There may be no more sensual director in the world today than Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai.
His best films (Chungking Express, Ashes of Time) are rich in unconsummated affairs. The delicate shadow dances of would-be lovers and flirtatious courtships of couples that only fleetingly make contact are like a postmodern vision of a 1940s Hollywood melodrama shot in splintered glimpses and burning color.
Hong Kong was the Hollywood of East Asia through the sixties and seventies, cranking out romances, melodramas, costume pictures, and especially martial arts action films. In the 1980s, the familiar style got an adrenaline boost when Tsui Hark returned from American film school with new ideas on moviemaking, and other young directors eager to make their mark in the movies. But where directors like John Woo (The Killers), Corey Yuen (Saviour of the Soul), and Ringo Lam (Full Contact) were reinventing action movies and big screen spectacle with whooshing camerawork, dynamic editing, and action exploding all over the frame, Wong Kar-wai was casting the stars of those films in more intimate and impressionistic films. His debut film As Tears Go By (1988) turned the “heroic bloodshed” genre of Triad gangster movies into a young adult melodrama. Days of Being Wild (1990), his second feature and his first collaboration with his signature cinematographer Christopher Doyle, was Wong’s first masterpiece.
The housekeeping part first: A film by a major international director is being released in the U.S. in a version that strongly differs from its original cut. We are told that scissor-happy producer Harvey Weinstein is not behind this particular reduction; Wong Kar-wai himself has fiddled with The Grandmaster, already having crafted different cuts of his film for the Asian and European markets.
That’s their story, and maybe it’s true. It would be consistent with Wong’s tendency to fuss over his projects—he’s on record as saying that if it weren’t for the deadlines imposed by major film festivals, he might never finish his movies. Whatever peculiar cultural emphasis the U.S. cut of The Grandmaster has, it is one odd picture, with too much kung fu for discriminating arthouse audiences and too many dreamy pauses for the grindhouse crowd.