Kung Foolish: How The American Cut of 'The Grandmaster' Ruins a Masterpiece

the grandmaster

"Kung fu: two words – one horizontal, one vertical."

Perfectionist, tinkerer, victim of his opaque sui generis approach to cinematic storytelling  – however you slice it, when it comes to the difficulties of getting his vision onto movie screens intact, this isn’t Wong Kar-Wai’s first rodeo. The first time that the prodigiously talented Hong Kong auteur tried his hand at a film with wuxia elements, it took him nearly 14 years to arrive at a definitive cut (“Ashes of Time” was completed in 1994, but the sands didn’t settle until 2008 when Wong produced the slightly shorter “Ashes of Time Redux”). Needless to say, it’s no surprise that his latest and most outwardly ambitious work – a genuine historical epic five years in the making – has emerged into the world with its ink still wet.

“The Grandmaster”, which chronicles the life and times of the legendary Ip Man (master of Wing Chun, mentor to Bruce Lee), debuted in China on January 6, 2013, merely hours after Wong had applied his “final touches” to the long-gestating project. The cut with which Wong introduced the film to the world (henceforth referred to as “The Chinese Cut”), clocked in at approximately 130 minutes, having already been whittled down from a rumored four-hour version. Reviews from the Chinese press were overwhelmingly (if not exclusively) positive, and the film performed extremely well at the box office, its domestic grosses alone ($50 million) enough to compensate for its production budget ($38.6 million). Nevertheless, Wong decided to trim 15 minutes from the film in time for its glamorous international debut at February’s Berlin International Film Festival. In her ultimately positive appraisal of the Berlin cut, Stephanie Zacharek wrote that “‘The Grandmaster’ can make you feel woozy, but not always in the best way ... We want Wong’s movies to be overwhelming but delicate; supple but sturdy; hypnotic but assured. ‘The Grandmaster’ is trying to be all of those things at once, and it’s perhaps the ‘trying’ that’s tripping it up”.

Indeed, the films of Wong Kar-Wai are as delicate as any of their characters, whose lives are often upended with a brief gesture, beautiful records that are doomed to repeat themselves as the result of a single scratch. From improbable romances to impossible affairs, from the cramped confines of a dingy Argentinian motel room to the cabin of a train that delivers the lonely souls of the future to a mysterious place of no return, Wong’s films don’t progress in acts so much as they travel in orbits, drawing perfect circles around formative moments like a ship that’s anchored in the middle of the sea. If a single wave is out of place – if one character disappears for too long or one detail is made too clear – his movies threaten to become sketches rather than slipstreams, and their magic is lost.

Needless to say, that’s a risk that Harvey Weinstein is willing to take. Largely responsible for making foreign films palatable to American audiences in the 1990s, Weinstein has earned a reputation for drastically altering his acquisitions for their domestic release, and so Wong Kar-Wai fans had reason to be concerned when The Weinstein Company bought “The Grandmaster” at Berlin. Alarm reached fever pitch when TWC revealed that the American cut would only run 108 minutes, but fears were somewhat allayed when it was subsequently revealed that this new iteration of the film – completed in partnership with Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures, whose other recent contributions to the cinema  have been extraordinary – was closely supervised by Wong Kar-Wai, himself, and featured “additional footage” that had not been included in either of the previous cuts. Broadly comparing the American Cut with the Chinese Cut, Variety noted that “The result is not only simpler than the domestic version (which recalls the grand tradition of Chinese martial-arts novels in its tricky, convoluted structure), but also boasts explanatory intertitles, character identifiers, and a reference to Bruce Lee in the closing credits.” In that same article, Wong justifies the decision by arguing that, unlike his previous films, “‘The Grandmaster’ is very specific. Because (non-Chinese viewers) don’t have much information or knowledge about the background and history, you have to give enough information for them to get into the story.”

Here's the bad news: If you've only seen the American Cut of "The Grandmaster", you haven't seen "The Grandmaster". While Wong Kar-Wai is living proof that the first cut of a movie that escapes onto cinema screens should not be implicitly regarded as a definitive or holy object, “The Grandmaster” tragically illustrates how refinements can shear away what made a movie so special in the first place. While Wong is rather transparent about how the American cut is a concession to cultural ignorance rather than an artistic statement, he’s profoundly mistaken in thinking that such a concession was required in the first place, and may be too close to the material to recognize that the American cut is insanely reductive and, at the same time, also harder to understand than the original.

