Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Grandmaster (2013)

WHO: Wong Kar-Wai directed this.

WHAT: The Grandmaster is, like all of Wong's prior feature films (at least those that I've seen; I confess to having skipped his previous My Blueberry Nights and never having caught up with his first film As Tears Go By), constructed of beautiful images. If there were such thing as a device that could project a single, held, 35mm film frame onto a wall constantly, without incurring its destruction through the melting heat of the projector lamp, there's hardly a frame in the film that wouldn't be a lovely adornment to a darkened space, ripe for study of color, lighting, and composition within the frame. Of course, such a method of looking at the film would be in conflict with what Wong does with editing here, namely that he edits the hell out of his action sequences, making them into a furious flurry of movement without compromising their narrative function.

That all said, the overarching narrative felt to me rather empty of emotion and import, unlike in his (according to me) best movies In The Mood For Love, Fallen Angels and even Ashes of Time. Watching The Grandmaster was unlike watching those films, or the "old-school" kung fu from filmmakers like Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-Leung who stripped down storytelling to archetypal forms to prevent plot complexities from overwhelming the urgency of their action. Wong is in dialogue with a very complicated history rife with Confucian and nationalistic themes, many of which I'm sure I couldn't discern on a single viewing. But watching it, at least on a 35mm print, was nonetheless extraordinarily pleasurable on a sensory level. I would like to re-watch the film after reading Shelly Kracier's persuasive review, in the hopes that I'd get more out of it on an intellectual level as well, knowing that even if I didn't, I would still have an eye-fortifying experience.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens multiple times daily at cinemas around Frisco Bay, including the 4-Star Theatre. The latter is closed for a private event on Tuesday, September 10, however.

WHY: As I intimated in my recent piece on Drug War, the universe seems just a little bit closer to balanced whenever there's a Chinese-language film playing at the 4-Star. That goes double when it's a film by someone whose work I fell in love with there, like Johnnie To or Wong Kar-Wai (it's there that showings of In The Mood For Love and Ashes of Time and to a more intermittent extent 2046 made me swoon). And it goes triple when there's (unlike Drug Warone available to screen in a 35mm print, as the 4-Star is among the last Frisco Bay theatres keeping its actual film projectors running when possible. And The Grandmaster is indeed screening there that way this week (as well as English-language films The Way, Way Back and Fruitvale Station.) I don't know if the next Hong Kong production to come to the venue will be on 35mm, but I do know it's called Ip Man: The Final Fight and it comes from two key member of the team behind another film I first saw at the 4-Star, The Untold Story. That queasy film's co-director Herman Yau is the solo director behind this, and it reuintes him once again (they've worked together a dozen times) with that film's star Anthony Wong.

More Chinese-language films are being brought this fall to the Pacific Film Archive, and to the Vogue, which, thanks to the San Francisco Film Society will be hosting two brief mini-festivals devoted to films from Hong Kong (October 4-6) and from Taiwan (November 1-3). The line-up for the latter is as-yet unannounced, but I wonder if it's hoping too much for me to imagine it to be an opportunity to see the new Venice prize-winning film from one of Taipei's best filmmakers, Tsai Ming-Liang's Stray Dogs. Possibly, since we still haven't had a chance to see Tsai's prior feature Face on Frisco Bay cinema screens.

But the Hong Kong Cinema series has its line-up set. Johnnie To fans won't have to wait any longer to catch up with the prolific director, as his Blind Detective screens opening night of the festival. Another film fresh from Cannes 2013 is Flora Lau's feature debut Bends, which was shot by Wong Kar-Wai's former cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and which competed in the Un Certain Regard section of the French festival. 

Johnnie To's production company Milkyway Pictures also lent support to a film made by students at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts called A Complicated Story, which debuted at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival and whose director Kiwi Chow is expected to attend his screening at the Vogue. I'm also interested in the new film from Oxide Pang called Conspirators; Pang made a splash early in his career as one half of the co-directing team behind the original Bangkok Dangerous and The Eye but I was less impressed with the films he made without his brother Danny Pang (and vice versa) at that time. But ten years and a pair of forgettable Hollywood films later (including the Nicholas Cage-starring remake of Bangkok Dangerous) and it may be time to take another look at the Pang Brothers solo again.

Finally, and perhaps most excitingly, Hong Kong Cinema will bring two of the best kung-fu movies made by the great director Lau Kar-Leung (a.k.a. Liu Chia-liang), who died at age 78 this past June after two decades of battling with cancer. Lau's most famous work, the action-packed but near-avant-garde in its minimalistic plot 36th Chamber of Shaolin, will screen Saturday afternoon of the festival while Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, my own favorite martial arts movie of all time, screens Sunday. I believe these will be digital screenings, but it will be hard for me to resist attending anyway as I've never seen either film on a cinema screen with an audience. I hope the booking encourages the Roxie to book 35mm prints of Lau's films (of Dirty Ho and Eight Diagram Pole Figher, at the very least) that I hear are in the possession of Dan Halsted, who brought two kung fu double-bills to that venue last year.

HOW: The Grandmaster screens in 35mm at the 4-Star but digitally elsewhere. It was shot mostly on film, but high-speed action shots used a digital camera.


  1. It should be noted that, contrary to their website, the 35mm print at the 4-Star (the one I saw as well), while visually beautiful, represents the most cut version of the film, at 108 minutes, as opposed to the original Chinese of 130 ( I too felt there was an emptiness to it, though I enjoyed the suggestive feel of its sparseness, and came out of the theater with the rare sensation of simultaneous satisfaction and hunger for more, as if having eaten a small but delicious meal.

    What I'm curious about are the screenings of this film at AMC Theaters, as their website lists a runtime of 123 minutes, implying that they are using the festival version (which is almost as long as the Chinese domestic cut). However, the Weinstein Company owns the US distribution rights, so its 108-minute version - the one showing at 4-Star - seems likely to be the one showing at every theater in the States.

    At least one reviewer ( thinks this substantial reduction for American audiences sacrifices much of the film's quality and resonance along with its runtime - it seemed obvious from the explanatory titles at the get-go that there had been some dumbing-down of the narrative, and apparently there's a much greater historical element to the fuller version, which I'd certainly love to see.

  2. For your sidebar, Mill Valley Film Festival and Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival film schedules have been posted.

    Bends is screening at MVFF too.

    After 15 minutes of perusing MVFF's schedule, Yoji Yamada's Tokyo Family (a remake of Ozu's Tokyo Story) is the highlight.

  3. Thanks for the alert, Dan. I attended the Mill Valley press conference this morning, and it was a more pleasant experience after having perused the schedule online. The SVJFF reveal slipped past my attention as well. I too am looking forward (with some trepidation as an Ozu fan) to Yamada's film. I've been told it will screen in 35mm. (I didn't realize the Lark or the Sequoia still retained this capability).

    Zannennagara, I meant to make a comment about the version of The Grandmaster showing; I'd called the theatre ahead of time so I knew what I was getting into, but I am curious about longer cuts and whether they might make the film feel more satisfying than a "small but delicious meal" as you succinctly put it. I doubt that watching a region-free DVD or even Blu-Ray at home would be as purely pleasurable as the moment-to-moment experience of seeing the 35mm frames move through the projector gate, but perhaps that would be more than made up for by a more epic overall feel to the storyline.