|'the fight scenes most commonly resemble John Woo's efforts, circa the year 2000; all slow-motion battles and non-ironic doves'|
Quite whether The Grandmaster's problems (at least in this, one-hundred and eight minute version) are down to director Wong Kar-Wai or the now-notorious editing carried out at the behest of the Weinstein Company is, in many ways, a by-the-by conversation. The film, a production of many decisions and individuals, is presented in this form, at least to this singular audience and is therefore all that can be assessed, though there's a good article here on a comparison of the cuts and why one is not necessarily 'better' than any other.
In direct opposition to that secularist argument however, is the fact that The Grandmaster for me represented a moment of realisation that a game-changer had been witnessed. Throughout Kar-Wai's film, I could not shake the memory or recollection of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin, an even better film than this review suggested in May. The Assassin tells a tighter story than The Grandmaster, which covers much of the life of Ip Man (Tony Chiu Wai Leung), but its scope is nevertheless ambitious. Kar-Wai is trying to tell a definitive life story. Hsiao-Hsien is trying to tell the definitive story within and of a genre. There are clear parallels and overlaps.
Where Hsiao-Hsien succeeds in scope and focus Kar-Wai feels as though he sets off intent on making a melange of many a kung-fu film. As such, The Grandmaster never arrives at an accurate depiction of time and place. The story hops from one period location to another, as Ip Man's life develops in sometimes unexpected directions. None of them mean anything, or feel as though they matter to the narrative; they are simply another backdrop to a battle with a fairly anonymous adversary. The film finally attempts to make you feel something for Ip Man's family life, despite at no point having made clear that this was something that was important to him.
With all of the above being true, the film could have still operated as a fairly brainless martial arts piece, if only those segments were presented with any discernible panache. As it is, they most commonly resemble John Woo's efforts, circa the year 2000; all slow-motion battles and non-ironic doves. The characters Ip Man fights are introduced via intertitles, like something out of a Tarantino film, and the whole picture whiffs of a lack of patience; there are attractive shots here, beautiful silhouettes, but blink and they're gone, chopped up in the messy unsatisfying fight edits.
The Grandmaster's problems though aren't down to the miniature edits such as this though, nor the major ones that may or may not have shaped it; it's to do with being satisfied with the status quo, with producing something that fails to advance any conversation even a jot; whether that is to do with genre, subject or form. The chance was here to do any of those things. None of them have been hinted at, let alone mastered.