by M. Faust
Sometimes it’s hard to shake the feeling that the American film distribution system works to prevent people from seeing movies that would interest them. Take The Grandmaster, which opened to rapturous reviews from major critics in the top markets last week and goes wide this week. It’s a martial arts film, but only in the sense that you would apply that genre to Hero, Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon, or House of Flying Daggers. Directed by the great Wong Kar Wai, it’s even more of an arthouse film than those audience favorites. Yet it’s being put into the multiplexes (and only one in our market, at that) with no promotion that I know of. Anyone who takes a chance on a ticket based on the title is likely to be disappointed by the film’s deliberate pacing and contemplative approach to action (not to mention—gasp—the subtitles), while the audience that would most appreciate it is likely to ignore it.
Wong Kar Wai is the director of Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love, to name his best known films. He is an obsessive artist, both in terms of work habits and themes. The Grandmaster was 14 years in development, shooting, and editing, during which time his subject, the 20th-century Wing Chun master Ip Man, become the subject of numerous other Hong Kong films.
Although it contains its share of fighting scenes, shot with meticulous detail to observe the telling small motions, The Grandmaster is in no sense a “chop socky” movie. For one thing, it’s relatively modern—no Shaolin monks in flowing robes. And like all of Wong’s films it is concerned with memory, regret, and the passage of time.
The biggest drawback for Western audiences is that the film is intimately connected to the history of China in the first half of the last century, and assumes you will be familiar with its outlines. I have only seen the original Chinese cut: The version that will play here, while 20 minutes shorter, reportedly contains explanatory information.
It also apparently flattens out the film’s structure, which in the original version moves freely in time. You might fear a repeat of what was done to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America when it was first shown, in a re-cut edition that did those same things and nearly ruined it, though reviewers who have seen it seem to love it. (Ironically Wong openly references Leone’s masterpiece by using part of Ennio Morricone’s score for the closing sequence.)
But never mind the plot: Beautifully photographed and keenly edited, it’s simply a gorgeous experience to sit and absorb. I wouldn’t expect it to be around long: This week is likely the only chance you’ll have to see it in a theater, as you should.
Watch the trailer for The Grandmaster
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