The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

The Grandmaster: Gorgeous fights, but not my cup of tea

with 13 comments

Let’s begin on the positive side of The Grandmaster. We’ll talk about the fights, or should I rather say “dances”, because that’s how I see them. Ballet dancers performing in darkness and rain, in perfect control doing things with their bodies I’ve never seen on a screen before.

Maybe it’s because I’m so inexperienced with kung fu movies from Hong Kong, but when I saw the main characters fighting on a platform, millimetres from a train passing by at the side of them, I was spellbound.

It probably comes out oddly, but the word I want to use for those fights is “delicious”. I don’t think I’ve seen any fighting as beautiful like this since I saw the bamboo top fight in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Actually I think those were even prettier, but that might have to do with the image quality. So I devoured them and then I waited patiently for the next one to turn up.

I say impatiently, because what was inserted in between those fights was nothing I cared about. As a matter of fact I barely understood what was going on, despite the information text cards that appeared on the screen once in a while, briefly updating me about the most important points in the life of a man called Ip Man.

Perhaps it would have helped if I had had any previous knowledge about the history of kung fu in China and particularly about this martial art master, who has existed for real and apparently is a celebrity, the man trained Bruce Lee. But as it now it was hard to follow or engage with the story.

What also felt a bit odd was that they skipped over some of the events in Ip Man’s life that seemed like the most dramatic and best suited to show on a screen. When Ip Man’s daughters die from starvation we get to know it by a text. We never see it happen.

Not my cup of tea
I feel very torn about this movie. I loved the fights. I didn’t care for the rest. In that way it reminded me of a porn movie: people watch it for the sex content, but they have to put up with terrible, boring, incomprehensible filling material taking up space between the scenes they’re there for.

At the press screening I attended there were quite a few who weren’t as much of fight junkies as I am. Or perhaps they had already seen as many kung fu fights as you need in a lifetime. In any case: there was a constant stream of people leaving the theatre during the movie. And out of those who stayed, several fell asleep.

I love diversity in movies, I love to see movies from other territories and traditions than the usual western one, and because of this I wish that I could have loved The Grandmaster, beyond the fight scenes. But I need to be honest here: it wasn’t my cup of tea.

I can’t even blame it on that I watched a bad version, even though I’m not entirely sure of which version I watched.

From what I’ve heard there are several different ones circulating, where the US version, which is heavily recut and abridged, is supposed to be worse and less comprehensible than the original. The version we were served was announced to be 130 minutes long. This might mean that it’s the original cut. It could also be a third, slightly shortened film which was screened at the Berlin festival earlier this year.

Either way it the film as whole didn’t work for me. For a movie to become a grandmaster in my book it needs to offer more than gorgeous fight scenes.

The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi, Kar Wai Wong, 130 min version, 2013) My rating: 2/5

Written by Jessica

September 11, 2013 at 1:00 am

Posted in The Grandmaster

13 Responses

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  1. I say, let’s all put the blame on Wong Kar-Wai 😉


    September 11, 2013 at 6:09 am

    • I thin I’ll stick to my mismatch-explanation. Others seem to like it a lot more.


      September 11, 2013 at 7:19 am

  2. I had a similar reaction when I watched it and I guess it’s an unavoidable reaction unless you have a love/knowledge of Kung fu history, regular Kung fu movies are much more accessible than this one.


    September 11, 2013 at 9:12 am

    • Thanks! Your review is excellent. I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one to have issues with it. The reviews I’ve heard so far have made me feel in a minority.


      September 12, 2013 at 12:12 am

  3. Great review Jessica. I’m saddened to hear that it didn’t really cut it, though. I’ll give it a look but won’t build my hopes up.

    Mark Walker

    September 11, 2013 at 11:00 am

    • I think I’m in a minority here. Most critics I’ve heard so far have been very positive about it. Maybe we’ll fall on different sides in this case. Let’s hope for that.


      September 12, 2013 at 12:09 am

      • It’s not often that we do fall on opposite sides, so I do trust your judgment. As well as that, I’m often left disappointed with Wong Kar Wai movies, even though I keep going back to him.

        Mark Walker

        September 12, 2013 at 12:22 am

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  7. Yeah I think you definitely have to know martial arts culture to fully follow this one. Not necessarily the history, but the overall way of life, because he leaves a lot of blanks unfilled. Have you seen any of WKW’s other films? They are all equally as ‘delicious’ but also usually deal with more universal themes.

    Bonjour Tristesse

    September 26, 2013 at 1:39 am

    • I’m afraid I haven’t seen anything else by him. I’ll try not to be scared away from im by this. I’ve heard a lot of good stuff and again: I really appreciated the visuals. It was just the storytelling (or lack thereof) that didn’t work for me.


      November 3, 2013 at 1:53 pm

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