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Wong Kar-wai on 'The Grandmaster''s Massive Success in China, the American Cut, and His Approach to Action

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire August 21, 2013 at 11:33AM

One of the biggest names in world cinema, Chinese director Wong Kar-wai has largely been MIA since the tepid reaction to his first foray into English-language filmmaking with 2007's Norah Jones starring "My Blueberry Nights." The news that his next project would be the martial arts Ip-man biopic "The Grandmaster," was overshadowed by countless delays and speculation about how the director would handle a film as action-focused as this. Now with a hugely successful Chinese release and Berlin premiere behind it, a new cut of the film is set to debut in the U.S. this Friday via The Weinstein Company.
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One of the biggest names in world cinema, Chinese director Wong Kar-wai has largely been MIA since the tepid reaction to his first foray into English-language filmmaking with 2007's Norah Jones-starring "My Blueberry Nights." The news that his next project would be the martial arts Ip-man biopic "The Grandmaster," was overshadowed by countless delays and speculation about how the director would handle a film as action-focused as this. Now with a hugely successful Chinese release and Berlin premiere behind it, a new cut of the film is set to debut in the U.S. this Friday via The Weinstein Company.

READ MORE: Is Wong Kar-wai's 'The Grandmaster' Really a Martial Arts Movie?

Indiewire called up Kar-wai to discuss the film's massive success in China where it's out-grossed all of his previous works combined, why he re-tailored it for U.S. audiences, and how he approached the fight scenes.

This film's been a long time coming. How good does it feel to finally release it stateside, following its success in China?

Yeah, it’s been a long journey. We had the idea in 1998 and then we had to wait. The film at that point was impossible because of the budget. And we had to wait until 2007 to start on this film. So it was a long wait and a long shoot -- three years. But at the end we really feel happy about it because what we wanted to do was a brand new kung fu film. We wanted to do something original.  

"The Grandmaster"

Is it a relief to know that it has connected with audiences in China?

What makes me really happy is that now younger generations have more interest in finding the roots of this Chinese martial art. In China, traditional Chinese martial art is not supported by the state. It’s mainly run by individuals or private, so now there's more attention being paid to it. This makes me really happy.

How does the Weinstein approved cut I saw differ from the cuts that played in Berlin and abroad?

Actually we worked together on this version because we have an obligation to release a film within two hours in the United States. And the international version is actually two hours and seven minutes.The structure of the international cut is very delicate.

[For the American cut] I looked at the film, I spoke with Harvey [Weinstein] and Megan [Ellison], and then I started to work on this version. It’s actually a brand new version because there’s so much unseen footage in it. I built this structure; this is also another way to look at the film.

Did you tailor the American cut to simplify it for audiences who are not wholly familiar with Ip Man’s story?

No, actually. The American audience has a long following. They’ve been following kung fu film. I think they are, besides the Chinese audience, the experts in kung fu film. I wanted to make the film more straightforward, because there are things that we don’t need to explain. Basically I wanted to have more fun with Americans audiences here. Because when you look at the film, there are certain scenes that are not in the international version. It’s a homage to the kung fu films of the past.

Origin stories are all the rage now. What I found so refreshing about "The Grandmaster," was that it plunks the viewer right into the action without going into how Ip Man grew into his calling. What was your reasoning behind that approach?

When we looked at the story of Ip Man, I didn't want to make up some sort of history to make it more appealing to the audience. Just look at the life story of Ip Man. He’s basically from a very rich family, he was born with a silver spoon. So before 40, he’s handsome, good looking, very good in martial arts and has a very happy family. I think that’s very boring for the audience. And I didn’t want to create some kind of obstacle to make it more interesting.

And the film doesn’t solely focus on his story. I heard at one point the film was going to be titled "The Grandmasters," based on the fact that you switch perspectives throughout the film. Why did you choose to open up the film to include a bevvy of characters?

I can explain to you the metamorphosis of the film title, then you can have an idea. We thought to call this film "The Grandmaster" because we thought it was going to be the story of Ip Man only. Once we decided on showing the conflict between the north and south, we realized there were so many Grandmasters in the film. So we called the film "The Grandmasters." When we finished the film, we came to realize it’s not really about how many Grandmasters are in the film. We’re talking really about the state of mind of a Grandmaster. It is the path to be a Grandmaster. So we changed the title back to "The Grandmaster." So the meaning is different.

"The Grandmaster"

You had the actors undergo rigorous amounts of training to get themselves physically prepared for their roles. I want to know if you yourself partook in any training just to get a sense of the art, and also get a sense of what you were going to be putting your cast through.

I spent three years on the road to do interviews and attend demonstrations and meet with many great martial artists. I had so many opportunities and they all always said, "I think you would be good to learn martial arts and we’re going to teach you." And I said, "No, I can do it later. But not before I finish this film." Because I want to be like the audience. Most of the audience, they don’t practice martial arts. As a director, I wanted to see it from their point of view. I want to see from the outsider's point of view. But I’ve seen so many demonstrations and I’ve spent time with all these people. In fact it’s almost like: you know if this dish is good or not without being the cook.

Shooting a fight sequence is wholly new to you. What was your approach?

We have seen so many kung fu films, and they are getting more and more over the top. So at the point that you really have to question, what is Chinese martial art? Is kung fu just a trick or just a show? And that is also one of the questions that I had before making this film. At the end I decided, well it’s not a show. Because after my journey I was really convinced that Chinese martial arts is a skill, it’s a combat technique, it’s a weapon, it can kill. So the first thing I told Yuen Woo-ping, our choreographer, was that I wanted this film to be authentic. There’s no flying, there’s no crazy over the top action. It has to be very precise with the school. If Tony Leung is playing Ip Man, then his moves should be Wing Chun technique.

For all of the action scenes in this film, we worked with not only the action choreography team; we also had the actors' trainers on set. They’re all like the masters of their schools. So we worked together, and the funny thing is that when you work with the real martial artists, because they don’t know cinema, they would say, "Normally if we are that good, we don’t fight for 15 minutes, it’s going to be like one second. A punch can sometimes be so fast that you aren’t even able to catch it." That doesn’t work for film. So we had to go through the choreography, and single out every move to analyze the mechanics of the body. Because it’s not only a punch, you’re not moving the fist only. You have to see how the foot works, and how he turns his body and sometimes you have to enhance the speed of it.

Has the film's massive success in China impacted your plans going forward?

China is a huge market. If it weren't for that market, films like "The Grandmaster" would not be able to made. The opening of this market is giving, I think, not for me, but for Hong Kong filmmakers, a bigger playground to do their work, to pursue their dream.

So what’s next for you?

I’m still jet lagged (laughs). I will take a break because we’ve been traveling from January this year until now to promote the film across the world.

A well deserved break.

This article is related to: Wong Kar Wai, Wong Kar-Wai, Wong Kar-wai, The Grandmaster, The Grandmaster, The Weinstein Co., The Weinstein Company, Interviews, Action