Kung-fu across the river seems abridged too far

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews - David Strat­ton

SHANG­HAI-BORN Wong Kar-wai is one of the most in­flu­en­tial Asian film­mak­ers of his gen­er­a­tion, with a list of ex­cit­ing and chal­leng­ing films — Chungk­ing Ex­press, Ashes of Time, In the Mood for Love and 2046 — ap­pear­ing in his fil­mog­ra­phy. After a dis­ap­point­ing at­tempt at an English-lan­guage film ( My Blue­berry Nights in 2007), Wong spent sev­eral years work­ing on

his mag­num opus, an ex­am­i­na­tion of the phi­los­o­phy and the phys­i­cal moves es­sen­tial to that form of mar­tial arts known as wing chun and the role played by the mar­tial arts master known as Ip Man in the de­vel­op­ment of this par­tic­u­lar form of kung-fu.

Many thou­sands of words have been writ­ten about Wong’s film since it pre­miered in Jan­uary last year in Beijing. The in­ter­est and con­tro­versy stems from the fact there are at least three ver­sions of the film, in­clud­ing the orig­i­nal Chi­nese ver­sion, which runs 124 min­utes; the ver­sion that pre­miered at the Berlin film fes­ti­val last year, which runs 114 min­utes; and the North Amer­i­can ver­sion as re­leased by Har­vey We­in­stein, a man with a rep­u­ta­tion for short­en­ing or amending the for­eign-lan­guage films he se­lects for dis­tri­bu­tion. We­in­stein’s ver­sion is said to run 101 min­utes. Ac­cord­ing to my stop­watch, the Aus­tralian re­lease is 108 min­utes, sug­gest­ing yet another vari­a­tion. It’s all very con­fus­ing but, in the end, does it re­ally mat­ter, given that a large chunk of the po­ten­tial au­di­ence prob­a­bly has had ac­cess to the film al­ready through le­gal DVDs im­ported into Chi­na­town out­lets from Hong Kong and China?

It would mat­ter more, per­haps, if Wong him­self were not no­to­ri­ous for amending his work and is­su­ing dif­fer­ent ver­sions. Cana­dian film scholar David Bord­well has rig­or­ously ex­am­ined the dif­fer­ent ver­sions of The Grand­mas­ter, and a great deal of valu­able in­for­ma­tion can be found on his web­site. I will at­tempt to dis­cuss the film we’re see­ing in Aus­tralia.

The film opens with a spec­tac­u­lar se­quence of kung-fu staged in the rain. At­tacked by a gang of men, Ip Man (Tony Le­ung Chiu-wai) demon­strates the skill and power of wing chun and tri­umphs. The year is 1936, and ti­tles ex­plain that dif­fer­ent forms of mar­tial arts were per­formed in China at that time, that a deep di­vi­sion ex­isted be­tween prac­ti­tion­ers in the north and the south, and that the Yangtze River formed the bound­ary be­tween the two dis­ci­plines. When Gong Yu­tian (Qingx­i­ang Wang), a north­ern master, ar­rives in Foshan, the south­ern cen­tre of mar­tial arts, with an en­tourage that in­cludes his daugh­ter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) and Ma San (Zhang Jin), his sec­ond-in-com­mand, Ip Man is cho­sen to rep­re­sent the south and to take part in a demon­stra­tion fight against him. Gong Yu­tian is de­feated and de­cides to re­tire in favour of Ma, but Gong Er re­fuses to ac­cept what she sees as her fa­ther’s dis­grace and chal­lenges Ip Man her­self.

Th­ese scenes ba­si­cally ex­ist to es­tab­lish a saga that takes place across sev­eral years but that, in this ver­sion at least, seems of­ten trun­cated as it skims over Ip’s fam­ily life and his strug­gles dur­ing the Ja­panese oc­cu­pa­tion, as well as vir­tu­ally elim­i­nat­ing some key sup­port­ing char­ac­ters who play sig­nif­i­cant roles in the longer ver­sions. The lat­ter part of the film un­folds in Hong Kong in the early 1950s where Ip Man, not look­ing a day older, re­con­nects with Gong Er and — though this is given sur­pris­ingly short shrift — goes on to be­come mar­tial arts in­struc­tor to Bruce Lee.

