‘The Grandmaster’ Review
How could something that is so gorgeous also be so damn dull? Well, where there's a will, there's a Wong Kar Wai.
The jazzy, experimental arthouse darling of the 1990s ('Chunking Express,' 'Fallen Angels,' 'Happy Together') fails to get out of his '2046'/'My Blueberry Nights' slump with 'The Grandmaster,' a strong contender for most boring picture of 2013. The version I saw is the Weinstein Company's “American Cut,” not to be confused with the homegrown successful “Chinese Cut” or the intermediary cut that played at festivals like Berlin.
It can't matter much. The only version of this movie that would ever be good is a zero-minute version, because there is nothing more done than listening to wise men blather on with false gravitas about honor and codes when all they're actually talking about is nifty, choreographed ways to beat the hell out of one another.
In the 1930s, as Japan was invading China, the different styles of kung fu were determined by geography. North of the Yangtze was one way, and south was another. A great visionary known as Ip Man (that isn't a superhero moniker, it's his actual name, like Ipstopher Man) decided to marry the two styles in order to better defend his country.
This is visualized through a long series of pointless sparring matches in a palace with many floors. I will grant 'The Grandmaster' props for its tremendous fight scenes. (The action sequences were overseen by Yuen Woo-ping, whose credits include 'Drunken Master,' 'The Matrix' and 'Kill Bill.') These fights, however, have zero dramatic heft, because we know no one will get hurt, and we also know the outcome.
Ip Man will incorporate what he's learned into his own style, but if you aren't a black belt yourself, it will just look like run-of-the-mill movie kung fu. More to the point, between each fight there's more yammering as more lifeless, droning characters get introduced. Despite title cards explaining how they are all related, it is still confusing. I found it impossible to care about any of them because they all act half-dead, almost daring the audience to fall asleep. There's hardly a moment of levity in the whole production, not one breath of air.
At the one-hour mark the Japanese army takes over, and Ip Man flees to Hong Kong. For a minute the action picks up as we see him join a training school as a teacher, but the movie gets sidelined with a baffling flashback. One of the women with whom Ip Man sparred in the first half (Ziyi Zhang) gets into a lengthy brawl with some other dude, and by then all you can do is just watch the scenery.
It's very beautiful scenery. The production design is top notch throughout. Then at the end, Zhang, with tears in her eyes (about something, God knows what), says, “how boring life would be with no regrets.”
I beg to differ.
'The Grandmaster' opens in theaters on August 23.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen in the New York Daily News and on Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.