Wong Kar-Wai's "The Grandmaster," released last December in Hong Kong and Mainland China, is one of very few contemporary films worthy of the term "epic." It matched Wong Kar-Wai with Shaw Brothers. And its grand ambitions -- to create an "ultimate" kung fu film, mixed with a reverie about the birth of Hong Kong, and the normal romantic longing elements Wong normally plays around with -- were achieved.
Unfortunately that's not "The Grandmaster" that's opening in American theaters now. The version opening across the country is over twenty minutes shorter than the original cut. Fortunately, it's not a travesty. The additional editing, done by Wong himself, bears no imprints of a hatchet job -- he clearly put the same care into every transition and effect here as he did in the original release. Yet the film feels invariably smaller. Its plot is more contained. The structure is closer to that of Wong's earlier films; events separated into unmarked chapters. The sweeping romanticism now feels more like a texture attached to a bunch of fight scenes. It's not a bad film, but it's a worse film.
The new cut of the film more closely resembles the genre films -- elegant, philosophically minded martial arts movies like "36th Chamber of Shaolin," or "Touch of Zen" -- that Wong used as a jumping off point. New footage and intertitles are inserted to explain the goings on: How Gong Yutian, the grandmaster of the North, is stepping down and on the hunt for a successor; how his daughter Gong Er is infuriated, both by his coming retirement and by his refusal to allow her to ascend to the throne; and how Ip, a wealthy denizen of the South, comes to be recognized as the man fit to inherit the position.
Tony Leung plays Ip with a quiet dignity, allowing the unconsummated romance that develops between him and Gong to play out without melodrama. Zhang Ziyi plays the latter role, also, with complete stoicism. When she finally comes to admit the love that has developed between the two since their first encounter, it is not with relish or hope, but with self-defeat, and regret.
The masterful broad strokes of this film remain -- the way Wong and Yuen Woo-Ping choreograph the combat sequences, the unerringly beautiful compositions and cinematography, the transportive vision of a Hong Kong defined equally by tragic regrets and movies past -- yet some of the more intricate details have been wiped away.