- - Thursday, August 29, 2013

American audiences will see a significantly shorter version of “The Grandmaster,” director Wong Kar-wai’s kung-fu biopic about legendary martial arts teacher Ip Man. The version now playing in U.S. theaters has been cut by more than 20 minutes, with some scenes chopped, others rearranged and fill-in-the-blanks cue cards inserted to clarify turns in the story.

I haven’t seen the longer cut, but reports generally indicate that the American version emphasizes the movie’s action at the expense of its love story.

The problem is that there’s not quite enough action to make this idea work. It wasn’t meant to be a fast-paced action epic, but a historical love story with kung-fu flavor. And so the movie feels imbalanced, as if it’s not quite sure what movie it wants to be. What’s left in this edit is a slow-moving muddle — a not-quite action movie that feels 20 minutes longer than it is.

Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai has always been at his best portraying wordless feeling — the silent longing between lovers who cannot come together, or the dreamy air of traveling alone in a city. His movies have a rich, textured beauty to them, as if gently draped in sheets of gold and silk.

That works well in stories of unrequited love, like “Chungking Express” and “In the Mood for Love.” But his focus on mood and internal conflict is not as obvious a fit for a story like “The Grandmaster,” which follows the life of Ip Man (Tony Leung), the Wing Chun martial artist who became one of China’s most celebrated teachers — and who, most famously, trained kung-fu pioneer Bruce Lee.

Mr. Wong’s imagery is as lush as always, especially in the gorgeously rainy opening fight sequence. But he’s far too impressionistic to make a strong action director. As with dance photography, the best movie martial arts sequences rely on wide shots and long takes to show the full motion of the human bodies in conflict.

But “The Grandmaster’s” scattered showdowns are punctuated by slow-motion close-ups that distract from the action. Mr. Wong seems more intent on capturing the mood of the fights than the events themselves.

That’s especially frustrating because the movie’s handful of extended action sequences could have been some of the better martial arts showdowns in recent memory. The choreography, by Hong Kong legend Yuen Woo-ping, who designed the fights in both “The Matrix” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” looks to have been staged with the same ferocious precision as in those films. Too bad so much of his work is hidden by the editing.

Mr. Wong seems more in his element when dealing with the (somewhat fictionalized) love story between Ip Man and Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the daughter of a rival martial arts master. But when the two split apart about a third of the way through, the movie loses its center. At times it feels more like her story than his — which would be fine, except that the movie always drags viewers back to its title character.

And I do mean drags. Like Mr. Wong’s earlier movies, “The Grandmaster” is a slow film. Unlike those, it never settles into the hypnotic rhythm it aims for. The wordless feeling it left me with was the sense of a movie that never quite finds itself. 

★★ 1/2

TITLE: “The Grandmaster”

CREDITS: Written and directed by Wong Kar-wai

RATING: PG-13 for kung-fu violence

RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes

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