Lacked the most important part of a good piece of a fiction: a great story. The characters are underdeveloped, the plot feels rushed much of the time (especially during the Japanese invasion) and the love-story never quite ignites. The two leads, Tony Jeung as Ip Man and Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er don’t have enough scenes together to make me really believe either is pining with the kind of emotional baggage the film asserts.
Both Jeung and Zhang Ziyi are very compelling. Especially Ziyi. I loved her in Crouching Tiger. I like her every bit as much here.
What The Grandmaster lacked in great narrative, it made up in stunning filmmaking. This is one of the most slickly edited films I have ever seen, both in action sequences and in the more subdued moments. Shots are held for the right length of time, cuts are made at the right moment, either conveying a feeling or pushing to the next piece of action. Similarly, cutaways and reaction shots are included at the perfect time so as to guarantee we know what the director, Wong Kar-wai wants us to know.
This is also one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen. From scenes by a train, to scenes in the snow, to scenes in the rain, to scenes in a brothel there is nothing here that Wong and his cinematographer Phillipe le Sourd haven’t made visually jaw-dropping.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the audio. The score conveys more feeling than any of the actors or the script. The rest of the audio is just as brilliant (days later I can still almost hear subtle gusts of wind generated by a kick or punch).
I suspect that Wong Kar-wai wanted us to experience the brilliance of his art more than he wanted us to see a great narrative. The reviews I read tell me that he cut away 22 minutes of the Chinese release for this Weinstein Company American release. My assumption is that those 22 minutes likely helped connect the story. Plus, while I have never seen another Wong feature, critics tell me his pictures are always artistic masterpieces lacking in structured narrative. I conclude, then, that Wong Kar-wai was trying to show technical mastery more than he was trying to show narrative cohesion. In that way, he probably accomplished his goal, which is why I give this the grade I do. Normally, a film lacking solid plot and/or developed characters would not generate such a “high” grade from me.
That said, I still think a great piece of fiction needs to have interesting characters and equally interesting conflict. The Grandmaster doesn’t, so I can’t call it great.