Wong Kar-wai spent years tinkering with The Grandmaster, and when he finally handed it in, he found producer Harvey Weinstein waiting with his blunted and overworked scissors, keen to deliver something ready for global consumption. Wong's biopic of Ip Man, the martial-arts legend who schooled Bruce Lee among others, has been beaten to the punch by a series of films starring Donnie Yen in the lead role - and while you might decry these sight unseen as no more than DTV knock-offs, those genre exercises actually attained a rare grace and poetry: they came to move their viewers, both literally and figuratively. The Grandmaster is a lavish elaboration on the same story: it's both martial-arts cinema deluxe, and - in the 108-minute cut which debuts on DVD next week - more than a little bit faffy.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the fight scenes themselves, which repeatedly and obsessively wrap Yuen Wo-ping's choreography in layer upon layer of texture and styling. Wong may be the only director of martial arts to appear less interested in the kicks being landed than the shoes his fighters wear as they land them. (As with In the Mood for Love, Wong's 2000 landmark, The Grandmaster was costumed and edited by the same man, William Chang; it's an example of a film being tailored to accommodate its own fetishes.) The whole film, indeed, is caught up with ideas of style - most specifically, the diverse methods of combat practised by its principal players.
In an early sequence, Ip (Tony Leung) moves from room to room in the brothel he's been obliged to use as his academy, encountering in each a new challenger who sets about him with a recognisably different line of attack. Our man's wing chun - so elevated in those earlier Yen films - now starts to seem more meat-and-potatoes, no more than the briskest form of defence; it looks cool, because it apparently involves far less effort, but appears markedly less flamboyant than the fighting of everybody else Ip will find himself up against. There's a historical significance to the moment Wong's film is attempting to describe in such languid detail - it's one where these rival schools found themselves temporarily unified, in the battle against the invading Japanese - although it's been somewhat obscured, if not entirely betrayed, in the Weinstein cut.
Perhaps we shouldn't bemoan the producer's involvement unduly: he's added explanatory title cards and identifying labels for key characters, which occasionally help the narrative snap into focus. It's also hard not to feel Weinstein had his work cut out for him the minute he took delivery of the print. The film as it stands is full of set-ups that peter out, threads that cannot be reattached: a tussle over succession, the brooding Ma Sen (Zhang Jin), an on-off quasi-romance with the wilful Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi). Wong sometimes appears as distractible as that genre warhorse Johnnie To, becoming bored with even his better ideas: how these characters link up isn't always clear, and they generally seem more preoccupied with their position in time than the film is. Ip spends this cut's second half off-screen, at which point the film threatens to become all gravy, no meat-and-potatoes.
What's frustrating is that even the free-floating scenes are tremendous: one extended dust-up on a snowy platform between Gong and Ma, the characters leaping out of and disappearing into the vast plumes of white smoke left behind by departing steam trains, suggests what might have happened if the Shaw brothers had turned their flying fists to adapting Anna Karenina. The whole project winds up in this way, both mesmerising and makeshift: a glimpse of an incredibly designed warrior costume that dazzles the eye - until you notice the sticky tape and string holding it all together, and the gaping holes that would render it something of a liability on the battlefield.
The Grandmaster is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Metrodome from Monday.