THR interview: Wong Kar-wai on ‘The Grandmaster’

11th Shanghai International Film Festival - Opening Ceremony

The Hollywood Reporter:

Seated in a hotel suite off Place Vendome in Paris, Wong Kar-wai is in fine spirits. You would never know he has just flown in overnight from Bangkok, where he was working around the clock to finish the international cut of his latest release, the martial arts epic The Grandmaster. The new version that opens the Berlinale is about 13 minutes shorter and also went through a small change in structure.

Grandmaster has already been released in China to positive reviews and generated nearly $45 million at the box office, giving Wong his first bona fide blockbuster. As the film makes its international premiere Thursday night at the Berlinale Palast, audiences will be treated to a mix of stunning action choreography (by Yuen Woo-ping) and Wong’s trademark melancholy. The film is an account of how legendary martial arts masters Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), her father Gang Baotian (Wang Qingxiang), The Razor (Chang Chen) and Ma San (Zhang Jin) navigate their lives in politically unstable times in 20th-century China.

Wong, who also presides over the festival competition jury, talked with The Hollywood Reporter about the last-minute fine-tuning of a project he conceived nearly 17 years ago and what the film says about contemporary China.

The Hollywood Reporter: Why did you decide to make an international version of the film?

Wong Kar-wai: The version [released in Asia] has elements which Chinese audiences will be familiar with but which will not be that familiar to foreign audiences. There’s so much information that people could easily become confused. For example, during Ip Man’s opening voice-over about his own background, he talks about his family having a business on Bonham Strand West [a traditional hub of import-export trade in downtown Hong Kong]. Hong Kong audiences will know what that means, but to foreigners it doesn’t mean anything. So we just changed it to how he was running a family business which exports goods to Hong Kong. We made adjustments like this so that international audiences know what it is about.

THR: The film has gone through quite a long period of gestation and production. How different is the final product from the original idea?

Wong: I started out wanting simply to look at Ip Man the person. Later on, however, I discovered what I really wanted to examine is the whole martial arts landscape. I think the biggest question for me was, “What made Ip Man so remarkable?” Some would say it’s because he had a disciple called Bruce Lee, but that would be ignoring something that is crucial: the circumstances which shaped Ip Man’s life. His life is a microcosm of contemporary Chinese history. He lived through the Qing dynasty, the early republican years, the northern conquest [by the government against warlords], the fight against the Japanese [during WWII] and finally the exodus to Hong Kong [during and after the Chinese civil war between 1945 and 1949]. If you don’t give a proper account of this background, you won’t be able to understand the difficulties he goes through. Among the Chinese, and especially among martial arts practitioners or artists, there is this very important notion of passing the torch. It’s about realizing how one doesn’t own what one’s learned. Receiving inherited wisdom from the generation of forefathers means there’s also a responsibility to pass it on. This is the burden a grandmaster has to bear.

THR: Is this something you can identify with as a veteran in your field?

Wong: I wouldn’t really say I’m a grandmaster, so there’s nothing autobiographical about the film. But I think just like what Ip Man did for martial arts, Hong Kong cinema needs a new way of thinking. The other day, while working in Bangkok, a friend gave me this 1990s book about Hong Kong films. The author was saying then how we’ve been making too many films for international markets and we were losing our own unique qualities. But we have to understand that Hong Kong films have been dependent on overseas markets from the very beginning; we’ve never been dependent on our own domestic market. And now you have all this talk about “going north” to tap the mainland Chinese market. But if Hong Kong films are really good, the sky’s the limit. You don’t have to rely merely on the mainland Chinese market. You shouldn’t really constrain yourself.

THR: So how does it feel now to be a Hong Kong filmmaker working on the mainland?

Wong: My cinema is something that belongs to the Chinese people as a whole, and it shouldn’t be limited to just a certain geographical territory in a certain historical era. It’s not like I have to make a film with mainland audiences in mind when we have mainland money in it — and in fact, there’s quite a bit of money from elsewhere as well.

THR: Can The Grandmaster also be seen as a chronicle of how Hong Kong became what it is, given that it ends with all the martial arts experts settling in the city and becoming part of its urban fabric?

