There are three cuts of this film. According to the word on the street, Kar Wai Wong‘s epic tale of Bruce Lee’s techer, Ip Man was originally over four hours, but after a year’s worth of editing — let me repeat that, A YEAR’S WORTH OF EDITING — he cut it down to a 130 minute domestic “Chinese Cut.” This was further cut down to 123 minutes for the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival. Then The Weinstein Company got ahold of it for the American release and we got a 108 minute cut.
Wong actually went in and recut the entire film for the Weinstein release, giving it a different focus than the Chinese Cut or the International Cut, but there’s so much left out that we end up dipping our toes into a stream and being told that’s the same as jumping into the river.
The film itself is beautiful from start to finish. Every scene is a masterwork of framing, lighting, cinematography (byPhilippe Le Sourd), acting, and fight choreography (by Woo-ping Yuen). And when the film is allowed to open up and tell its story uninterrupted, it is glorious. The flashback sequence that follows Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang) and her revenge is a model of absolute perfection.
Her fight in the train station is the highlight of the film. And it’s the highlight because it’s got an actual narrative line that follows through from start to finish.
The rest of the film is told in a series of scenes with virtually no narrative movement other than Ip Man (Tony Chiu Wai Leung) enters and either fights some people who aren’t adequately introduced — aside from a little caption that pops on-screen providing a name and two or three word title — or has a very restrained yet poetic conversation that ultimately leads nowhere.
The actual narrative of the film is maintained by a series of title cards that tell the story of what is happening in-between our lovely, yet devoid of actual story, vignettes. We are told he came from a rich family, we are told he had a wife and children, we are told two of his daughters starved to death when the family lost everything during the Japanese invasion, we are told he moved to Hong Kong, we are told that when the Chinese closed the border he would never see his wife and surviving children again.
In the process of avoiding telling Ip Man’s story, the idea that his TRUE LOVE is Gong Er is pushed at us with such single-mindedness that I can’t really believe that this was the story Wong originally intended to tell. This film seems to be saying that his life and love and family from before Hong Kong are really irrelevant to Ip Man’s story. It’s as though Ip Man sprung fully-formed into existence as an adult and never grew or developed from that point.
Somewhere (imported) there is a full 130 minute cut of this film that I’m quite sure is spectacular. But seeing as how this version was recut — and how each cut has different footage — you may have to see all three versions to really experience what The Grandmaster could have been.
Anchor Bay does the absolute best they can to make up for the missing 22 minutes of film by providing four supplementary pieces.
A Conversation with Shannon Lee, Daughter of Bruce Lee (6:55): This is a short overview of the life and legend of Bruce Lee. It’s interesting, and if you know nothing about Lee, then it’s a nice place to start.
The Grandmaster According to RZA (5:23): I like RZA. I really do. But this short piece doesn’t really bring anything to the party.
The Grandmaster: From Ip Man to Bruce Lee (23:01): This is the first of the two extras that really make this disc worth picking up, despite the shortcomings of the US edit. The cast, the crew, martial artists, actors, and critics all weigh in on the film and provide so much praise that I can only assume they’ve seen a different cut. The discussion of the filmmaking, the training, the fight choreography, and the emotional nuances of the film provide a healthy amount of insight into what Wong was trying to accomplish.
The Grandmaster Behind the Scenes: This is a seven-part feature running nearly 50 minutes that looks back at Wong’s preparations, which started nearly 20 years ago. It is Chinese with English subtitles and is extremely interesting. Wong traveled all over China visiting various living Masters of different fighting styles, interviewing and taking notes for years before ever even starting to write a script or think about the actual production. Then we get a look at the design and building of sets, followed by interviews with the lead actors Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi about their training and their characters. The features close with a look at Wong Kar Wai’s style and approach to telling the story of Ip Man, then we get a list of attributes necessary to become a Grandmaster.
In the end, I can’t fully recommend buying this. It’s style over substance that looks amazing, but forgets to include a story or interesting characters.
And it fills me with dread for the upcoming Weinstein release of Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer, with its 20 minutes of cuts.
The Grandmaster hits shelves on Tuesday, March 4, 2014.
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Paul Brian McCoy is the Editor-in-Chief of Psycho Drive-In, writer of Mondo Marvel, and a regular contributor/editor for Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available atAmazon US & UK, along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation (US & UK). He recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s (US & UK) and has kicked off Comics Bulletin Books with Mondo Marvel Volumes One (US & UK) and Two (US & UK). Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy.