Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 23, 2013 10:27 am 
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Wither Wong?

Wong Kar-wai and Quentin Tarantino were the cinephile discoveries of the Nineties, as was Jim Jarmusch for the Eighties. On a gray afternoon I staggered into a shabby, nearly empty cinema on the edge of San Francisco's Chinatown to watch a double feature of As Tears Go By (1988) and Days of Being Wild (1990) and became a dazed and confused convert. Back then in the US videotapes of Wong Kar-wai's films could only be found in pirated form (with inscrutable disappearing subtitles) in a few independent rental shops. Recognition came a few years later when Tarantino himself distributed Chungking Express. Arthoouse gentrification followed, with US distribution of Happy Together and an older crowd delighted by the tame In a Mood for Love. That was 2000. The magic decade was over; Wong lost his edge. Did anyone notice? His first and arguably truest film, Days of Being Wild, got no official US release till 13 years after it came out in Hong Kong release and my under the radar Chinatown viewing. In the Mood for Love was the end of the days of being wild. Next came delays and confusion, and the cloying, hyper-elaborate compendium of Wong Kar-wai themes and characters 2046, followed by the slightly out-of-tune American-set Blueberry Nights, and now, much delayed, an elaborate martial arts biopic, The Grandmaster, about the Wing Chun practioner Ip Man, who taught, among others, Bruce Lee.

Like all Wong Kar-wai films it's delicious eye-candy, but maybe the first thing we need to be aware of about The Grandmaster is that it's chopped up. There is a four-hour version that presumably may express the filmmaker's intentions. And there is a 124-minute trimmed-down "international" version; the one reviewed in China in January for Variety by Maggie Lee was 130 minutes. For US theatrical consumption the Weinstein company is issuing, with an August 23, 2013 release, a further stripped-down 108-minute version. With this in mind, you won't be surprised to find reviewers reporting "structural problems." The main one of these is that a female competitor/potential lover of Ip Man, Gong Er (Zhang Yiyi), daughter of one of his chief rivals, gets a lengthy bio of her own in the second half of the shorter version that pulls the whole film's trajectory out of shape.

Weinstein's version (which is all I've seen) is elegant, gorgeous, nifty, true to Wong Kar-wai's style and sensibility. He manages to inject a sense of angst-ridden romanticism and recherche du temps perdu into the boastful world of kung fu champions and the cumbersome rivalries of dynasties and North-South schools. There is no reason to suppose that Wong is working by the numbers here; he loves martial arts novels -- a love already differently but memorably celebrated in his splendid (and in some ways initially at least incomprehensible) 1994 Ashes of Time. Besides that, The Grandmaster has the advantage of being atmospherically set in the fedora-and-wifebeater days of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties, not in the fancy-costume remote past of most Chinese kung fu epics.

For all its high speed and violence this is a curiously calming film. Ip Man is played in a mellow, static manner by the big star and Wong regular Tony Leung Chiu-wai. Leung is traditionally one of the more buttoned down, enigmatic and stoical of the Hong Kong movie greats. Here he also seems politely focused, like Joyce's artist, indifferent, paring his fingernails, but without haughtiness. He never looks tired; never breaks a sweat. Such are the benefits, one supposes, of of grandmasterhood. One character speaks of how when she was growing up in a kung fu school the sound she heard most often was of cracking bones, but we don't actually see that much blood and mayhem, apart from pieces of architecture and furniture frequently breaking off as combatants fly around in the gorgeous, ultra-sharp slo-mo action fragments. Unlike the somewhat indigestible 2046, a cumulative film so narratively complex and referential it demands multiple viewings, The Grandmaster, in contradistinction to the epic tradition of flashy CGI-intensive extravaganzas like Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers, consistently maintains a personal and intimate feel, and goes down easy, over before you know it. But what have we missed? Clearly a lot -- purely in footage, over two hours.

Certainly the early days were the days of the vintage Wong and the films the American art house audience doesn't know seem the truest. Once the Nineties were over Wong seemed to have lost his edge. Since then, he has been floundering a bit. I don't know why, but a rift with his eccentric and brilliant Australian dp Chirs Doyle, who was so essential to the distinctive, psychedelic Wong visuals, feels like it may have been a key factor. Or it might be simply that fame put too much pressure on a director who worked on the margins, and improvisationally.

Though The Grandmaster won't please practitioners of Wing Chun and the martial arts fanboy club generally (they just want to see the moves) this is still a film, even in pared-down form, that abounds in Wong's use of extreme closeups and slow-mo and varying film speeds, as well as his narrative sensibility. However, it also seems more self-consciously crafted than Wong's idiosyncratic early masterpieces. (After all he took years to make it.) The images are sumptuous, lush, pleasing to the eye from frame to frame, without seeming garish and over-the-top like other Chinese epics distributed Stateside.

But I will always long for the wild days, the beautiful slum apartments, the quirky promises and mottos, the technicolor urban noir, the improvisation, the times when some of the great actors -- some of the best, like Leslie Cheung, now gone -- were all there and it was strange and new. Wong puts one in the recherche du temps perdu mood.

For one of his typically expert descriptions and anylises see Derke Elley's Fim Business Asia review, from which it emerges that at least one scene, cut from the China version for Berlin, of a dramatic cigarette lighting-meeting, is restored in the pared-down Weinstein cut. Elley informs us that the dialogue is written in an elevated, epigrammatic style, full of "bons mots," appropriate to the styles of Mainland "playwright ZOU Jingzhi 鄒靜之 and polymath XU Haofeng 徐浩峰," and constitutes "the densest and most literary of all Wong's films." Of course I, and probably you, would not know this. But Elley sees a "lack of genuine emotion" which, surely, isn't true of his best work. That doesn't mean this isn't, for lovers of film beauty, particularly the Asian kind, a must-see.

The Grandmaster/一代宗師/Yi dai zong shi, 108 mins. (as viewed, Weinstein Company release), 124 mins. ("international version"), premiered on Feb. 7, 2013 as the Berlin Film Festival's opening night film, after being shown and released in various Asian countries. US release, August 23, 2013. SF Bay Area release date, August 30.

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