One of the fastest selling tickets at any London Film Festival is always the surprise film. As you’d imagine, it’s not a film that anyone knows about in advance. In the past I’ve seen Far From Heaven and Capitalism: A Love Story at the LFF. And I know that last year they showed Silver Linings Playbook.
So when we got an introduction from first Wong Kar Wai via a recorded video, and then an in-person introduction from Harvey Weinstein, I was quite excited. OK – I was a little rude about Weinstein the other day when I saw his credit in front of Kon Tiki. But this was a Wong Kai Wai film – a director who’s work I’ve loved ever since I saw Chungking Express. In The Mood For Love remains one of my favourite films of all time.
He’s a director who seems to have been quite for a while now, and while I’d heard that he an epic film in the works, it wasn’t until afterwards that I learnt a bit more about the background to The Grandmaster. But what was clear from the outset was that we were getting a Western version of the film.
The story is about Ip Man, a Wing Chun kung fu master, played by Tony Leung, an actor who has worked on many previous occasions with Wong. The film opens with a big action set piece as Ip takes on a multitude of attackers at once.
What follows isn’t the easiest thing to describe. We get a series of inter-titles which both help and hinder our understanding of the film. In broad terms, this is an unrequited love story spanning the years before and after the Second World War and Japanese occupation of China. It’s a tale of rivals taking on one another, as the north and south declare their own masters with the various houses of kung fu coming together.
Into this fray enters Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) who ends up having to take on Ip.
The fight scenes are terrific, although heavily stylised. I’m not sure that they’re really referencing old Shaw Brothers films which I think is the idea. Indeed in “print” I saw, it sometimes felt that clear that it’d been shot of digital video, and it felt to me that there was overuse of slow motion.
The latter part of the film in particular, as the post-war action moves to Hong Kong, is beautiful. And the music is perfectly suited from Shigeru Umebayashi and Nathaniel Mechaly. And we get excerpts of Ennio Morricone at times.
While I enjoyed the film, I’m just not certain about its structure. And there are too many inter-titles to explain what we’re seeing. They really shouldn’t be necessary.
The version of the film we saw is shorter than the one that opened in China at the start of the year, and I wonder if the Chinese version might not be the one to see. It does feel like there are pieces missing.
I’d still always go and see a new Wong Kar Wai film, because he is an extraordinary film maker. This isn’t his best work however, and it’s structure is somehow wrong. The film may have been long in gestation, but it’s still not right. It’s not really clear to me why it was the surprise film, given that these are films that arrive “too late” to make the Festival programme. Yet this is a film that has been released in most territories around the world this year. So that doesn’t really hang together.