“A lot of people have said that this is my first ‘kung fu film,'” Wong Kar Wai said at the press conference for his film “The Grandmaster,” which is opening the Berlin International Film Festival tonight. “And I say, it’s more than that. ‘The Grandmaster’ is a film about kung fu, but it tells you more than the skill. It tells you about these martial artists and their world. What is their code of honor? What is their value? What are their philosophies? I think this is something that is really fascinating. I hope this film can bring audiences a new perspective on martial art, kung fu and also the Chinese.”
The long-gestating film is Wong’s first since his English language debut “My Blueberry Nights,” which opened Cannes back in 2007. It chronicles the life of the Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man from the 1930s in Foshan to the events leading to his death in 1972. It’s been a story in Wong Kar Wai’s mind since 1999, when he saw a documentary about Ip Man.
“That documentary was a family video, and it was shot three days before he passed away,” Wong said. “From that video, you can see this old man — seventy-something, very weak — wearing his pajamas in his living room doing these [martial arts] demonstrations. You can see his cats, you can see his grandchildren surround him. This is the only archive video of these demonstrations. A lot of people — including Bruce Lee — offered him a lot of money to these demonstrations personally, and he refused.”
Wong cast his longtime collaborator (“The Grandmaster” is their seventh film together) Tony Leung as Ip, and Leung said at the press conference that it was his most enjoyable experience with Wong so far.
“It used to be an adventurous journey every time,” Leung said at the press conference. “But this time I think I’m the most lucky guy. I had something to to work from. I had a real man to work on. To me, it was the most enjoyable Wong Kar Wai film. Not to say I didn’t enjoy the previous collaborations with him. But this time was much more enjoyable because at least I know who I am!”
After the crowd at the press conference burst into laughter, Leung made his intentions clear: “No, no, this is a compliment! I know he has the script. But he never shows us the script. We only have the script that day. So sometimes you are not very sure who your character is and you get very frustrated. But this time I knew exactly who I was and I knew how to deal with different situations.”
Leung’s co-star Zhang Ziyi (making her second appearance in a Wong Kar Wai film, after “2046”) wasn’t quite as aware of her character, Yip Man’s rival and friend Gong Er. But that didn’t make her experience any less positive — despite noting a gruelling shoot of 20 months over 3 years.
“For me, even though I didn’t know who my character was, I still think I’m the luckiest actress in the world,” Ziyi said. “If Wong Kar Wai asked me again to give him this amount of time, I would do it again. That’s how great he is.”