IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: THE GRANDMASTER (2013) and IP MAN (2008)

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THE GRANDMASTER (2013)

I debated as whether to file The Grandmaster under the generic reviews section as I unfortunately saw the edited American 108 minute cut of the film and not the official Chinese version that runs 130 minutes. But it is still an Asian film and no Western footage added, just some removed…and while I am very much against editing foreign films for US release, upon watching this flick I can understand why they did it. Let me explain…

The Grandmaster is Wong Kar-wai’s telling of the story of Ip Man (Tony Leung), Grandmaster of Wing Chun style martial arts and the man who taught the legendary Bruce Lee. I don’t know enough about his story to tell how historically accurate the film is, but it traces his life in Foshan, which was renown for it’s martial arts, through the Japanese occupation in the late 30s to mid 40s and finally to his settling in Hong Kong, where he opened a school of martial arts. And while the movie is sumptuously photographed and has some beautifully choreographed fight scenes, it is also a tedious and self indulgent film even at 108 minutes. First problem is that the narrative, at least in the version I saw, is more like a series of vignettes than a complete film. The film only barely follows a traditional storyline and then an hour in, it jarringly shifts focus from Ip to Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) a female martial artist who once bested Ip in a friendly duel and has feelings for the married martial arts master. It flashes back to her feud and eventual duel with Northern rival Grandmaster Ma San (Zhang Jin) and stays with that till the last minutes where the focus returns to Ip Man in Hong Kong. The jumbled narrative makes it hard to become involved in the story and it doesn’t help that Wong Kar-wai has to present every other shot in slow motion, even during the non-fight scenes. It really slows the pace and just gets tiresome after a while. The same goes for the fights. The cinematography is beautiful and there are some gorgeous shots, but every other shot is either in slow motion…a close up of a shoe or drop of moisture falling…or a slow motion close up. The director’s overindulgence and over-stylizing brings even the martial arts sequences to a snail’s pace and removes any excitement from them. Also, there are a number of what you would consider key moments in Ip’s life that are presented as almost an afterthought, such as the death of Ip’s daughters due to the Japanese occupation and…the Japanese occupation. Again, I can’t tell if this is due to the editing by The Weinsteins or is Wong Kar-wai just not an effective a storyteller as he is at setting up his exquisite shots or filming things in slow motion.

He has a good cast, but for me, their performances were intense but flatlined. They convey the same emotions in each scene and while Leung and Ziyi are good actors, they never display the range they are normally capable of. It’s like the director wanted the characters to wallow in melodrama and thus the film overdoses on it and never does it draw us into their tales. Even when the characters are in a happier moment, they appear intense and sad. It overall makes for a tedious and meandering film despite the scenes of martial arts and Ip’s importance as a historical figure…and even when cut down to 108 minutes. And that’s why I hesitantly say, I don’t approve of The Weinsteins removing a good 20 minutes from the film, but I understand why they did it. The average American audience member reared on MTV and Michael Bay movies would have little patience for over 2 hours of slow pace and slow motion close ups. I understand, but still don’t agree with their cuts.

A beautifully filmed but tedious and over-stylized telling of the tale of a fascinating man’s life. I much prefer the Donnie Yen starrer Ip Man (review below) which is more of an action film that takes a lot of liberties with the story, but is entertaining and somehow conveys Ip Man’s historical importance a lot better and without being depressing and over indulgent.

2 and 1/2 throwing stars… a little slack cut for the beautiful cinematography and since I did not see the complete film.

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BONUS REVIEW

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IP MAN (2008)

Martial arts movie legend and real life martial arts master Donnie Yen really gets to show why he’s earned that status in this history-based flick and that, after so many years in film, he hasn’t lost a beat. Not only is this a feast for those who enjoy a good old-fashioned martial arts epic, but it is also an involving fact-based drama about real life Wing Chun martial arts Grandmaster Ip Man (Yen) among whose disciples is the legendary Bruce Lee himself. Wilson Yip’s action/drama focuses on the years during the Japanese occupation and mixes the action and drama perfectly as it portrays the efforts of the martial arts master to stand up to the Japanese invaders who are ravaging his land and abusing his people. We are given a strong villain in the Japanese, including their martial arts expert General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), who we know Ip will eventually face one on one, and Ip himself is a strong and valiant hero to root for. The production is lavish and takes us back to another time and place and Wilson Yip does a great job balancing all the elements nicely and evoking good performances from all the cast.

Yen is a likable and noble hero as Ip Man and is still awe inspiring to watch in his action scenes. Ikeuchi makes a strong and powerful villain who can be cruel, but does have an honorable streak. And we even get another Hong Kong cinema favorite Simon Yam as Ip’s best friend.

Sure this flick is more martial arts action-ere than historically accurate drama, but the movie is filled with exciting fight scenes…choreographed by yet another Hong Kong legend Sammo Hung…and is dramatically sound enough for you to become emotionally invested in the characters and the story, whether it is really just a fictional telling of the story of a historical figure or not. A fast-paced action flick based on real-life people and events that does what it sets out to do…entertain…and it does that very well. Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer this fun martial arts version to The Grandmaster’s over-indulgent, arthouse telling any day. A really good martial arts flick with Yen at his best!

3 and 1/2 swords

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