Hong Kong filmmaker Wong kar-wai (“In the Mood for Love”), 57, is an engaging and articulate man. He’s happy that after two years of research travel around Asia meeting the grandmasters of martial arts, his film “The Grandmaster” is not only his second film to be submitted by Hong Kong for the best foreign Oscar, but made the shortlist of nine. The final five will be picked by committee this weekend and announced on January 16. (Metacritic reviews here.)
Of the foreign shortlist, Wong’s “The Grandmaster” is by far the most-seen in the U.S. ($6.6 million) and around the world, and marks his most successful box office hit to date ($58 million worldwide).
Wong does not set out to please audiences. He’s a dazzling visual artist through and through. But in this case he did seek to share his passion for this “fading tradition,” especially with young people, without resorting to the usual cinematic tricks of the martial arts genre. “I’m happy it has been well-received everywhere,” he says in our video interview below.
In this ravishing period piece set in China from the 1930s through the early 1950s, Tony Leung and Zhang Yiyi costar as two fighting rivals who cannot consummate their attraction. Leung is the titular grandmaster Ip Man, who would go on to train Bruce Lee. The breathtaking fight sequences –many of them shot in pouring rain and slow-motion in 35 mm by Philippe Le Sourd without much help from CGI effects– combine with stunning production design, costumes and editing by longtime Wong collaborator William Chang and a melodramatic score by Nathaniel Méchaly and Shigeru Umebayashi.
Neither Wong nor Leung had any martial arts training before this film –Zhang is a rare Chinese actress who can both act and fight. Wong wanted to film as much of the action live as possible, without resorting to blue or green screens. A period train was one concession to VFX. “I’m an analog guy,” Wong says.
Wong is mourning the loss of 35 mm filming in China. Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, Wong and Le Sourd watched “The Grandmaster” in glorious 35 mm as it was intended at the New Beverly Theater in Los Angeles Sunday night. The colors are unbelievably rich and saturated, even on a DVD screener. “I had a real tragic feeling,” says Wong, who has held onto the last can of Fuji stock sent to him as a souvenir.
Wong stands by all versions of the Megan Ellison-financed film, from the original China release at two hours 20 minutes (which was submitted to the Oscars) to the current western cut that contractually had to be under two hours. In fact Wong was able to add extended historic captions that enabled him to sneak in more material that he had been sorry to lose. “Both are true to my vision, I am responsible and proud,” he says, still grateful to “hardworking” Harvey Weinstein for being the first to release one of his films, “Chungking Express,” back in 1994. “He cares about film. He understands the Chinese martial art film.”