Wong Kar Wai: The Grandmaster on The Grandmaster

Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai poses during the Japan premiere of his latest film "The Grandmaster" in Tokyo, Thursday, May
Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai poses during the Japan premiere of his latest film "The Grandmaster" in Tokyo, Thursday, May 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Junji Kurokawa)

Wong Kar Wai will go down in history as one of the greatest filmmakers ever to wield a wide-angle lens. Don't believe me: ask Martin Scorsese. Wong's early films -- Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Happy Together to name a few -- pushed cinema to places that made even Tarantino jealous; and In the Mood for Love might be the dictionary definition of heartbreak. (You haven't seen it!? Netflix it tonight.) If you're an art house junkie, any work by Wong Kar Wai, even a BMW commercial, is an event. So when word got out several years ago that the maestro of poetic regret was finally making his long-planned king fu movie about Ip Man, the grandmaster who trained Bruce Lee, it meant film nerds would be spending the next few years in painful anticipation. (It can take Wong a while to make a film; Chungking Express was made while he took a "break" from his elliptical wuxia epic Ashes of Time).

Finally, the wait is over. The Grandmaster arrives in America August 23rd, every bit as lush, beautiful and poetic as all us hopeless cineaste romantics had hoped. Yes, it's pretty much In the Mood for Kung Fu, but in the best possible way. Hong Kong heartthrob Tony Leung plays Ip Man, and Zhang Ziyi is the deadly Bagua-trained beauty who captures his love and admiration. Under Wong's direction, they weave a story that transcends the usual flying fist conventions to become a philosophic meditation on legacy, loss and China's tumultuous 20th century history. And don't worry there's plenty of kung fu: all of it shot with painful poetry and terrible beauty, choreographed by another cinematic master Yuen Woo Ping. Suffice to say, when offered the chance to speak to the master, there was no hesitation.

Mr. Wong, congratulations, it's a beautiful film. I love how it fuses kung fu with epic romance. Ashes of Time notwithstanding, kung fu is new territory for you. How did you decide to jump from art house to martial arts?

Actually, I was always fascinated by Chinese martial arts because I grew up on a street full of martial arts schools. I never had a chance to practice it because in those days the schools were associated with Triads, so not many parents encouraged their kids to practice martial arts. But I was always curious: what's happening there. In those days, the martial arts schools were not like the martial arts schools today, with big windows and white uniforms. They were very dark and mysterious. At the end of the film you see there's a kid standing outside Ip Man's school. In the film it's Bruce Lee, but it's really me. This film gave me the opportunity to look through this window, to find out what exactly is Chinese martial arts and what's so great about it.

I read you toured China, hunting down elusive martial arts masters to interview them about their schools and philosophies?

Well, without that trip it wouldn't be possible for me to make this film because it really changed my perspective about what exactly martial arts means. During this journey I realized in China today there's two forms of martial arts: the one encouraged by the government, competitive martial arts. There's no "school"; it's a combination of different skills and it's closer to sports, for the Olympics. Traditional martial arts exist only privately among individuals. I remember one day I went to a small town in central China -- it's the winter time, 5 o'clock in the morning -- because I had heard there's a great master there. So, I tried to track him down and I finally found him outside of a train station. It's snowing, it's still dark, and there is this master in his 70s with his students there practicing. There were around 30 people and they'd been doing this for years every morning like that. But I noticed the youngest of his students was 55.


The reason is they can only focus on the practice when they get retired. So, you can see actually the tradition of martial arts is not in very good shape in China. That's the reason why [the masters] were so supportive, because they never asked for money or credits. They shared with me the secret of their skills, did demonstrations, they even fed me! It's because they are one with this film and hope this film will bring awareness. China has gone through big changes in the past twenty years, but I don't think the modernization of China can be merely a Westernization. It's about time for us to remember our heritage. And Chinese martial arts are more than just fighting techniques; they are systems and philosophies that we should preserve.

Well, it shows. This film isn't just people beating up on each other.

(Laughs) Yes.

Since this film is so much about legacy, I'm curious: who do you think the Grandmaster of cinema is?

It's an interesting question because we talked about this among ourselves. If we had to find a grandmaster in cinema, who would it be? Finally, we ended up with an answer. I think if we had to find a grandmaster, I would say it was Sergei Eisenstein because he's the person who invented montage. And most films today use montage to express their ideas. A few months ago, I was promoting the film in Moscow and I actually went to the apartment of his wife. And I saw all his storyboards, and the way he structured everything -- his apartment is amazing!

So you got to be the starry-eyed pupil once again.

