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Saturday, July 5, 2014

THE GRANDMASTER (2013)

About an hour into Kar Wai Wong’s stylish bio-pic on the life & times of Ip Man, Kung Fu Master: Wing Chun Division, Ip lands in post-WWII Hong Kong. Approaching middle-age, Ip finds himself less a man without a country than a man without Martial Arts cred. In a battle that would reestablish his bona fides, Ip faces off against ‘The Razor,’ a Kung Fu rebel-with-an-edge, a straight edge. The fight may be vicious, but the musical accompaniment on the soundtrack is not. Instead, an orchestral version of ‘Casta Diva,’ the great soprano aria from Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece NORMA. That’s when the film’s design clicks firmly into place; it’s a Bel Canto Martial Arts pic.* At least, that’s the idea. But with two & a half reels lopped off and structural reshuffling by the Weinstein Company as ransom for a Stateside release, it’s impossible to know if Wong’s brought it off. The first hour sticks to Ip Man’s rise against the masters of various Martial Arts disciplines in pre-WWII China; his subsumed passion toward Gong Er, the beautiful daughter of the past GrandMaster; and the quick destruction of his world as Japanese occupation takes hold. The rest of the film, now set in 1950s Hong Kong, takes on the crossed paths of Ip and Gong Er, now a practicing physician. Suddenly, her backstory moves front & center, but the flashback structure feels shoehorned in. The Weinstein cut (it’s all boxes-within-boxes) clarifies narrative at the cost of sucking emotion, wonder and excitement out of the film. Even as is, Tony Chiu Wai Leung is a rock as Ip Man and no doubt the original cut will eventually show up. ('The Weinstein Company Presents the Much Anticipated Kar Wai Wong Director’s Cut! Sorry, no refunds for already buying the earlier botched edition.') Oh well, it’s worth a second viewing.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Bel Canto: literally ‘Beautiful Song;’ but in practice, bel canto's traditional vocal acrobatics are merely the starting point for an attitude toward lyric-drama that uses perfect vocal technique (ease, flexibility & brilliance) to get to the heart of things. Hmm, sounds like advice from a Kung Fu master.

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