Diving Into the World of ‘The Grandmaster’ With Wong Kar-wai

It’s a restless moment. Wong Kar-wai keeps his head lowered…to give me a chance to stay away. But I could not, for too much interest. He turns, takes off his sunglasses, and tells me he hates me. It’s a bizarre and memorable first encounter between me and the beloved director, but in time, he pats my backpack and reveals that he was only joking—he doesn’t hate me. I can once again breathe. We continue.

But if there’s anyone you wouldn’t mind sharing an unusual moment with, it’s the man who has crafted some of the most achingly beautiful and imaginative films—love stories that have eternally stained your heart. Whether it’s his kinetic and melting watercolor portrait of love’s longing with Chungking Express or the lurid and languid impossible desire of In the Mood for Love, Kar-wai’s oeuvre paints a delicate balance between the elegant and the sensual, filled with still moments that reverberate with the soul’s cry for that which it cannot obtain. 
As an obsessive and meticulous filmmaker, we inhabit the world’s of his films as if being absorbed into their presence, offering us a portal into a very specific place and time that not only oozes with emotion but the sounds and textures of his characters’ existence. And with his latest film, the decade-spanning kung fu epic, The Grandmaster, we see Kar-wai venture back into Ashes of Time territory, but with a far more powerful and impassioned look at not simply one man’s journey but the legacy of an artform.
Telling the story of legendary master of Wing Chun and the mentor of Bruce Lee, Ip Man, The Grandmaster is a film six years in the making—and as it has been cut from it’s original Chinese version to meet US requirements—may continue to evolve with time. Inspired by the life and times of Ip Man, the film takes us through the golden age of Chinese martial arts. Played by the brilliant Tony Leung, whose career has become synonymous with Kar-wai’s, we see him fully embody Ip Man with precision, stepping into a role unlike any we’ve seen him take on before. 
Last week, I got the chance to sit down with Kar-wai to discuss his attraction to the world of martial arts, diving headfirst into the unknown, and capturing the essence of the past.
This film is an obvious departure from your most recent films yet still feels right at home with your work. Was martial arts always a subject of fascination for you?

I wanted to do something very different from what I’ve been doing. I’ve always been fascinated with Chinese martial arts, but actually I never had the chance to practice. I always saw on the streets people going to martial arts school, but in those days parents didn’t encourage kids to practice kung fu. So at the end of the film there’s a scene with the kids standing in front of the Ip Man school, and in the film it’s Bruce Lee, but it could be me. I was always thinking, what’s so mysterious about this king fu and are they really that great? I think because of this film, I can walk through this door and find out exactly what is this world of martial arts.
Did you also want to tell, not only a personal story, but one about the legacy of martial arts and the effect it’s had on Chinese culture?

Yes, that’s right. There are so many kung fu films made before this, and most of them, it’s about who is the best fighter and about revenge. But most of the time it’s about the hero or the technique, and in a way, I wanted to make a film more than that. I needed to find an angle, and a big part of the Chinese martial arts tradition is about passing on the torch and about the legacy. This is an angle that can give me perspective, which can make this film original or different from the others.

Your films always play with the passing of time in an interesting and fragmented way. Not on in the arc of the story as a whole but in each moment, which lends itself here perfectly. What did you see as this film’s relationship with time?

In most of the films, the characters live for the time. And in most kung fu films, you need to make the hero more heroic—you always have a bad guy, there’s opponents and something they have to fight with and for. But when we look at the story of Ip Man, it’s not about a physical opponent, it’s really about time that he has to deal with. He has to fight with time and he has to fight with ups and downs of his life. When you look at his life story, he was born when China was still in the Imperial time and he went through the early days of the Republic, the civil war and then the Japanese invasions, the second civil war, and later on ended up in Hong Kong. He was born with a silver spoon, but at the end of his life he almost lost everything except the commitment. So it’s an interesting story and it’s something I think will bring a new perspective to the audience. 
There’s a gracefulness and lyricalness to your style of filmmaking, and especially in the way people use their bodies. And with this film, that’s taken to the highest degree with the fight choreography. It’s so skillfully done and precise, it feels almost like you’re watching a ballet. Was there a particular way you wanted the fighting to be portrayed aesthetically?