(Laughs) Right!

Speaking of storyboards, I imagine working out the choreography with the great Yuen Woo Ping was a new experience for you. Did it change your filmmaking process, or affect how you came up with your signature visuals?

Yes, of course. When you take artists like Zhang Ziyi and Tony Leung, they are not like action stars, they don't have a martial arts background. But I wanted them to perform all their actions themselves. So, in fact, all the action has been carefully choreographed, not only with Yuen Woo-ping but with the grandmasters on set.

You had actual grandmasters on set? That must have been intimidating.

In a way it's delicate when you have the masters on set. They don't know about film language, but they want to make it right. If Tony is going to be the Wing Chun master, all his moves should be strictly Wing Chun. It has to be precise and authentic. But all the masters said if they are really that good, they wouldn't fight for 15 minutes. It's only about one punch or one kick.

That would make for some short action sequences.

It's like 5 seconds -- so fast you don't even see it. But it's impossible to make all these action scenes with one punch or one kick. So you have to analyze the moves to see the mechanics and the coordination of the body. A punch is not only about the fists. It's about the footwork, how to keep the balance of the body and movement to create the maximum power. So, it is in a way very technical and it has to be well planned.

So then, what was the most challenging shot or sequence in translating the spirit of Wing Chun into your vision?

I think the most challenging one is two: the one at the beginning, the first action scene of Tony Leung. We shot it for a month! We all know Tony is a very good actor but for sure the audience will have questions if he can fight, so we wanted to make sure it works. We shot in a city that is in the southern part of China and we shot for a month to do that. Before we shot this scene, Tony asked who is the one I'm going to fight with. And I just said, "you'll see." Finally, when they are on set, he realizes the one he's going to fight with is Cung Le, the world champion of kickboxing. He looked at me, and I said, if you can manage with Cung Le, the audience will be fine.

That's about as authentic as it gets.

Yes, and I think it's very convincing. The other one was the scene with Zhang Ziyi on the train station. That was very tricky. We shot on location in a very remote town in the north. It's minus 20 and we have to shoot there for two months. It's amazing and extremely hard because we can only get a few set-ups every night because it's too cold! But it's worth it. It's one of the most beautiful actions scenes.

It's stunning. And the emotion elevates the whole fight. In fact, I have to ask: what is it about regret and loss that intrigues you so? It's like the unifying thread of all your films.

Yes, it's something that's come up, even for this film. Some people say it's also a love story but I would say it's more than a love story. The nature of the attraction between Gong Er and Ip Man is not just physical. In fact, it's kind of a mutual admiration. It's like two chess grandmasters having a game together. There are certain things that -- they find a comrade only in each other. At the end of the film, when they have this long goodbye, it's not just a farewell with a lover or friend or comrade. It's also a farewell to his history and his life. In most kung fu films you have to create a bad guy. But in this film what makes these two a hero is they are not fighting with a person, they are fighting with time. They are fighting the ups and downs of their lives.

That sounds like the theme for all your movies!

(Laughs) I'm not conscious about that, but I'm still the one who makes the films, so I see the connection.

I humbly point that out. In fact, Ip Man's motto for Kung Fu is two words: horizontal; vertical. All that matters is who's left standing. Do you have a similar motto for moviemaking?

Well, I think that motto can apply to everything and anyone. You have to be the last one standing.

Even as a filmmaker?

Yes, of course.

Speaking of legacy, I wonder if you've seen any movies from young filmmakers lately that excited you.

Yes, there's many films coming out of China and India; I think there's something really exciting there. And when you look at today the different platforms and different mediums for filmmakers... You don't have to be making features; you can also do TV and short films on the Internet. I think it's an exciting time.

Is there a particular film or filmmaker that's stoked grandmasterly appreciation in you?

First, you must understand, in the traditional sense, you can only call a person a Grandmaster when he passes away.

I'm sorry! I take it back: you're not a Grandmaster! (Yet.) How about, is there any movie lately in which you've seen a spark of yourself?

I was the president of the jury of the Berlinale this year and there's a Romanian filmmaker who made a film that got the Golden Bear. [Child's Pose from director Calin Peter Netzer]. I think it's an amazing film and he's an amazing talent.

One last question... just because Fallen Angels is one of my favorite films. I think it may have your only hint of a happy ending for Takeshi Kaneshiro and Michelle Reis. Is that so? Or is there another film about their heartbreak, too?

I think there's so many possibilities. When you make a film, it's always about when to stop. You stop at the point that you still have a lot to be imagined for the audience. They can complete the film in their minds. I think that's the perfect end for a film.