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The Grandmaster Blu-ray Review

The Grandmaster (2013) movie poster The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi)

US Theatrical Release: August 23, 2013 / Running Time: 108 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Wong Kar Wai / Writers: Wong Kar Wai (story & screenplay); Zou Jingzhi, Xu Haofeng (screenplay)

Cast: Tony Leung (Ip Man), Ziyi Zhang (Gong Er), Chang Chen (The Razor), Zhao Benshan (Ding Lianshan), Xiao Shenyang (San Jiang Shui), Song Hye Kyo (Zhang Yongcheng), Wang Qingxiang (Gong Yutian), Zhang Jin (Ma San), Shang Tielong (Jiang), Yuen Wo Ping (Chan Wah-shun), Lo Hoi-Pang (Uncle Deng), Chilam Cheung (Primo), Lau Ga Yung (Yong), Cung Le (Iron Shoes)

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Of all the movie titles on the Oscar ballot that were unknown to you Sunday,
The Grandmaster must have been one of the more perplexingly so. After all, this wasn't a short, a documentary, or a Foreign Language Film nominee. It competed for cinematography and costume design awards against such heavyweights as Gravity, American Hustle, and 12 Years a Slave. And yet, I'd be surprised if 1 out of every 50 people making their predictions could tell you anything at all about this film.

If you weren't that 1 in 50 on Sunday, you're about to become one now, as I tell you all about this historical drama. A product of Hong Kong, this film was treated to a fairly limited North American release late last summer "presented" by Martin Scorsese and distributed by The Weinstein Company, the prestige studio whose dramatically shortened American edit (trimming the 130-minute Chinese cut down to 108 minutes) added to their namesake founders' legacy of questioned importing practices.

Grandmaster Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) challenges Ip Man (Tony Leung) to break the cake in his hand in Wong Kar Wai's "The Grandmaster."

The latest film written and directed by Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express), The Grandmaster opens in the southern city of Foshan, China in the year 1936. There, on the eve of Japanese invasion, regional variations of kung fu are about to be introduced to new parts. Our interests initially lie with an aging Grandmaster from the North who has a successor lined up, but wishes to participate in one last fight with the fabled young Ip Man (Tony Leung).

The differing martial arts styles are pitted against each other in a match of apparent significance. It's tough to fully comprehend the meaning of such a duel because narrative is a distant second priority for the film behind martial arts action. It's competently staged and strikingly shot, but I do wish that Hong Kong cinema had more than just martial arts to offer these days. Judging from director Wong's varied resume and esteemed reputation, it does. It's just that none of the nation's work in other genres gets exported with much gusto.

Grandmaster grossed a staggering $45 million in China, a fairly robust $6.6 M under the radar in North America (where it rose no higher than the 15th place it earned in its Labor Day weekend expansion), and an additional $12 M in the rest of the world. Hong Kong's Academy Award submission, the film was one of nine shortlisted for the Best Foreign Language Film's five nominee slots. Though it missed out on those, it was the only live-action foreign language narrative feature nominated anywhere else at this Oscars ceremony.

Grandmaster's daughter Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang) takes it upon herself to preserve her family's secret 64 Hands technique. This bodyguard is always accompanied by a monkey.

While its cinematography and costume design were in the running for awards ultimately won by Gravity and The Great Gatsby,
The Grandmaster unfortunately disappoints as a whole. The film offers too few emotions to grab onto, which no amount of visual virtuosity can transcend. The film has the feel of something that has been reworked in postproduction, as it relies extensively on voiceover and onscreen English text to take shape. It is both culturally distant and dense, making it not easily followed or appreciated by Western viewers who demand more than the rapid flight of fist and feet. Not helping matters is that insufficient aging make-up does a poor job of conveying the nearly twenty years that pass in this film.

A tiny bit of human interest emerges involving Ip Man and the Grandmaster's daughter (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Ziyi Zhang), who becomes a doctor per her father's wishes but has a change of heart to preserve her family's secret 64 Hands technique. The cover art and a late caption try to make the material resonate by explaining that the Ip Man trained Bruce Lee. That might not be news for those familiar with Wilson Yip's Ip Man and Ip Man 2, highly regarded recent martial arts films loosely based on the same figure, who passed away in 1972, mere months before Lee did.

