Plenty of film critics and Asian-cinema aficionados care deeply that The Grandmaster, Wong Kar-wai's pointillist biopic of martial arts master Ip Man and the director's first picture in six years, will be released in the States only in a 108-minute version. The cut released in China earlier this year was 130 minutes; a 122-minute version played at the Berlin Film Festival last February. In interviews, Wong hasn't come off as particularly perturbed that the Weinstein Company, which is releasing the picture here, asked him for a more streamlined version. "I took it as a challenge," he told the Wall Street Journal. "Instead of doing a short version, I wanted to do a new version. I wanted to tell the story in a different way."
Maybe we should take Wong at his word. The 108-minute Grandmaster might not be the shimmering golden epic he originally intended, but it is fleet and silvery in its own right. I saw the 122-minute version in Berlin and was mostly underwhelmed, though I found the lead performances — by Zhang Ziyi and especially Tony Leung — magnetic in the old-Hollywood way. I was also attempting to process a somewhat complicated story, largely unfamiliar to most Westerners (and certainly to me), jet-lagged and going on three hours of sleep. If that's not the worst way to look at a picture by one of your favorite living directors, I don't know what is.
But those of us who have repeatedly watched at least some of Wong's films know how much even the same cut can shift in the light of multiple viewings. Even those that might seem stilted as you're watching them — such as the 2007 romance My Blueberry Nights, which disappointed many Wong fans — may reassemble themselves in your mind after the fact, like some magic flower that, preferring to save some of its colors for later, refuses to open when you're staring right at it.
The 108-minute Grandmaster is like that; it doesn't give away its secrets all at once. In the late 1930s, an aging martial arts master from Northern China, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), treks south to find the best fighter. He's already heard about one standout: Ip Man (Leung) is a low-key champion who moves as if there's very little difference between fighting and breathing. In the opening sequence, he takes on a wily opponent in a steady rain. At first the two fighters appear to engage more with the air and the crystal water droplets falling around them than with each other — they slice away, with knife-like precision, seemingly at nothing. Until, that is, they really get cracking, coming at one another from either side of a rickshaw that splinters and collapses between them like a grasshopper cage made of balsa wood.
Ip Man emerges victorious — even his white Panama hat survives both the fight and the rain. Later, Gong Yutian pits him against a series of opponents, including a woman opera singer who advances on tiny bound feet that resemble embroidered deer's hooves. The only person who can throw him off his game is Gong Yutian's daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), who has learned some of her father's most intricate fighting secrets but, because she's a woman, can't assume his mantle after his retirement. She'll become a doctor instead, but not before she engages Ip Man in an episode of feral and near-faint-inducing erotic sparring.
That, of course, is the sort of thing Wong does best. He roughly sketches out the story of the real Ip Man — who was Bruce Lee's teacher — but takes plenty of liberties, particularly in the romance department. The unrequited love between Ip Man and the fictional Gong Er is just a slender arc of the movie, but it's a potent one. The two are separated through much of the story, which makes their reconnections that much more tender. Wong can turn a plain coat button into a symbol of chaste and enduring love.
He and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd are also alive to the charisma of the actors. Zhang is as luminous as a moonbeam; sweeping through the air in her fight scenes, she looks as weightless as one too. And Leung, who has long been a kind of platonic muse for Wong, has the kind of face for which cinema was invented. Even when he seems to be doing nothing, you can see the ghosts of tension, relief, or yearning in his eyes and the planes of his brow — instead of opening up, he begins by concealing. A good Tony Leung performance is like a secret whispered in your ear and yours alone.
Longing, homesickness, preservation of a disappearing past: Wong tries to wedge a lot into 108 minutes, including a shorthand study of how the Chinese suffered at the hands of the Japanese. This isn't the most gracefully shaped of his films, more an off-balance gourd than a symmetrical vase. But an imperfect Wong Kar-wai movie is still a Wong Kar-wai movie. His obsessiveness about romantic details, his devotion to the pursuit of beauty (both the gilt and the unvarnished kind), his sensitivity in depicting close-to-the-vest suffering: All of those elements are present in this Grandmaster. Maybe 108 minutes is too short. But that only means that somewhere out there, there's more Grandmaster to love.