Why Wong Kar-wai’s original cut of ‘The Grandmaster’ deserves high praise

Tony Leung as Ip Man

I’m not sure which cut of The Grandmaster I saw the first time but I remember coming away feeling disappointed by the whole film. I found the storytelling bland and incoherent and the pace lethargic. I couldn’t make head or tail of what was going on or who is what. I heard that there are three versions of this film – the original Chinese cut, a European version, and an American version. I believe I saw the American cut. Because I felt like there was something missing.

As I was disappointed with this version, I never bothered to watch any another cut for four years, until recently, while I was doing some reading on Wong Kar-wai’s work, out of sheer curiosity, I felt compelled to seek out the Chinese cut. I was expecting to be disappointed once again. However, to my surprise, I found out that I was not only thoroughly engrossed but also immensely moved by it. This was not what I had felt initially. So what actually happened with the American cut? There were nearly 15-20 minutes of footage missing from it.

Who was responsible? The Weinstein Brothers. Removing that extra footage had stripped the film of both its poignancy and its coherence. In this version, things made a lot of sense. I understood what was happening when, who the characters were and their relationship with each other and the impact they made on each other. This cut has a runtime of 130 minutes and it rectifies some of the mistakes made in the American version like, for instance, the use of character names when they appear and the omission of some of the scenes with Zhang Ziyi.

Some scenes are rearranged, few key developments in the story are explained using title cards and also we see the addition of the unspoken romance between Ip Man (Tony Leung) and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi). The resulting film is so poignant that it deserves to be as highly regarded as some of Wong’s earlier masterworks such as In the Mood for Love and 2046, which also carried some of the themes that are seen in The Grandmaster. The visuals are breathtakingly gorgeous and I was so mesmerized by them that I paused some scenes for a while to fully appreciate their beauty. The fights sequences are stylish and aesthetically pleasing.

Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er

Given that the film covers Ip Man’s life from the 1930s to the 1950s, and as if to convey to the audience that these were the “Golden” eras, Wong makes every frame look as if it’s dipped in gold. Be it a high-class brothel or a nearly empty train station, Wong puts his characters in lush and ornate settings for the most part and dresses them in fine vintage attire. There is one scene towards the end where Tony Leung appears in a suit and a tie, and it instantly reminded me of his character from In the Mood for Love – a writer of martial arts stories – and I wondered if those stories looked like this film.

Those looking for a full on martial arts film – like the other Ip Man films that have come out – will be hugely disappointed. This is as much a poetic existential drama as it is a martial arts film. There is an equal priority given to both. There are ample doses of love, yearning, and introspection. And it is as much a story about Gong Er as it is about Ip Man. Without her story, Ip Man’s story would feel incomplete. (I think she is a fictional character created by Wong to add dramatic weight.) And just like many Wong Kar-wai protagonists, Ip Man is also a character who spent most of his life in solitude despite having a family in the beginning of his life.

This time French cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, who had worked on Ridley Scott’s A Good Year prior to this, replaced Wong’s usual collaborator Christopher Doyle. His work on this film combines the best of legendary cinematographers Conrad Hall and Roger Deakins. The use of different frame rates in some portions lends the film a surreal quality at times. I felt the influence of Ennio Morricone’s score from Cinema Paradiso in the background score.

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