One thing I noticed when I was doing the research—because I spent three years on the road and attended hundreds of demonstrations—with all these great martial artists, no matter if they are 60 years old or a normal person like a teacher or a worker in the train station, when they do the demonstrations it’s always very elegant, it’s a different presence. The Chinese martial arts is more about the balance, not just the balance of the body, but also the internal balance. And when you look at the form, it’s not when they’re moving but when they’re posing, it’s already very elegant. So when you look at the choreography of this film, we wanted all the action to be authentic. It’s not just going to be wire or a show or trick—if Tony plays Ip Man, all his movements should follow the rules. And in a way they’re very beautiful to look at, but in fact, if you know the skill, all these moves are actually very deadly.
Can you tell me about working with Tony on the film? He’s someone you’ve worked with many times now, you’re work very closely linked with one another, so what was the preparation process like?
I think it’s two sides. First of all, I think audiences have seen many films about Ip Man and things in those films, you see Ip Man the fighter, but when you look at his story, he’s not the typical fighter, he’s coming from a very rich background. People who have seen him, and when you’re doing interviews with his students or family, he doesn’t seem like a fighter at all, he’s very elegant and almost like an intellectual or a teacher. So it’s very difficult to cast someone for Ip Man just by casting an action star because you need to have all these layers and this elegance, which I was sure Tony could deliver.
But the problem was, can he deliver actions, can he fight? So this is something that, for me, was the biggest challenge for Tony. So when I proposed this role to him, he wanted to do it because he’s never done any action film before and he’s a big fan of Bruce Lee and it was a big opportunity for him to prove himself to be the master of his idol. So in fact he went through three years of training and broke his arm twice. But the thing is, without this training, it’s not really about action. The training is so intense, you have to do it daily for four, five hours and with this training you know the discipline of a martial artist so you know exactly how to sit, how to react, how to move. I think that’s a very, very important process with him.
And in having the relationship that you two share, I’m sure that helped in building the trust needed to push himself to where he needed to go as Ip Man.

Of course it’s the trust between us and also it’s something that is a journey for himself. The first time he broke his arm, it was totally by accident in rehearsal and the thing is, he was at his peak at that point because he was fresh from the training and he had full confidence to perform the first action scene. But somehow he broke his arm during the rehearsal yet never thought about quitting. He said that means this journey was something he had to finish, so he had a cast on his arm but he was always on set, he was always going to be there to support the picture. 
There’s a meticulous beauty to all of your work and with this film you had to build an entire world. The set design, costumes, everything was so stunning and detailed. Having worked on the film for many years, did you have a wealth of visual references and research that you build from?
When we were doing the research on this film, we realized that basically there’s not a lot of visual references from that time because in those days taking pictures was something that was very expensive. The only archive reference that we have is always about group photos—either family photos or photos from a party or a meeting—very formal. And that’s why when I looked at it, I thought maybe there’s a way to structure his film like photo albums. Every chapter with the group shots, and I said the character of Ip Man, he comes from a very rich family and also like Gong Er is from a very important family. So they actually belong to a class which doesn’t exist today, it’s more like aristocrats. So these people, they are very meticulous about the look and they are very disciplined and elegant and well-educated. I just wanted to make sure that it’s right, because every detail—the costumes, the way they behave, and even the set—I haven’t seen any martial arts films correctly or precisely that capture that essence.
Had the idea to make a film like this been brewing in your mind for a long time, even when working on your previous films?
Yeah, but I knew it was going to be a huge world because you have to rebuild the time. The time has three chapters—one in the south in the 30s, and then 40s in the north, and then the 50s in Hong Kong, so basically it’s an epic film and martial arts is not something that I have done before. So the process is like: you want to have a swim in the winter but you know it’s very cold, it’s freezing so you just walk around the swimming pool and it takes some time, so eventually you just say, okay I’ll jump in.
The theme of complex love is something that you’re clearly taken with and something that translates to audiences internationally—everyone understands what it is to yearn for someone or lose their chance at love—but with this film, the themes are more centralized.

In a way, in this film, there are certain things that are very universal. The family values and the responsibilities in front of the most critical feelings, the relationship between daughters and fathers, and family honors—those can be easily understood by everyone. And the relationship between Gong Er and Ip Man, I won’t say it is purely physical or just because they are man and woman. In fact, it’s like a mutual appreciation because they are from the same background, they are like two grandmasters playing chess. And it is something that they feel find in each other and it is a comradeship. At the end of the film when Ip Man has this long goodbye, I don’t think it is only to a friend or a lover or someone you admire, it is also a farewell to his past and the best time of his life.
There’s been much discussion about the distinctions between the original Chinese cut of the film and the trimming you had to do for the US. What was that process like and how did you go about finding a way to make it work for you?

The original version of the film is like two hours and ten minutes, but we have an obligation to release the film in the United States within two hours. So for a lot of people, it might be a relatively simple process just to cut it short and trim it and take out some scenes. But I find original, the structure of the original version, is very precise. If I’m going to take things out and simply cut it shorter, the film doesn’t feel right for me. So instead I’m thinking, maybe I should tell the story in a different way. Without doing just the trimming, I replace some of the scenes with unseen footage and to build a story in more focus from the perspective of Ip Man and his time in Hong Kong before the reunion. I think for the US audience, because they have a long history with the genre—besides Chinese audiences the American audience is basically the expert of king fu film—we can just make it more simple with captions and focus more on the meat of the story between these two martial artists.
So you’re happy with it then?
I’m very proud of this.
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