Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Zhao Benshan, Song Hye-kyo, Wang Qingxiang
Written by: Wong Kar-wai, Zou Jingzhi, Xu Haofeng
Directed by: Wong Kar-wai
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, some smoking, brief drug use and language
Language: Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, with English subtitles
Running Time: 108
Date: 08/23/2013

The Grandmaster (2013)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Ip Service

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This review pertains to the U.S. cut of Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster, which is about 22 minutes shorter than the international cut. (The full cut, which I will hopefully review someday, runs 130 minutes.) With this shorter cut, the American distributors, the Weinstein Co., reportedly wished to focus more on action by deleting character content. The result is an uneven, somewhat chilly movie, albeit with some beautiful fight sequences. Apparently, no one this summer seems to realize that action is even better when it happens to interesting characters.

In the 1930s in Foshan, in the southern part of China, there are many martial arts schools, but by far the best is Ip Man's school of Wing Chun. Challenged by northern master Gong Yutian, Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) responds with a philosophical approach, and he is named the winner. However, Gong's daughter Er (Zhang Ziyi) wishes to reclaim her family's good name and challenges him to a fight in which the loser will be the first to break the furniture. Ip loses, but the two stay in touch. Later, when the Sino-Japanese War begins, Ip and his family fall into extreme poverty. Ip moves to Hong Kong hoping to become a teacher, and meets Er there. They seem to have a romantic connection, but cannot act on it.

It begins with an almost totally unrelated scene in which Ip Man defeats twenty opponents in the rain at night, and it's breathtaking. Each of the other fight scenes, especially the one between Ip Man and Gong Er, are each highly satisfying. And the powerful, unfulfilled romantic tension between the two characters in the movie's second half is quite lovely, recalling some of Wong's best work, specifically In the Mood for Love. But perhaps due to the cuts in the story, or perhaps because of Wong's unique, poetic rhythms, much of the narrative flow seems flat or even stuck. But the good does outweigh the bad. A related 2008 movie, Ip Man, is more fun, but less artistic.

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