It’s all a lit­tle con­fus­ing, the more so be­cause, dur­ing the pe­riod that Wong was plan­ning and mak­ing the film, three other Ip Man films were re­leased by other direc­tors, and another has emerged since. What dis­tin­guishes this film, as it does all of Wong’s films, is the rich visual style, the sen­su­ous way this di­rec­tor films his pro­tag­o­nists, the in­tri­cate edit­ing of the ac­tion se­quences, and the grim sense of hu­mour. But whether thanks to Wong or We­in­stein, the film’s flash­back struc­ture doesn’t make com­pre­hen­sion very easy, and the feel­ing that we’re watch­ing a very abridged ver­sion of some­thing more in­ter­est­ing and com­pre­hen­sive per­sists.

Le­ung is, as he has al­ways been, ef­fort­lessly charm­ing, and Zhang Ziyi is, once again, an ex­cit­ing pres­ence whose per­for­mance be­comes more im­pres­sive in the film’s dra­matic later stages. Mar­tial arts fans cer­tainly won’t be dis-

Septem­ber 6-7, 2014

The Grand­mas­ter (Yi dai zong shi) (M) WATCH­ING the New Zealand hor­ror com­edy

I pon­dered why such a wretch­edly ugly and un­funny af­fair was pro­duced in the first place, and then I was re­minded that is was se­lected to close this year’s Syd­ney Film Fes­ti­val, so I can only sup­pose that somebody thought it was amus­ing.

It cer­tainly promised more, hav­ing been made by Taika Waititi, who di­rected two charm­ing New Zealand films in re­cent years, Ea­gle vs Shark and Boy. But this time Waititi, col­lab­o­rat­ing both be­hind and in front of the cam­era with Je­maine Cle­ment (of Flight of the Con­chords fame), has suc­ceeded only in mak­ing a sopho­moric one-joke clunker about a bunch

The Grand­mas­ter Limited re­lease What We Do in the Shad­ows (M) Limited re­lease ap­pointed by a sump­tu­ously pro­duced film that de­serves to be seen on the big cin­ema screen, even though the blend of phi­los­o­phy and phys­i­cal­ity doesn’t en­tirely work. of vam­pires who share a house in Wellington. Waititi plays Vi­ago, aged 379, Cle­ment is Vladislav (862), and they bicker and squab­ble like flat­mates the world over, be­ing par­tic­u­larly an­noyed with Dea­con (Jonathan Brugh) who, at 183, is the youngest oc­cu­pant of the house, and who they feel is not pulling his weight as far as do­ing the chores is con­cerned.

The film, scripted (if that’s the ap­pro­pri­ate word) by its direc­tors, is vir­tu­ally plot­less. We’re in­tro­duced to Jackie (Jackie van Beek), a hu­man who works as a slave for the un­dead be­cause she has been promised eter­nal life, and Nick (Cori Gon­za­lez-Macuer), a young hu­man who gets bit­ten and is keen to cel­e­brate his new sta­tus as a blood­sucker.

What for want of a bet­ter word we can call the cli­max of the film takes place dur­ing a mas­quer­ade ball in which Wellington’s monsters con­gre­gate for an evening of stul­ti­fy­ing dull­ness. Along the way there are a cou­ple of in­ept po­lice of­fi­cers and a gang of pa­thet­i­cally un­threat­en­ing were­wolves.

The only el­e­ment of this sad and im­pov­er­ished film that works in any way at all is the character of the aged Pe­tyr (Ben Fran­sham), an 8000-year-old vam­pire whose make-up and man­ner are mod­elled on that of Max Schreck, who mem­o­rably played Nos­fer­atu in Ger­man di­rec­tor FW Mur­nau’s 1922 film of the same name. Fran­sham looks gen­uinely scary and the brief scenes in which he ap­pears show what might have been.

Tony Le­ung Chiu-wai as Ip Man in Wong Kar-wai’s mag­num opus

Kiwi blood­sucker yarn

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