“To me, the structure of a movie is like a clock or a prized watch. It’s about precision and perfect balance,” director Wong Kar-wai wrote about his re-edited American cut of The Grandmaster, his now decade-old film about Ip Man, the martial arts master and mentor of Bruce Lee. This calls to mind a line of dialogue in the film, where Ip Man (Tony Leung) reminds an opponent that kung fu relies on a similar high standard of precision. For its U.S. release, the film’s runtime was chopped down from its original Hong Kong cut of 130 minutes to about 104. Despite Wong’s careful supervision of the American cut, it’s impossible to ignore the presence of Harvey Weinstein, who acquired the film’s international distribution rights along with Annapurna Pictures.
Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s companies were notorious for forcing alterations onto a slew of films, especially non-English ones. When considering the difficult process another East Asian auteur had when Weinstein acquired his 2013 Berlin festival film, Wong’s reassuring words on the legitimacy of the American cut are called into question.
What did Weinstein himself say about the controversial re-edits? “At the end of the day, who gives a shit?”
It’s difficult not to give a shit when the facts are plainly laid out: The Hong Kong cut of The Grandmaster is a good movie, and the U.S. cut is a bad one. As expected when 25 minutes are shorn from a film’s runtime, the cuts are extensive—a mix of restructured plotlines and truncated arcs that completely deflate the delicate, sensory atmosphere that define a Wong Kar-wai film. When we think of In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express or Fallen Angels, we think of the exceptional cinematography of Christopher Doyle, the tactility of the Hong Kong settings, the characters for whom a potent yearning hides behind every poeticism. Easily forgotten is the connective glue that binds them all; Wong Kar-wai’s editing is the unifier that ensures every element has the biggest possible impact.
Trying to correct a Wong Kar-wai film by re-editing can only ever weaken it; messing with the flow, pacing and shot selection doesn’t just sand a film of its identity, it upsets the equilibrium of unique visuals, environmental immersion, and evocative character writing. Despite the director’s involvement, the U.S. cut of The Grandmaster serves as an excellent guide in how to ruin a Wong Kar-wai film.
What are some key identifiers of Wong Kar-wai’s editing? The filmmaker has worked with eight different editors across his ten features, but since Days of Being Wild, William Chang has always been part of the editing team—which explains why his films are cut in such similar ways. A common, arguably defining technique we see is “step-printing”. Here, the camera records fewer images per second (called a slow shutterspeed), but instead of slowing the footage down, it’s run at a regular 24 frames per second, giving everything a motion blur and making it feel both fractured and frantic. As Wong explains, “It delivers something, a texture that feels like it’s very speedy, but actually it’s very slow.” In The Grandmaster, we see it a lot in quiet shots of Ip among his family, giving the image the quality of a partially faded and unclear memory. But it’s also cut into fights, illustrating Ip’s heightened sensitivity in combat—it’s like he can break down time.
But bridging the gap between cinematography and editing, Wong and his editors (here, Chang is joined by Benjamin Courtines and Poon Hung Yiu) also used slow shutterspeed in conjunction with regular slow-motion (where the footage is shot at a fast shutterspeed and run at 24 fps to look smooth). Again, it’s seen extensively in martial arts sequences to give a jagged, unstable energy to the action, but is even used in shots as simple as a group walking. When we see Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the daughter of an aged martial arts grandmaster, proceed through a crowded hall with her extensive entourage, cutting between the step-printed bustle of the crowd to her slow-mo’d stride, it’s clear how commanding and determined she is compared to the faceless confusion of her surroundings.
Together with minute inserts repeatedly focusing on feet, hands and bodies engaged in tiny motions, it’s clear Wong and his editing team are fascinated with creating a free-flowing but tightly controlled sense of momentum. In The Grandmaster and beyond, each successive cut builds and continues a sense of movement, before using another cut to stop it dead in its tracks.
In the first half of the U.S. cut, it’s difficult to point out where the cuts have been made, but there’s an overwhelming sense that something isn’t right. Ip feels less of a presence, and despite the repeated insistence of on-screen titles that over-contextualise and introduce characters (sometimes even explaining a relationship that’s just about to be clarified in dialogue!), there’s less immersion in the martial arts world. But most importantly—there is much, much less step-printing. Across the whole film, all the footage shot at slow shutterspeeds has been drastically reduced, presumably because Weinstein and associates thought it looked unusual and distracting, not considering that yes, that’s why it’s in the film in the first place.
In the Hong Kong cut, Wong doesn’t opt for a lot of establishing shots, often introducing scenes, time settings and people in extreme close-ups to let the timelines and themes flow into each other. His momentary editing (the immediate choice of shots, shot length, when and how they are cut) does a lot to help us feel beyond the shot: What the air feels like, how people are breathing, what noises fill the space. It’s a film where a breaking icicle is given the same attention as the falling body that broke it.
In the first half of the U.S. cut, the momentary editing is completely off. Some shots have been trimmed by seconds (why?!), giving a sense of truncation to Ip maneuvering the North/South martial arts communities, and it feels like our attention is being forcibly directed towards the fight scenes, rather than what they tell us about character.
As David Ehrlich noted, “the American Cut tries to streamline itself into a tournament film.” The Grandmaster features some terrific fights—completing an unofficial trilogy of Wong Kar-wai martial arts film with his debut As Tears Go By and his wuxia effort Ashes of Time—but it’s not great because of the fights, rather because they compliment all the trademark Wong Kar-wai elements.
By the time we reach the turning point of the Second Sino-Japanese War, about eight minutes have been shaved off the original runtime. But it’s in the second half that the real butchery occurs, completely dismantling the pacing and thematic arc of the film, shown primarily through Gong Er. Apparently, the decision was made to reduce the character’s overall screen time, so instead of threading her story of grief, vengeance, a Buddhist vow and an eventual opium addiction alongside Ip’s journey, her scenes are all collected together (at least, the ones that weren’t cut) and dumped in an extended flashback late in the film. It’s a pacing misstep that deadens any impact her well-crafted character could have, but most of all it makes an error in narrowing the story’s perspective.
The Grandmaster works best not as a story of the famous Ip Man, but about the death of a martial arts community, the devastating cost of war on a national culture, and inevitable commodification in the face of progress. Yes, Ip Man was remembered, but what was forgotten? Ip is part of a huge landscape of artists and masters who don’t get to be celebrated in the same way he was, and watching the personal struggle of Gong Er as she wrestles with how to bear her tremendous pain alongside Ip’s gives a depth and context to his story we don’t get by seeing it on its own.
Why meddle with an auteur’s defining stylistic tool like Weinstein did with Wong Kar-wai’s editing? Even though Wong stands by all of The Grandmaster’s changes, there’s no doubt the cuts would be far less extensive (or even non-existent) were it not for Weinstein and his history of re-cutting non-English films. It’s a history that boils down to power—an insistence that what’s unique, different or doesn’t originate from a Western culture must conform to what feels familiar, or else it is inadequate. But international cinema is not something that should be optimized, and to mess with a completed film’s construction to this degree is to deconstruct its identity. The Hong Kong cut of The Grandmaster is an impressionistic wonder. The U.S. one barely amounts to more than a highlight reel.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.