Kung-fu across the river seems abridged too far
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