Roughly five years in the making (delayed when, among other struggles, its star broke his arm), Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster premiered in both mainland China and Hong Kong in January 2013. A month later, it opened the Berlin International Film Festival, where it was picked up for U.S. distribution. It played in American theaters late that summer, and I seized the first chance I could get to see it. But the movie I saw was twenty-two minutes shorter than the one Chinese audiences saw earlier in the year. Condensed and slightly restructured for Western audiences, the film quickly became a point of some contention among critics. The American producer who had acquired the distribution rights, often jokingly referred to at the time as “Harvey Scissorhands” (now best known for other things), dismissed complaints of butchery by saying that, since the artistry was apparent regardless, “who gives a s— [about the length]?” The truncated version of the film went on to become Hong Kong’s official selection for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, ultimately being nominated for its costume design and cinematography. It also performed well at the box office, becoming Wong’s biggest international hit to date.
First, a few qualifying statements. It would be convenient to paint this situation as a conflict between an artist and a businessman. However, Wong himself played an important role in re-cutting the film, and he’s had nothing but good things to say about the artistic challenge. More than a few critics who’ve seen both versions feel that the shorter cut spoils the power of the original (David Ehrlich perhaps the most zealous among them), while others (such as David Bordwell, with his characteristically fine-point analysis) take a more evenhanded approach. On top of this, a third version exists. The film that played in Berlin falls between the other two in length, so the process of streamlining the film wasn’t entirely about dumbing it down for American audiences. But since I was able to purchase an imported Blu-ray of the original 130-minute cut, I will examine the two extremes (hereafter “the Chinese cut” and “the American cut”).
As the director himself admitted, the primary reason for the new version of the film was avoiding the confusion of Western audiences getting plunged headfirst into Chinese history. The Grandmaster explores the lives of various martial artists from a few different regions of China before, during and after the Second Sino-Japanese War. (The average American is probably already on wobbly footing here. This conflict began just before what we often refer to as World War II.) So the first change is thoroughly understandable — a set of intertitles explaining the historical context. Hence the most common complaint about the American cut, its overreliance on intertitles and voiceover throughout, most memorably a reference at the very end to Bruce Lee. Many of these titles do strike me as condescending. Several of them name a character and his or her kung fu style, only for the dialogue to provide that same information a moment later. Then again, I don’t think I’ve seen an article written in this country that mentions Ip Man (the film’s main character, played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai) without adding that he taught Bruce Lee kung fu, so maybe a bit of condescension was warranted. Not only that, but there are quite a few intertitles in the Chinese cut as well, filling in details for the sprawling story. The difference is one of general effect. In one scene of the original version, a character boasts about how well he’s going to fight the Japanese. The intertitle that immediately follows tells of his death in the war. This whole sequence is excised from the American cut.
In general, the scenes exclusive to the longer cut served to make the story more diffuse, jumping around in time and among several characters. The American cut is much more simply “the Ip Man story,” with the other characters often (though not always) presented in relation to him. Thus, the character known as “Razor” (who’s underdeveloped, it should be said, even in the Chinese cut, suggesting that an even longer version might be ideal) is introduced later in the American cut and shares a scene with Ip that’s absent from the original. In the Chinese cut, Razor (played by Chang Chen) first meets Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) while hiding from Japanese soldiers — a scene that recalled, for me, Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress. There are a couple little gestures in the original version that I missed in the shorter cut, some revealing character moments unrelated to the main story. Among these are some additional scenes with Ip and his wife, and a little more attention paid to Gong Er’s choice to avenge her father’s death.
The most interesting divergences come at the end of the film. Besides the mention of Bruce Lee (who, in the Chinese cut, is an unnamed child studying under Ip), the final sequence in the American cut rearranges some footage, as Bordwell points out. It juxtaposes scenes of both Gong and Ip as children, tying the two characters together in a sort of wistful reverie. (In the Chinese cut, the Ip childhood scenes come at the beginning.) Then, right in the middle of the closing credits comes a quick action montage, ending with Tony Leung looking directly at the camera to ask, “What’s your [fighting] style?” Now, I’d be very tempted to chalk this addition up to crass commercialization, the desire to get the audience out the door on a high note rather than with the quiet sadness of the original. But, again, according to Bordwell, that final scene is a playful touch not at all uncommon to Hong Kong cinema. When it comes to the final shot of the film proper, though, there’s no comparison. I’d take the more mysterious image from the Chinese cut (shadows of Buddha statues against a wall) over the prosaic shot of Ip and his students gathered for a group photograph any day.
More than a simple action film, The Grandmaster was molded into its director’s preferred moods and themes. If there were artistic compromises for the film on its journey across the Pacific, then perhaps there were some before the initial release as well, since the film touches on some delicate history between Hong Kong and the mainland. It arrived during a time when Hong Kong’s re-assimilation into China began to accelerate. Wong Kar-Wai isn’t a political firebrand, though his films have certainly expressed anxiety about Hong Kong’s place in the world. Meanwhile, China’s film culture has risen to global prominence in the years since The Grandmaster was released. For a quick primer on the cultural context of this film, I’d recommend columns by Justin Chang and Shelly Kraicer. They each add perspective that none of the intertitles in the American cut can manage. In conclusion, I see no reason not to dig in to the original version of the film, if you can get your hands on it. It’s a dreamy spectacle, marked by a variety of stunning visual textures and unfulfilled romantic longing, to go along with all the immaculate physical grace and people getting kicked through windows.