World of Wong Kar-wai: The Grandmaster

[On November 25th in NYC, Janus Films began presenting a slate of 4K remasters for legendary director Wong Kar-wai’s catalog of films. Set to run for the next few weeks, we at Flixist will be taking a look back at each of these films and explaining what makes them so important to cinema as a whole. Join us as we enter into “The World of Wong Kar-wai.”]

As we come to a close on our retrospectives of acclaimed director Wong Kar-wai’s films, I wanted to end things on something of a different note. Our past articles on movies such as In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express, and Days of Being Wild were all about the thematic elements Wong struck while constructing his stories. We’ve even gone into the sociopolitical environments that surrounded the film on its release, which gives extra context to the narrative structure of each film. For The Grandmaster, that’s not what I’ll be talking about.

Not only does Flixist have a review of the US cut from seven years ago, but The Grandmaster wasn’t actually featured as part of the 4K restorations that Janus Films commissioned. While you’ll still be able to rent and stream both the International and US cuts from the Lincoln Center website, nothing has been done to the picture quality on this movie because it was already filmed in HD. In essence, I’m kind of just throwing this film into our series because I really enjoy it.

So what exactly am I going to talk about? Well, the biggest elephant in the room when it comes to The Grandmaster: Which version is the definitive cut? For those unaware, the only reason a shorter version exists for the US market is that distributor The Weinstein Company mandated that one be made. Known for treating most Chinese films as disposable in the west, it’s really not surprising to hear that company come up with a crappy decision to recut the picture (which also rings doubly true considering how much of a scumbag Harvey Weinstein is.)

The Grandmaster

Strangely, though, I find myself gravitating more toward that briefer version for a few reasons. At least in the case of this movie, Wong was involved with all of the edits and removed scenes that he felt would result in a tighter film. Speaking to The Huffington Post about the film’s western release, Wong said, “As a filmmaker, let me say that the luxury of creating a new cut for U.S. audiences was the opportunity to reshape it into something different than what I began with – a chance one doesn’t always get as a director and an undertaking much more meaningful than simply making something shorter or longer.” That’s precisely what he accomplished with The Grandmaster.

If you look at the edits from a detached perspective, the US version sounds worse off. Nearly 30 minutes are axed from the overall runtime, which definitely isn’t an insignificant amount. When watching the Hong Kong version, too, you begin to wonder what could have even been cut. There is a subplot with a character named Razor that goes literally nowhere, but everything else feels very considered and important. What could have been removed?

Well, the first thing you’ll notice watching the films back to back is that the events of the story have been restructured a bit. In its original incarnation, The Grandmaster more accurately tells the story of Ip Man, the world-renowned Wing Chun master that would teach Bruce Lee, as he would have experienced it. He has run-ins with certain people that then disappear for large periods because of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. With the border between Hong Kong and China completely shut down in 1950, Ip Man never had the chance to reunite with certain figures in his life.

Second, the relationship between Ip and his wife is more closely examined in the Hong Kong cut. That sounds like a devastating omission, but it actually doesn’t end up hurting the US version that badly. It certainly develops Ip as a faithful and loyal man, but the tone of the US cut is completely different. It’s surprising how certain changes end up creating a unique mood between each version, almost as if they were different films entirely.

The main gist of the story is that its title doesn’t necessarily refer to Ip Man. He may be one of the most recognizable names in the martial arts world -in no small part thanks to the surging popularity of Donnie Yen’s Ip Man just five years earlier-, but he was still a human. He learned from other masters around him and became a legendary figure over time. Before then, he would have referred to others as “grandmaster.” Case in point, the film’s secondary protagonist: Gong Er.

Portrayed absolutely magnificently by Zhang Ziyi, Gong Er is more important to the overall story of The Grandmaster than anything else. In the Hong Kong version, some additional scenes that give context to her actions, but the film never truly focuses on her struggle. In the US version, however, completely separate scenes develop something of a love story between Gong and Ip and flesh out her backstory even better.

