Indeed, given the fact that there are at least three different “Grandmaster” cuts—the two-hour plus version shown last February in Berlin, the even longer version that opened some months later in China, and the version released in the US by the Weinstein Company on Friday, all with unique footage and differing chronologies—and that I have only seen the latter, it’s difficult to offer even a provisional assessment of Wong’s first movie in the six years since “My Blueberry Nights.”
Still, multiple cuts and convoluted shoots are essential to Wong’s method–there’s a sense in which the fugitive narratives that are precipitated are his subject. That said, even as rationalized by the Weinsteins, “The Grandmaster” (which was first announced a decade ago and consequently shot in 22 months over a three year period) strikes me as Wong’s strongest film since “In the Mood for Love” and surprisingly credible as an exercise in kung fu stylistics as well as temps perdu. Less narrative than a somewhat elliptical series of situations, “The Grandmaster” is commercial without seeming slick, grave but not fetishistic in its representation of martial arts master Ip Man (Tony Leung), whose students included Bruce Lee.
While Yuen Woo-ping’s kung fu choreography is certainly a factor, Wong’s intricate montage and trademark use of slow motion make the action sequences distinctively his own. Leung’s first fight is outrageously splashy–a densely edited, sure to be anthologized “Singin’ in the Rain” knock-off (which evidently required a month to shoot) and the plot device which has him doggedly working his way through various sub-masters to a championship bout with the master’s daughter (Zhang Ziyi) is, in its close-ups, rivals the abstract jousts of Robert Bresson’s “Lancelot.”
Zhang’s character comes to the fore in the movie’s second half—and not only because of her fight with her father’s renegade disciple (Zhang Jin), staged beside the tracks of the central railway station in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Hers is the movie’s key performance; her descent into opium addiction (and relocation to Hong Kong) marks a shift in tone from revenge to reverie and subsumes action in acting. In the tradition of Wong’s “Ashes of Time,” that which was kinetic becomes soulful.
Images: The Weinstein Company