VOD Review - The Grandmaster (Oscar Review)

Ziyi Zhang (left) versus Tony Leung
in "The Grandmaster"
The 86th Academy Award nominations were announced on January 16, 2014. I'm now doing my best to see all the recognized films before the air date of the actual Oscars ceremony on March 2nd. Most of which I have seen, but for one reason or another there are a few I missed. This one is one such. The Grandmaster is nominated for two Oscars, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design.

Directed by highly-acclaimed filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, this is his 10th feature film. It is perhaps on the strength of his previous acclaim that this film made the Academy's shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film. Yet, The Grandmaster didn't get nominated in that category because beyond Wong Kar Wai's acclaim, I don't think this movie holds up as much more than a pretty exercise.

I did watch this film via Amazon Instant Video. The VOD service streamed a very streamline, 108-minute version of the film. According to reports, this is perhaps the shortest version of the film since its premiere in China, which was the longest at 130 minutes. When the Weinstein Company released it in American theaters in August, the film had been significantly reduced.

Arguably, what was left on the virtual, cutting room floor probably would help with the problems I see because The Grandmaster ultimately is just a picture that's not all together there. Basically, I just don't know what Wong Kar Wai was going for. He provides us with a glimpse of who the so-called Ip Man was, but it's not enough.

As a kind of loose biopic, there isn't much of a narrative. It's more or less just vignettes of this man's life over the course of almost twenty years, from 1936 to 1952, and slightly further. People are perhaps interested in Ip Man because he was the man who taught the iconic martial artist Bruce Lee how to fight. Given what's seen here though, the details of Ip Man's life don't rise to the level that a feature film was required.

The filmmaker perhaps realized this, which is why half-way through the focus changes to a young woman named Gong Er. She's the daughter of Gong Yutian, an important leader in China. Gong Yutian is credited for uniting the various, martial arts schools against their common enemy of the Japanese in the 1930s when Japan had started its invasions of China.

Gong Yutian is the titular character. He retires from his leadership position and names a successor in Ma San, a very good martial artist. Gong Er wanted to be the successor, but instead her father pushed her into becoming a doctor. Later, she doesn't like the legacy brought by Ma San being that it's revealed he collaborated with the Japanese. By the end, Gong Er challenges him to a fight.

This in fact would have been an interesting story, but it's told in such a choppy manner. The actual fight is magnificent and is the second-best fight depicted by Wong Kar Wai here. Yet, the build-up to it gets lost and has no real, impactful emotion to it. I didn't care about the outcome or feel the weight of the stakes.

My heart ultimately went with Gong Er, only because the story in that moment is in her point-of-view. Ziyi Zhang is also the actress portraying Gong Er. Zhang is a well-known and very popular Chinese actress. From Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to House of Flying Daggers, she has proven her appeal, so naturally I was drawn to her, but due to little that was developed dramatically.

The direction and acting felt stilted. I don't always mind stilted acting, but it seemed overwhelming here. It was as if I wasn't watching anything taking place in reality but in Wong Kar Wai's fantasy world.

The same goes for Tony Leung who plays Ip Man. Leung has done about a half-dozen films with Wong Kar Wai. In the Mood for Love is probably their most celebrated. Their constant collaborations perhaps endear me to Leung here. I suppose that because his character Ip Man is some great fighter who always wins his battles also endears us to him, but to me that's merely boring.

The fight choreography feels too effortless. Ip Man feels like he's never in any danger, like he never breaks a sweat or increases in heart rate at all. He seems like he can fight a barrage of guys in his sleep, which only makes me sleepy. He particularly comes off as unlikeable when he picks an unfair fight in Hong Kong.

The only fair fight and the best one is that between Ip Man and Gong Er. You feel like the two are equally matched and there is some stakes. It happens in the middle of the movie and is never revisited. The camerawork and editing made it a powerful thing to witness, but it felt like an anomaly and not much else in the film had its strength.

Aside from that one fight, the cinematography did not rise to Oscar-caliber. Wong Kar Wai's camera never offers any sense of scale. His shots are mostly close interiors. The movie takes place for a large chunk in the town of Foshan, but I have no clue how big that town is.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for violence, some smoking, brief drug use and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 48 mins.


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