How did that approach help you absorb the events of Ip Man’s life? Especially since they’re often handled elliptically in the film, they’re events that shaped his disposition, but they have to be contrasted with his study of that spiritual and emotional equilibrium.
When I’m trying to explore the spiritual side of kung fu through practice, I’m not just practicing kung fu – I’m trying to apply it to real life, how to apply this philosophy I learned in kung fu to deal with my actual life during these four years. How to deal with problems, how to work with others, what kind of attitude I should have. And because I know how difficult it was for this man to live life after he moved to Hong Kong, what I saw from the pictures [of him] was the dignity that was still in his eyes, and his calmness and his peaceful mind. I couldn’t understand how he could do that with such a difficult life, and I discussed that with Kar Wai. I said, "how can he do that? Maybe he’s optimistic." But he’s not just optimistic. I think kung fu inspired his way of life, so through this four-year process, the philosophy I learned I tried to apply it to real life. I thought, maybe he dealt with life like that, and it really changed me – it really affected me too, not just the character. It affected me with how to deal with life with a different perspective. So this helped me portray the character.
How did the demands of this movie change the dynamic that you and Wong Kar-wai created from working together in the past?
Our relationship is very strange – I really don’t know how. We’ve known each other 20 years, but we seldom talk. We never discuss; we always try to surprise each other. But we’ve built up a kind of trust, and a kind of understanding. I don’t know how we connect. I think it’s very much like between the characters of Ip Man and Gong Er – we don’t need to talk. We just gesture and know what each other wants. So I don’t know how we get that dynamic, but we just have that kind of chemistry. To me we are not just partners, but kind of soul mates. In this 20 year time if you asked me if I knew him very well, I know him well, but this just puts us together for seven films. It’s strange. But he always thinks he understands me, and I always think I understand him – but we never talk.
How tough is it to find martial arts films that challenge you in the way this one does?
You have to spend a lot of time to prepare, but this is a very special experience for me. For other action movies I previously did, I didn’t need to spend that much time on them. With this film I tried to revisit Chinese heritage and tried to have a very good understanding of it, so I could try to be more authentic. And on the set, you know, we have different kinds of teachers – my teacher was there. And after a scene, after a shot is finished, we didn’t look at Yuen Woo-Ping or Wong Kar-wai, we looked at our teacher, because we needed them to approve whether it was correct or not. So this was much more difficult than ordinary action movies.
Hollywood has borrowed so much from Hong Kong cinema at this point. Where do you feel like Hong Kong cinema has been influenced by Hollywood?
I used to go to the movies every week when I was a kid, and I think at the time we started, it was Mandarin movies, and Hollywood movies were very popular in Hong Kong in the early days, the ‘60s and ‘70s. And Hollywood movies really influenced the Hong Kong movie industry. It made Hong Kong movies more entertaining and not traditional Chinese movies. That’s what makes Hong Kong movies so popular and they play a important part in Asian cinema.
So in the ‘80s, Hong Kong movies almost dominated the Asian market, and I think it’s greatly influenced by a lot of American movies. That changed the form of all of the movie production, because as you can see, no other countries, even Chinese movies, they don’t have such entertaining movies like Hong Kong movies. Our movies consist of everything – Chinese culture, traditional things, Western culture, action, entertainment. And I think that’s influenced by the Americans, a lot. Because I watched a lot of Hollywood movies when I was a kid, from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, until I started my career in television. And I am still inspired by a lot of American actors and directors from that period of time. So I think it’s interactive with each other.