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Early Reviews: Wong Kar-wai's 'The Grandmaster' Is a Dazzling and Contemplative Martial Arts Epic (UPDATED, TRAILER)

Photo of Beth Hanna By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood July 25, 2013 at 1:33PM

Discussing his new film "The Grandmaster" at the Academy on July 22, Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai ("2046," "My Blueberry Nights," "In the Mood for Love") described the alchemy of image and sound in cinema: "It isn't one plus one. It's chemistry."
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Zhang Ziyi in "The Grandmaster"
Zhang Ziyi in "The Grandmaster"

Discussing his new film "The Grandmaster" at the Academy on July 22, Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai ("2046," "My Blueberry Nights," "In the Mood for Love") described the alchemy of image and sound in cinema: "It isn't one plus one. It's chemistry."

Tony Leung is 'The Grandmaster.'
Tony Leung is 'The Grandmaster.'

This chemistry is on breathtaking, ravishing display in "The Grandmaster," a period piece set in China from the 1930s through the early 1950s, starring Tony Leung as the titular grandmaster Ip Man, who would go on to train Bruce Lee, and Zhang Ziyi as a fellow kung fu expert to match Ip's skill. The fight sequences -- which occupy well over half of the film's running time -- are dazzling both in action and stylistic terms, with a gorgeously melodramatic score heightening the wistful yet impossible romance that builds between the two main characters. The clunky biopic aspects of the film only momentarily deter from what is bound to be one of this year's best examples of sheer, no-holds-barred filmmaking.

"The Grandmaster" hits theaters August 23, via the Weinstein Company. Watch the trailer here.

Here's a roundup of early reviews. 

UPDATE: The movie debuted with one cut in January in China, followed by another for the Berlin Film Festival in February. It should be noted that the reviews below reflect the cut seen in Berlin. At the Academy screening I saw the more recent cut, completed by Wong in July. The changes, according to one source, are Wong's: he listened to critics, financier Megan Ellison, distributor Harvey Weinstein and others. For the final cut, Wong retains the same structure but while adding new elements, the running time is shorter. The next set of reviews before the opening will reflect the new edit. 

Variety (review from Berlin):

Venturing into fresh creative terrain without relinquishing his familiar themes and stylistic flourishes, Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai exceeds expectations with “The Grandmaster,” fashioning a 1930s action saga into a refined piece of commercial filmmaking. Boasting one of the most propulsive yet ethereal realizations of authentic martial arts onscreen, as well as a merging of physicality and philosophy not attained in Chinese cinema since King Hu’s masterpieces, the hotly anticipated pic is sure to win new converts from the genre camp. Wong’s Eurocentric arthouse disciples, however, may not be completely in tune with the film’s more traditional storytelling and occasionally long-winded technical exposition.

Hollywood Reporter (review from Berlin):

The Grandmaster, which will open the Berlin International Film Festival on Feb. 7, is an action-packed spectacle for sure -- indeed, the film contains some of the most dazzling fights ever seen onscreen, courtesy of the action choreography of Yuen Woo-ping (of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame) -- but the Hong Kong auteur is seemingly more preoccupied with the introspective verbal exchanges between his battle-hardened warriors.

Indiewire (review from Berlin):

In the years leading up to its completion, the prospects of a kung fu movie directed by Chinese art house auteur Wong Kar Wai have fascinated those familiar with his distinct blend of lush images and poetic encounters simply because "The Grandmaster" sounded so unlike him. However, the finished product remains satisfyingly in tune with the contemplative nature of the director's other work, only breaking his trance-like approach to drama for the occasional showcasing of martial arts techniques.

TOH! (review from Berlin):

This article is related to: Reviews, Reviews, Wong Kar-wai, The Grandmaster, The Grandmaster


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.