Wong: That’s right. This is what I hope the film could be interpreted as. I’m happy now because I never expected the film could whip up so much debate and discussion about the city and what the martial arts masters’ roles were in its history. A lot of people were looking up information about the things we mentioned in the film, whether it’s the martial arts schools, which were set up there after the war, or other things we touched on in the story. This allows [Hong Kong] audiences to acknowledge, yet again, that we came from this very special place, and where the city’s vibrancy and core spirit stem from — that it’s a place that we should be really proud of.

Wong Kar-wai says there is no 4-hour version of ‘The Grandmaster’

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Sina:

‘The Grandmaster’s director Wong Kar-wai and actors Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Zhang Ziyi, and Chang Chen earlier attended an audience appreciation event in Beijing to celebrate the box office hit. Later Wong Kar-wai went to Shanghai to attend an audience meeting, sharing the experience with viewers and clarified that the film had no 4-hour version. He joked that if viewers wanted they would have to wait 10 years. On the other hand the Cantonese original sound version will soon be released.

Earlier Wong Kar-wai led Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen and the script consultant Chang Ta Chun to a Beijing cinema for an audience appreciation. The lead actor Tony Leung shared the experience with the audience and said that he particularly liked in the film’s opening when his mentor tied Ip Man’s belt for him. “One belt one breath, from now on live with this one breath. Our production process isn’t easy. Over these four years I completed the film with this one breath. Suddenly I got very emotional, the four years of persistence that everyone gave was not easy either.” A viewer asked Leung, “Did Ip Man fall for Gong Er?” He said, “He admired Gong Er, your best opponent is your confidant. Finding someone who understands you is very rare. He hoped to have a chance to compare, saying that he wanted to see Gong Clan’s 64 hands was only an excuse to go to the Northeast.”

Chang Chen was asked about his character Yi Xiantian who only had three scenes in the film. His encounter on the train with Zhang Ziyi even led to questions. Zhang Ziyi graciously admitted, “My Gong Er and Yi Xiantian were in love, but the director determined why it didn’t appear. I especially hoped to see my reunion with Yi Xiantian in Hong Kong.” Chang Chen revealed that Yi Xiantian’s White Rose barber shop and Gong Er’s clinic were on the same street. They ran into each other in a Muslim noddle shop in Hong Kong.

Later Wong Kar-wai said in Shanghai how ‘The Grandmaster’ became the Berlin Film Festival’s opening film. “Film and martial art are the same, without any differentiation between the East and the West. I believe the audience of the entire world will be able to see the beauty of Chinese martial art films and the beauty of Chinese people. I hope foreigners will be able to see the valuable presence of Chinese people, that introverted calmness.” He denied that the film had a 4-hour version. “That was a misunderstanding, anyone who wants to see it will have to wait 10 years. The Cantonese original sound version will be released very soon. Film lovers will be able to experience it again.”

Zhang Ziyi stole Tony Leung’s limelight in ‘The Grandmaster’

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Apple Daily:

Portraying Ip Man in ‘The Grandmaster’  Tony Leung  jokingly moaned, “I have been training under a Wing Chun master for the past 3 years, yet the scenes I have can’t beat Zhang Ziyi.” Although director Wong Kar-wai had set out to make a biopic about Ip Man, ‘The Grandmaster’ grew into a sprawling account of Chinese martial arts. In the opening scene, Tony Leung fought off 10 of his adversaries in a rainy scene, showcasing Wong Kar-wai’s signature martial arts aesthetics. In another scene, Leung and Zhang Ziyi were dueling at the Golden House; the awe-inspiring exchange proved the hard work both actors had put in throughout their training.

In ‘The Grandmaster’, Tony Leung hardly has many spoken lines, which prompted wife, Carina Lau to nickname him as “The Silent Ghost” after watching his performance. Director Wong Kar-wai explained, “Initially I gave Tony many lines, but I deleted them in the end because Ip Man is a man of few words. Without saying a word, he is able to command the room.” On the contrary, Zhang Ziyi had some of the best lines in the film. At the same time, her internal struggle between her admiration for Leung’s Ip Man and her impulse for exacting revenge for her father proved to be a well-received performance.