The Chinese Cut coherently splits its focus between Ip Man (Tony Leung) and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi as the beautiful daughter of a revered rival), devoting itself to the distance between them and the varying extent to which they fight to maintain the historical virtues of their respective fighting styles, and resolving into an appropriately fragmented portrait of time outpacing tradition. The Chinese Cut uses the brunt of its 130 minutes to hauntingly illustrate how the only histories that we can own are the ones intimately shared between people, the backdrop of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) serving only to underscore how history is human.

The American Cut says nuts to that, ditching Ip Man’s romance with Gong Er and instead attempting to distill Ip Man’s life – his tragedies and his revered legacy – into a device for shoveling a path through history, its edits so completely obfuscating purpose in the name of action that the action soon loses all meaning. The resulting film is a horror show of ribbons, a cut that confuses itself into thinking that naming people with instructive on-screen text is somehow more informative than showing us who they are.

The curious thing is that, at least for me, the woeful American cut was actually a revelatory experience. I revere Wong Kar-Wai and was familiar with Ip Man, but my first encounter with the Chinese Cut was nevertheless a destabilizing one, its woozy rhythms somewhat difficult to reconcile with the director’s uncharacteristically chronological narrative. Watching the butchered American cut wasn’t an immediately pleasant experience, but it made me eager to revisit the longer edition, and upon doing so I quickly found that the 108-minute version illuminated a path into the heart of the original, functioning like a codex of sorts for a film that’s most exquisite pleasures require a viewer to properly contextualize them. Where Wong and Weinstein got it wrong was in thinking that the context was a historical one, when in fact a working knowledge of the war is less essential to appreciating the film than an understanding of how it could transform two people and the way of life that compelled them to each other.

Here is a comprehensive rundown of the differences between the Chinese Cut and the American Cut. I’ve done my best to make sure that this is as accurate as possible, but please understand that I have only seen the truncated cut once, and am less likely to remember “the additional footage” than I am that which was removed from the movie.


ADDED: The first change you’ll notice is that the American Cut is front-loaded with a long series of title cards which explain who Ip Man is and what’s happening in Foshan. In the Chinese Cut, this information is elegantly embedded across the first 30 minutes of the film, the exposition given to characters who it will help to remember when they appear later. While some title cards remain in the Chinese Cut (mostly reserved for depicting correspondence letters between Ip Man and Gong Er), every major character in the American Cut is introduced with on-screen text.

ADDED: The opening passages are replete with new explanatory voiceover, which would fit into Wong’s aesthetic if the narration wasn’t so literal. These new voiceovers continue throughout the film.

MOVED: In the Chinese Cut, an adolescent Ip Man receives a sash from his master immediately after the title card. The master explains what the sash represents, and Ip Man’s voiceover informs us of Wing Chun’s rich history, and how the sash represents an unbroken tradition. In the American Cut, this is presented as the penultimate scene in the film, and Ip Man’s voiceover is about the money he had to pay for the honor.

REMOVED: Ip Man takes his wife to the opera. They hold hands and smile at each other.

REMOVED: Ip Man’s wife washes his bare chest. Later, he returns the favor by washing her legs. When Ip Man is told that he’ll have to fight to represent the Southern schools, his wife tells him that she’ll “take the kids to my mother, less for you to worry about. When a man reaches 40, he needs to be sure of things.”

REMOVED: A short bit where Ip’s master cleans out his ears.

REMOVED: More conferring amongst the Southern schools about who will represent them against the sneering Ma Sun. All told, the American Cut tries to streamline itself into a tournament film.

REMOVED: A long, uninterrupted scene between Gong Er’s father and his brother about ambition. They cook snake stew and throw new wood into a fire while discussing Ip’s greatness, the not so subtle subtext being that tradition can only endure by being passed down. Their conversation provides clearer context for the upcoming “cake fight,” as the limits of the master’s vision are better established.

REMOVED: Gong Er argues with her father about Ip Man being allowed to fight him. The master says “If the old never let go, when will the young get their chance?” He implores Gong Er to appreciate the situation from a broader perspective, words that will inform every scene of either cut. While this scene may have seemed like a logical thing to delete once the decision was made to significantly reduce Gong Er’s role in the American Cut, her father’s words have enormous thematic resonance that cannot be compensated for elsewhere.

ALTERED: Before the fight in the brothel, Gong Er’s father alludes to her engagement, and reasons that she’s not fit for kung fu because she’s going to be a wife. In the American Cut, he instead discusses her plans to become a doctor.

REMOVED: After her father’s defeat in the cake fight, Gong Er leaves a letter for Ip Man in which she vows to restore her family’s honor and make her mark.

ALTERED:  Rather than overlay text against a black title card, the Chinese Cut layers it over a beautiful shot of a rickshaw being pulled through a puddle, the ripples elegantly hinting at the constant unrest of time.

