It’s been six long years since a new Wong Kar-Wai movie graced cinema screens. The notoriously patient director behind “Chungking Express” and “In the Mood for Love” is back with “The Grandmaster,” the biographical tale of Ip Man (also known as Yip Man), a true life historical figure (played in the film by the always brilliant Tony Leung) and martial arts wizard who would go on to train some kid called Bruce Lee. Harkening back to the director’s earlier films, while adding a new level of expert technical precision, “The Grandmaster” is for any fan of kung fu or a devotee of Kar-Wai’s work. It’s in turns epic and gorgeous, a movie that demands to be seen, just for its visual opulence, and then discussed at length afterwards. We got a chance to do just that with Wong himself, who talked about the film’s somewhat tortured production, why he decided to tell this story, what’s different between this version and the international cut, what it was like working with Megan Ellison and who his favorite modern filmmakers are.
Of course, this being a Wong Kar-Wai movie, there is a bittersweet love story at its core, this time between Ip Man and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), a martial artist who refuses to give up the secret to an ancient strain of the craft. Their relationship is the beating heart inside the flying fists of “The Grandmaster,” and the actors are absolutely unbelievable together. There’s almost as much thrilling tension in a quiet scene between the two actors as there is when Leung is getting his ass handed to him in the rain (Kar-Wai and his cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd photograph every falling water droplet in almost pornographic detail). Using truncated historical touchstones and title cards, the filmmaker gives you a wide history of the famous kung fu master’s life, which was full of fights and deep wells of emotion.
So my first question is about the different cuts of the movie. What exactly did you change or delete for this specific version?
Well, we had an obligation to release the film within two hours for the United States. But, I didn’t want to do it just by cutting the film shorter or do a shorter version by trimming and cutting out scenes because the structure of the original version is actually very precise…I just wanted to tell the story in a different way. So now the American version is 108 minutes, and we have 15 minutes of new scenes, and the story is more linear. So instead of a shorter version, to me it’s a new version.
And do you think this is a version of the film that’s more suited to American audiences who maybe don’t know as much about this sort of thing?
For me the American audience has a long history with the kung fu film, maybe besides Chinese audiences, they are the experts of this genre. So we can speak more about, for instance, the days when Ip Man arrives in Hong Kong, meeting with all these different Kung Fu masters who are in exile. It’s about this life and I think for American audiences, they don’t need too many build ups and they can go directly into these chapters to appreciate them.
So would you ever consider releasing the other version, sort of like you did with “Ashes of Time,” or are these completely separate?
If one day they said, “Well, we would welcome a longer version,” then of course. At the moment I think this is it.
Why did it take so long for this film to come together?
It’s a huge project, first of all. I didn’t know anything about martial arts, I’m a big fan but I never practiced martial arts. And the second thing is just time, because we divided the film into three chapters. It begins in 1936 and ends in Hong Kong in 1956, and also we had to shoot in the north and the south…so you actually need time, first of all to understand the premise and [to plan for the] shoot. For me, it took me three years, on the road, interviewing martial artists and attending demonstrations live with them. And also at the same time, you also have to have your cast to go through training because I don’t think we can have just an action star to play Ip Man, because Ip Man is not just a typical fighter, he’s someone from a very rich background, almost like an aristocrat in his time, so he has manners, elegance, and all these details. So it took a long time to prepare for this project.
And you shot it for over a year, right?
No, we shot for twenty-two months over three years.
What initially drew you to this story?
I was always very fascinated by the world [of] Chinese martial arts, and I always had the question, “What is so interesting about it? What’s so great about Chinese martial arts?” And at the end of the film there’s a kid standing outside of the school, and that kid, in the film, is Bruce Lee. And at the same time it could be me, because I was brought up on the streets outside schools but I never had the chance to practice because my parents never encouraged me to do so. Because in those days most of the martial arts schools, many of them, were associated with Triads and they are very mysterious. So in a way, through this film, I could finally walk through that door.
Was there ever a thought of perhaps putting more Bruce Lee into the movie? Since that’s I think where at least Western audiences know the Ip Man story.
We all know, a lot of people follow Chinese martial arts through Bruce Lee. And why Bruce Lee is so iconic and so attractive [is] because not only is he a very good fighter, also he’s very modern, charismatic, but most of all he’s very civilized, he’s well educated, he explored about his ideas and his philosophy about his gifts. In a way when you look at other books and interviews that are done by Bruce Lee you can see a lot of his inspiration is actually coming from Yip Man, the man who trained him. So when you look at the story of Yip Man it’s very interesting because this guy hadn’t done this kind of work before and he belonged to a certain class that is very different from our idea of a martial arts fighter. He’s not a fighter, he took it as an art, so in a way, we can see, through Yip Man, where Bruce Lee got the idea.
Now was the love story an actual part of Ip Man’s story?
Oh, no. That part of the film actually is fiction.
Do you have anything planned next?
There is nothing at this point, because I’m still in jet lag from 1930 to now.
Are there any types of movies you’d like to make that you haven’t made yet?
I don’t know. There are so many different options, at this point I think I’d need a break.
“In the Mood for Love” was originally supposed to be two different films — the other one was called “Beijing Summer.” What was that about? Is that something you would ever return to?
No. I think that the reason we wanted to do that film is because it’s before the handover, and we visit Beijing six months before the handover and we see there is a clock countdown at Tiananmen Square. So I think it would be interesting to make a film based on two Hong Kong couples working in Beijing, and have the story go against this chapter. And now the time is gone and I think we have to put it aside. Sometimes, it’s really about the timing.
Yeah, do you watch contemporary cinema? Do you have favourite filmmakers who are working now?
Yes, of course. Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese of course and Quentin Tarantino, I think they are great filmmakers.
And what about their films inspire you?
I think each of them has their own world, it’s like they are seeing things from a very specific angle, which gives you, something fascinating.
I wanted to ask what it was like working with Megan Ellison?
She’s the most hardworking producer I have ever seen.
And she let you shoot for 22 months over 3 years.
Yes she did. She’s great, also she’s very young, but she’s very committed to the film.
“The Grandmaster” opens in select cinemas this Friday.