As I mentioned last week, compared to Cannes and Venice, the Berlin Film Festival tends to look like something of a weak sister when it comes to securing major auteur titles. Their festival curtain-raisers, meanwhile, tend to be on the low-key side: while a good film, this year’s opener, “Farewell, My Queen,” wasn’t exactly an event, while “True Grit” was old news by the time it kicked off the 2011 edition.
Both those traditions have been broken in grand style by this morning’s doozy of an announcement. The official festival email slyly mentioned only “Opening Film” in the subject line: upon opening it, I had to blink a few times before believing that, yes, Wong Kar-wai’s long, long delayed “The Grandmaster” will indeed be kicking off the Berlinale with its international premiere on February 7. (It’s an international rather than a world premiere because it’s scheduled for release in China the month before.)
By any standards, this represents a major programming coup: Wong’s lavish-looking martial arts epic, his first feature since 2007’s coolly received “My Blueberry Nights,” has had international cinephiles and genre geeks alike salivating — and often despairing — with every teasing development in its protracted road to fruition.
Rumored for festival premieres as early as 2010, we thought we might finally see it at Cannes last year — until it emerged that the director, famous for his perfectionism, would still be shooting then. For years, Cannes had seemed the likeliest location for its unveiling — Wong’s last four features all premiered in Competition on the Croisette — though the mooted springtime European release schedule seemed to have ruled out a Cannes 2013 date. The director took a three-minute short to Berlin in 2001, but I believe this will be the first time he’s premiered a feature at one of the other European majors.
While “The Grandmaster,” which stars Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang, is in the official selection, it will not be competing for the Golden Bear. Of course, it’d be rather awkward if it were, given that Wong is this year’s Competition jury president. When that announcement was made back in August, it raised a flicker of hope that Berlin might get the director and his latest work as a kind of package deal, but it seemed no less likely that the film would hold out for a sunnier Competition slot.
Ultimately, the Berlinale won out and I couldn’t be more pleased: this rare A-list addition ought to attract more eyeballs to a festival that often struggles to get the media attention it deserves, even when turning up arthouse gold like “A Separation” and “Tabu.”
Wong states: “I am truly very honoured by Dieter [Kosslick, Berlinale director] and his invitation for my new film ‘The Grandmaster’ to participate in the 63rd Berlinale and to open the festival. This is a dream project for me that I had been developing for many years. I am very happy to be able to present it in Berlin. I was already greatly looking forward to my returning to Berlin to serve as the President of the International Jury, so seeing ‘The Grandmaster’ presented there will make it all the more special for me.”
In other Berlinale news, it was announced that previous festival premieres “Frances Ha,” “Lovelace” and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut “Don Jon’s Addiction” will be among the films appearing in the Panorama section. The fest runs from 7 to 17 February and I will, as usual, be in attendance. Bring it on.