what I got from the Harvey Weinstein’s version of the film, cut from 130 minutes (the original Chinese version) down to 108 minutes, and not just shortened, but also rearranged to be more chronological, because international audiences are just too dumb. Apparently Wong Kar-Wai approves of Weinstein rehashing his film, and to be honest I don’t really blame him too much. He put a lot into this film, clearly something he really wanted to show the world, and Harvey Weinstein says he wants to make changes, but will give the film a much greater audience. Most people wouldn’t say no – I probably wouldn’t either.  From my dislike of how it plays out and from the reaction on Twitter following the screening, I gather the film suffered greatly.

The Weinstein meddling isn’t even the whole issue when it comes down to why the film just isn’t very good. Considering the film is mainly about Martial Arts, I thought majority of the fights were a tad too much, especially since The Grandmaster isn’t going for the “fun Kung Fu film” vibe. It’s not like the ridiculousness of action scenes from Indian films, Hindi and South both, but I don’t expect the idea of a comparison to even cross my mind with a big budget Martial Arts film from China and Hong Kong. For the most part, they’re over choreographed, and unimpressively visualised. I’m not that big on martial arts films, but if it’s well done, I can get into it. The only fights I thought were well done were the one between Ip Man and Gong Er, and later the one between Gong Er and Ma San, though even with the one with Ma San, was a bit far fetched. It takes place on a station platform, and for most of it a train is going past them as they fight, which was about as long as the runway in Fast & Furious 6. But I wasn’t in China in the 1940s, so maybe trains were ridiculously long.

Visually also I was quite disappointed by the film. It wasn’t what the camera was capturing that I had an issue with, in fact most shots had the elements to make it a beautiful looking film, it was the actual capturing, and some editing, of it that is kind of terrible. Digitally slowing things down looks horrible, and I hate when editors and directors resort to it even for a few seconds, but a lot of the first half of this features artificial slow-motion. Slow-mo is one of the things I strongly believe you should not do in post-production, and if you need to do it so much, you did not shoot your film properly. There’s also a fair bit of over-zooming past the point of decent quality, especially one shot of a pensive Zhang Ziyi that is incredibly grainy that cannot have been for effect, because it had none apart from my own disgust.

Another thing I did not appreciate was the almost offensive over-explaining of the plot and characters, making it feel a little like a badly made documentary. There were about as many texts insert as there were in The Artist, and that was a silent film. I don’t know if that’s Harvey Weinstein’s lack of faith in audience’s intelligence, or if the original version would have had them in Chinese and subtitled anyway. The moment in which Gong Er says to herself (I’m paraphrasing, obviously) “Oh, Ip Man, do you know what happened 10 years ago?” which leads to a flashback must have been in the script in some form. I can only assume The Weinstein Cut was edited without there being an actual screenplay in which the film plays out chronologically.

It sounds like I hated the film, which I didn’t entirely, but there are some serious issues with it. I liked Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi’s performances, they managed to keep my curiosity of Chinese/Hong Kong cinema intact. I will have to at some point, though not too soon, watch the original version, if only to decide how much of what doesn’t work needs to be blamed on Weinstein, and how much is Wong Kar-Wai’s own failure. I hope and pray that version is better, and without having seen it I can whole heartedly recommend that’s the one to watch, if you absolutely must watch The Grandmaster in some form.

The Grandmaster as already release in China/Hong Kong and the USA. There’s no set release for the UK yet.

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