Some viewers seasoned in those and other martial arts movies no doubt will be surprised and upset to see this carrying a PG-13 rating. Those like me approaching Grandmaster more as an Oscar nominee than a martial arts movie may have their names drawn to the rare American name in the credits billing block. The one American of the three executive producers is Megan Ellison, the wunderkind founder of Annapurna Pictures, who has now been nominated for three Best Picture Oscars in the past two years, courtesy of Her, American Hustle, and Zero Dark Thirty. Other producing credits of Ellison, the 28-year-old daughter of Oracle Corporation's billionaire CEO, include the Coen Brothers' True Grit remake, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, and Foxcatcher, which will open sometime this year as a true drama whose delay should not affect its anticipated awards contender status. Grandmaster is her first imported film and it seemed to pale to the rave reviews and/or robust business of most of her American productions.

More than half a year after starting its theatrical run but just two days after the Oscars did a little to raise its profile, The Grandmaster finally came to DVD and Blu-ray yesterday from Weinstein and home video partner Anchor Bay Entertainment.

The Grandmaster Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.35:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (Mandarin Chinese), Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English, English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled in English
Release Date: March 4, 2014
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Blue Keepcase
Also available on DVD ($24.98 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

The Grandmaster looks and sounds sharp on Blu-ray. The 2.35:1 picture shows off that striking photography with its stylized hues. Flawless most of the time, on occasion the visuals possess a lesser quality, seemingly by design. These instances usually correspond to the more random of the many moments in which the film relies on slow motion. The 5.1 DTS-HD Mandarin master audio is quite strong. A Dolby Digital 5.1 English dub is also supplied, though the first-rate English subtitles eliminate the need for it for those who can read.

MMA fighter turned actor Gina Carano hosts the American making-of special "'The Grandmaster': From Ip Man to Bruce Lee." Bruce Lee's daughter Shannon gives us some family perspective to a figure tangential to the film's historical drama.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Blu-ray's extras begin with "The Grandmaster: From Ip Man to Bruce Lee" (23:01),
an American TV special. Mixed martial arts fighter/actor Gina Carano hosts this making-of featurette that celebrates the film with remarks from the likes of Keanu Reeves, critic Elvis Mitchell, and Bruce Lee's daughter (an angle it plays up with old movies) alongside English comments by writer/director Wong Kar Wai and actors Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang, and some behind-the-scenes footage.

"A Conversation with Shannon Lee" (6:55) offers an extended interview of Bruce Lee's daughter, who discusses her father, his martial arts training and his legacy, which she upholds as president of the Bruce Lee Foundation.

Ziyi Zhang undergoes intensive training for the film's martial arts action in the Chinese behind-the-scenes documentary. Self-proclaimed Grandmaster MC RZA is under the weather, but not enough to keep from dropping a little freestyle rap.

"The Grandmaster Behind the Scenes" (50:32) is a Chinese making-of documentary, which serves up a wealth of preproduction training/choreography and production footage
along with Mandarin remarks (subtitled in English) from cast and crew. If you're not bowled over by the film, you'll find this an endurance challenge, but it should interest some and feel more suitable a companion than the US-oriented other big supplement.

Finally, we get "The Grandmaster According to RZA" (5:23), which gathers thoughts on the film and its genre from the de facto Wu-Tang Clan leader, self-proclaimed "Grandmaster MC" and martial arts movie enthusiast, who even drops a bit of freestyle in spite of some nasal congestion. Interestingly, this piece adds Samuel L. Jackson's name to Scorsese's as another presenter of the film.

The disc opens with out-of-date trailers for Django Unchained and Killing Them Softly, followed by a more timely one for Keanu Reeves' Man of Tai Chi. Unfortunately, none of The Grandmaster's trailers from either here or abroad are included.

The menu places listings in a bar under a standard, scored montage of clips. The disc doesn't support bookmarks or resume playback.

There are no inserts in the unslipcovered plain blue keepcase.

Ip Man (Tony Leung) is Number 1. Don't ever forget it.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Some technical splendor isn't enough to keep The Grandmaster from being a sloppy film whose action and non-action sequences are equally dull. The Blu-ray delivers great picture and sound plus a thorough 90 minutes of extras, but it does represent a giant missed opportunity to include the longer original cut released in China. I can't encourage you to rush to see this unless you're a devotee of martial arts movies or director Wong Kar Wai.

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Annapurna Pictures: The Master Lawless Zero Dark Thirty Killing Them Softly

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Reviewed March 5, 2014.



Text copyright 2014 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2013 The Weinstein Company, Annapurna Pictures, Block 2 Pictures, and
2014 Anchor Bay Entertainment and The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.