The following is a feature written for Easternkicks.com and reposted here. The Grandmaster was originally viewed at the Berlin Film Festival 2013. The Grandmaster is distributed and released by Metrodome Distribution in the UK.
The most global critically acclaimed Asian film in recent memory, with no little help from the weight of its’ Directors name, The Grandmaster is definitely one of the most stylish films about Kung Fu you will ever see.
EasternKicks reviewed The Grandmaster back in 2013, indeed Fausto dug his teeth pretty spectacularly into the pretty spectacular film, giving it 5 stars, however this time we’re revisiting the film (as it’s just that good) because of the upcoming UK re-release by the Weinstein brothers and Metrodome Distribution. The Grandmaster has been a long time coming to the UK, some would say almost too long, since it first was released at the Berlinale Film Festival in 2013 and then subsequently disappeared off the radar. It bounced around on the Internet for a while with reviews surfacing from critics whilst fans discussed the importance of the film, it’s torrid filming history and its failings or credits as both a martial arts (and an Ip Man) movie. One thing has been clear through this lengthy process, in that fan support has been everlasting and patient whilst those who laud the art of Wong Kar-Wai waited for more word on distribution or western release. Indeed it was beat to the west by Snowpiercer, also picked up by the Weinstein Brothers, however the distribution and butchering of Snowpiercer’s narrative wasn’t handled as poorly.
There are 3 versions of The Grandmaster; the original 123 minute cut released in Berlin, the 130 minute domestic cut released to Chinese audience, and the 108 minute linear cut put forth by the Weinstein Company and supported by Director Wai (despite the shortest cut having claims of being butchered and the distributor not having enough faith in it’s American audiences to ‘understand’ the film, thus leading to scenes cut and explanatory text placed throughout to dumb down the narrative). My personal definitive version of The Grandmaster is the domestic Chinese cut, it doesn’t add much more to the film however I’m all for narrative and anything that makes the cinematic experience more enjoyable or lengthened is better in my view.
The thing to be considered is that every audience member is different. Some like watching films for character, some watch purely for the pretty pictures or the ranging sound. There are plenty of reasons why every viewer is different and their cinematic experience varies, and this needs to be taken into account for the case of The Grandmaster. There is NO DEFINITIVE CUT; it is all down to personal preference. Purely because some guy for The New York Times proclaims they enjoy the version of the film that has an extra 22 minutes, it doesn’t mean you need to go galloping off on a white stallion whilst proclaiming the Weinstein’s and Director Wai have butchered the original film. Remember that the International cut (not just the ‘US’ cut, as it’s been unofficially dubbed) was closely overseen by Wong Kar-Wai, and he took is as a challenging opportunity to clear up the narrative from some of the critic confusion at the convoluted plot strands and overpowered information of the original film. By all means feel free to purchase the Metrodome release in the UK and view the film in it’s cut form, there are certain scenes that have been removed and elements that are added; however if mood takes you then im sure a copy of the original 130 minute version can be picked up from YesAsia or somewhere similar.
What are the merits then, between the trimmed version and the original? The 2014 BFI London Film Festival screened the trimmed version as a surprise film during the festival, and Harvey Weinstein professes it as a great joy of his career to work with Wong Kar-Wai, whilst I also listed above Director Wai’s personal opinions and decision for the cut.
The 130 minute cut feels lingering and overstays it’s welcome, just pushing over the 2 hour mark, whilst the 108 minute cut has removed enough scenes to feel unencumbered yet cramming too much detail into it’s short running time. Should Wong Kar-Wai have taken a leaf from Christopher Nolan’s book for the International recut and instead drafted two versions, one that is longer and more pacing to cope with the amount of plot strands and information; whilst the second would be shorter and contain less tertiary detail, only focusing on Ip Man and his situations personally? Is it a fallacy to create two films entirely from the sole original material, or would this be a modern breakthrough in filmmaking considering the length of time for production and a new experience in cinema, another tool for Wong Kar-Wai’s artistic bow where he can create two entirely different films from the same footage which adds to his repertoire of work (considering 2046 and Chungking Express).
The main focus of the International cut is to clear up the historical references dropped throughout the film. More noticeable character names are on-screen, whilst supporting characters (such as Master Razor, played by Chang Chen) are altered or granted less time. Some plots are altered considerably like the marriage of Gung Ho (Zhang Ziyi) whilst new scenes appear from the blue such as a training sequence for a younger Gung Ho. This is par for the course with Wong Kar-Wai, several times he has turned up to festivals with a fresh print and then disappeared off afterwards for recutting (such as 2046 losing 15 whole minutes after It’s Cannes screening).
What side of the argument do we come down on then, is the new Metrodome release of The Grandmaster better or worse than the original cut screened at Berlin in 2013, or the slightly longer domestic release in China? The International cut may feel more dumbed down and simplistic, but Wong Kar-Wai is dealing with the cut of a film that panders to an audience that might not be polished up and savvy on their recent Chinese history lessons. What was of great importance to domestic viewers because of the relevance to their political past, might instead be a turgid boring scene or simply overlooked by international audiences looking for a quick Kung-Fu fix such as your regular Ip Man or Wuxia films. Maybe there are too many irrelevant slow motion sequences and arty standout shots in the International cut, as it cut down on the actual detailed and retained the signature touch of Wong Kar-Wai. The Metrodome cut is all Director Wai’s globally lauded style but lacking in all of it’s original substance; The Grandmaster is a film that was appraised as much for it’s historical and political importance as it’s portrayal of Grand Master Yip, however remove one of those elements and you’re instead left with a film that understandably has audiences asking reasonable questions and longing for the missing heart of the original cut.
At the end of the day, this is one of those films you really need to watch both versions to understand and make up your mind over personally. Ultimately, the Metrodome release (and International Cut) has all the traditional signature style of Wong Kar-Wai, but is lacking in the original heart that made The Grandmaster truly grand.