Thursday, August 22, 2013

Review: The Grandmaster

Release date: August 23, 2013
Running time: 123 minutes
Starring: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Ziyi Zhang, Jin Zhang 
Who to see it with: Someone who wants a little more drama in their kung fu movies


The Grandmaster purportedly tells the story of Bruce Lee's martial arts teacher, Ip Man. The movie details events of his life during the 1930s through 50s and the changes that happen to both him and China during that period. Although this movie will likely appeal to martial arts movie buffs, a large portion (probably the majority) of the film consists of drama. Although there are plenty of fights throughout the film, there is a lot of overly dramatic non-fist conflict as well: young vs. old, men vs. women, old China vs. new China, and northern China vs. southern China are all in tension. A lot of times, this focus causes the plot to drastically slow down and leads to a good deal of exposition to fill the viewer in on what's going on. Having a detailed plot is not a bad thing, and including greater tension than simply two individuals fighting is a nice idea, but it gets burdensome later in the movie. Honestly, the movie could have been 30 minutes shorter and dealt with fewer issues and it would have been much more enjoyable. (I know Lee, I feel bad for saying specifically when I complained before seeing the movie that they had cut about 20 minutes of the film for the American release).

This aspect is a shame because so much of the movie is done well. The cinematography is gorgeous, with great sets and lighting throughout the fights and the dramatic scenes. There are some fairly imaginative and intricate fight scenes that will keep you mostly entertained between the less physical conflicts. However, sometimes the fights can be overly complex, with distracting weather effects or constant cuts that make the actual fighting hard to follow, a shame given the complexity of the actual fighting. Additionally, there can be an excessive use of slow motion, which is a nice way to follow the fights but sacrifices some of the excitement. If there's one thing the film does right, it's the great music. The score is plenty powerful and helps to evoke the drama of both kinds of conflicts. Additionally, the acting is great, especially the immensely likable Tony Leung. It's a shame that these bright spots are dragged down by a plot that plods a little too much and an overly complex story.

Rent it.

PS - There is a stinger part way through the credits.  Make sure to stay for it.

It's funny that you say the length could be even shorter since the international versions are already a bit shorter than the original. The dialogue is deliberately slow-paced and drawn out, especially effective during some of Ziyi Zhang's heated confrontations but somewhat tiring when featured throughout the entire running time. And the frequent cuts away from the fighters produce great imagery, but makes the battles feel slightly disjointed. Though I was occasionally bored, I appreciate the uniquely low-key tension resulting from the slow pacing and artsy battles. I felt the weather effects (and darkness) were used well in creating some really stylish shots. Americans expecting excitement along the lines of the action-packed U.S. trailers will be surprised when they realize that the fights make up a relatively small portion of an arthouse drama. Hopefully the Blu-ray will allow international audiences to experiences The Grandmaster's other versions.

Rent it.

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