When I first watched The Grandmaster earlier in the year, I had done so on Netflix completely forgetting that a Hong Kong version existed. With that out of my mind, I just soaked in the atmosphere and walked away incredibly impressed with Wong’s take on Ip Man’s life. The soundtrack was fantastic, the action was filmed and edited in a very creative manner, and the romantic connection between Gong and Ip lead to some very in-depth dialogue about the meaning of life and our purpose in it. While some of the side characters were underdeveloped, I was more enamored with how Wong didn’t portray Ip as Superman and captured more of a human element to his story.

In the Hong Kong version, it’s kind of the reverse. Gong Er still confesses her love to Ip later in the movie, but it never feels earned. With more time given to Razor for absolutely no reason, the film attempts to strike a parallel between Ip and Razor that just never wraps itself up. Oddly enough, their showdown is contained exclusively in the US version, almost as if Wong wanted people to view each version to get the full picture, but it comes at the detriment of developing Gong more.

After Gong’s death in the US cut, we’re treated to a flashback where she watches as her father trains in the snow. It then beautifully segues into Gong duplicating those moves, showing how she grew in the shadows and wound up perfecting her father’s technique. It comes after the tough blow that Gong had already forgotten her training due to life treating women like shit, which is an incredibly emotional moment. This is entirely absent in the Hong Kong version.

On the flip side, the Hong Kong version shows a scene where Ip returns to Gong’s shop and speaks with her guardian, a man named Jiang. He laments that he won’t be able to spend the rest of his days with Gong and that she could have been so much more. From there, he takes down the sign in front of her shop, indicating that the legacy of the Gong’s is now finished. It’s also powerful but doesn’t hit with anywhere near the same impact as in the US version.

As I said, I get the impression that Wong wanted viewers to watch each version and kind of fill in the gaps between both. Neither one is a perfect film, with the Hong Kong version kind of dragging on and falling flat by the end while the US version is slower to start, but beautifully concludes its story of love, legacy, and unfulfilled potential. With the exclusive footage in the US version skewing towards the romantic, it also ends up feeling more like a traditional Wong Kar-wai film anyway.

That was the biggest takeaway from my original viewing of The Grandmaster. This was the second Wong film I had watched, having been familiar with Ashes of Time and its Redux version from a few years earlier. Going through these retrospectives and watching these films for the first time, it made sense why The Grandmaster was a much more romantic and emotional film than other Ip Man stories. Wong has a penchant for capturing the intimate, messy details of life that become glamorized for a film.

When watching the Hong Kong version, I didn’t get that same impression. I don’t think the US version needed to add title cards, extra narration, or something of an epilogue with an extra action sequence, but I preferred its more linear storytelling versus the almost scattershot development in the Hong Kong one. It makes sense from the perspective of Ip, who reunites with people years later and finally learns the truth, but it also ends up robbing the film of its dramatic stakes. In turn, that version plays out like a typical biopic, just with flashier editing.

I think the reason the US cut ended up being so much more effective for me is that Wong had his hand in it. Had The Weinstein Company been given free rein, we would have ended up with a situation like Supercop or Drunken Master 2, where the entire tone of the movie is shifted with careless edits and a redubbing of the soundtrack. The Hong Kong version might be closer to what Wong originally intended, but he was able to reshape the story to better focus on certain elements that were lacking before. This effectively created a romanticized cut of the film, axing the unnecessary and honing in on what worked so well the first time.

It’s bizarre to say that the US cut of a Hong Kong film is better, but that’s the situation with The Grandmaster. Since neither version feels like a complete film, I’d rather go for the more emotional journey than a film that closely follows the typical biopic formula. I’d still recommend you check out both versions and I certainly wouldn’t belittle anyone for preferring that original cut, but I know I’ll always return to the US version when I revisit this film in the future.

Peter Glagowski
Peter is an aspiring writer with a passion for gaming and fitness. If you can't find him in front of a game, you'll most likely find him pumping iron.