REMOVED: Talk about Gong Er booking a palace for a banquet, the four taboos of kung fu, and how the villainous Ma Sun believes himself to be the true heir to the school of kung fu lead by Gong Er’s father. Gong Er invites Ip Man to the banquet, and the gesture with which he accepts her invitation anticipates the moment in which he later receives a cigarette from a stranger. Gong Er tells Ip Man: “Three days ago my father sat here. Now, it’s about us.” All of this sets up the burgeoning romance between Ip Man and Gong Er, which in the American Cut is reduced to a single shot of Zhang Ziyi twirling over Tony Leung, their mouths almost touching. In the American Cut, Gong Er simply peaces out of Foshan after her father loses the fight. These omissions completely disempower the moment in which Ip Man rests his hand on his wife’s shoulder during their photo shoot. A moment intended to read as an internalized expression of betrayal and seismic generational change instead reads like... a guy putting his hand on his wife’s shoulder.

REMOVED: A shot of Japanese troops motionless in the brothel.

ALTERED: Ip Man’s speech about refusing to collaborate with the Japanese is much shorter in the American Cut, despite the fact that the American Cut has a greater focus on the ethics of collaboration.

REMOVED: A subsequent scene where Ip Man is offered leftovers for dinner because he and his family are hungry.

REMOVED: Ip Man takes the pegs out of his training pole and hacks it apart.

ADDED: To the best of my memory, I believe that the American Cut includes a moment in which Ip Man tries on the jacket from which he removes the pivotal button.

REMOVED: An entire location involving a train raided by Japanese troops. Gong Er is riding along when a mysterious man with a pocket blade (Chang Chen as “The Razor” Yixiantian) sits down beside her. He is bleeding profusely, obviously the result of an altercation with the Japanese troops, but Gong Er uses her clothing to hide the stranger's wounds.  There's a tense moment when a  Japanese soldier demands to see their IDs, but the troops are called away just in the nick of time.

MOVED: Ma Sun’s collusion with the Japanese is used to anchor the film’s climax in the American Cut, but in the Chinese Cut it’s revealed about an hour in.

MOVED: The climactic train station fight between Gong Er and Ma Sun is suddenly introduced (with precious little context) in the American Cut, whereas in the Chinese Cut Gong Er wrestles for the better part of an hour with the idea of whether or not she should submit to vengeance and fight him. Her confidant states “I agree that Ma Sun has to die. It’s a massive crime to betray one’s teacher.” These amount to some of the most drastic changes, as much of the film's prevailing ethos is discussed between Gong Er and her allies while she decides how to handle Ma Sun. These scenes are sprinkled across the movie's middle portions.

REMOVED: Everything involving Gong Er’s marriage, including a wonderful Wong Kar-Wai touchstone in which she whispers her most personal secrets into a hole in a wall.

REDUCED: When Ip Man arrives in Hong Kong, he gives a speech about all of the kinds of people he refuses to teach. This is not included in the American Cut. Also omitted is a bit following the fight in which Ip Man’s students prepare a bed for their new master.

ADDED: When Ip Man goes to visit Gong Er at her clinic, there’s a pointless scene in which he first negotiates with her male secretary.

REMOVED: A scene in which a man visits The Razor with murderous intentions, and – following a short fight scene – begs to be The Razor’s disciple.

ALTERED: In the American Cut, voiceover tells us that Gong Er was addicted to opium (we see her sitting at her desk). In the Chinese Cut, over the same shot, the voiceover says that she was either addicted to opium or kung fu.

ADDED: While some brief glimpses of this can be found in the Chinese Cut, the American Cut restores an entire sequence in which Gong Er grows up and trains in the snow-covered lawn behind her father’s house. It’s introduced as one of the final scenes in the American Cut, despite the fact that her character is barely in the film. The scene may have been far more valuable in the Chinese Cut, where Gong Er serves as a co-lead.

REMOVED: A devastating scene in which Ip Man collects the ashes of Gong Er’s hair.

REMOVED: Ip Man uses his finger to trace the words “My heart will carry me back to you” on his wife’s hand, but history only moves forward down one road.

ADDED: A number of fawning shots of the little kid who grows up to be Bruce Lee. The words “Bruce Lee” are never spoken in the voiceover, but the American Cut announces his presence with the film’s most dramatic title card. In the Chinese Cut, the identity of Ip Man’s youngest student is only casually hinted at.

"The Grandmaster" opens in theaters this Friday. The Chinese Cut of the film is available on region-free Blu-ray.

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