Under Wong Kar-wai’s heavy-handed editing, Chang Chen, Song Hye-kyo, and Julian Cheung Chi-lam have little screen time in ‘The Grandmaster’, despite extended filming. Taiwanese actor Chang Chen, trained for three years under a Baji master for his role; however, he ended up appearing in only three scenes in the film. Chang said, “I know Wong Kar-wai’s style, so I have expected this.” South Korean actress Song Hye-kyo, who has been noticeably absent from the film’s promotional events, plays Ip Man’s wife has one line in the entire film, “Is it that cold in Foshan?”, while Julian Cheung only appears for a few seconds.

‘The Grandmaster’ marks Tony Leung’s seventh collaboration with Wong Kar-wai. Since 1990, Leung has appeared in Wong Kar-wai’s movies such as ‘Days of Being Wild’, ‘Ashes of Time’, ‘Chungking Express’, ‘Happy Together’, ‘In the Mood for Love’ and ‘2046′. Will there be an eighth time? Leung declined to comment, likely due to the laborious filming conditions of ‘The Grandmaster’ and physical exertion for his role.

‘The Grandmaster’ was the top film in mainland Chinese box offices, earning 162 million RMB in its opening weekend.

Wong Kar-wai’s ‘The Grandmaster’ is a must-see

Sina.com:

Wong Kar Wai’s ‘The Grandmaster’, a film that took a decade of preparation and nearly four years of filming, finally opened in China, Hong Kong, and Macau cinemas last week. It has been more than five years since the acclaimed Hong Kong director released his last feature film, ‘My Blueberry Nights’, which starred Norah Jones and Jude Law, and nearly nine years since his last Hong Kong film, ‘2046.

Film critics originally questioned Wong’s ability in producing kung fu epics, as the director is mainly known for his works on pensive, arthouse films. However, Wong’s $300 million HKD film ended up exceeding expectations. Mainland Chinese moviegoers flooded to the theaters on its January 8 release date. In mainland China, the film grossed 29.8 million RMB on its opening day Tuesday. In Hong Kong, the film earned $1.8 million HKD on its January 10 release date.’ The Grandmaster’ has since grossed more than $225 million HKD in the Greater China box office, succeeding ‘2046′s record in 2004.

The Grandmaster, a biopic of Wing Chun legend Ip Man, centres on the conflicts between Northern and Southern Chinese martial arts. Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Wong’s longtime collaborator, portrays Ip Man. Zhang Ziyi portrays Gong Er, the confidant daughter of Gong Baolin (portrayed by Wang Qingxiang), a baguangzhang master from the Northeast. To protect her family’s honor and to avenge for her father’s death, Gong Er travels to the South to challenge Ip Man’s southern martial arts. Chang Chen co-stars in the film as the special agent, Razor. Song Hye-kyo stars as Ip Man’s wife, Cheung Wing Sing.

‘The Grandmaster’ opened in Hong Kong on January 10 to great ovation and success. Numerous Hong Kong film entertainers have expressed their excitement and appraisal of the film through their Weibo, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. Among the most enthusiastic critic was fellow Hong Kong director and competitor, Wong Jing, who chose to challenge ‘The Grandmaster’s Hong Kong box office with his gangster film, ‘Young and Dangerous: Reloaded’, which was also released on January 10. Wong Jing wrote, “I am very, very impressed. Since 1988 until now, this is the first time when I felt like I have truly lost.” Chapman ToLeo Ku, ‘Ip Man’ director Wilson Yip, and ‘You Are the Apple of My Eye’ director, Giddens Ko have all praised the film in their respective social media sites. ‘Love in a Puff’ director, Pang Ho Cheung, wrote, “The Grandmaster in two words? A masterpiece.”

‘The Grandmaster’ will open in Taiwan on January 18 and Singapore on January 31.

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Song Hye-kyo shoots ‘The Grandmaster’ for 1 Year, 6 minutes screen time in return

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Oriental Daily:

The 10 -year production ‘The Grandmaster’ was finally released earlier this week in China. Lead actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai and lead actress Zhang Ziyi were willing to sacrifice their time and lose several jobs to shoot this film from beginning to end. In 2010, it was rumored Korean actress Song Hye Kyo “fussed” and was unwilling to take up extra time to re-shoot some scenes. After spending a year shooting, she only had 6 minutes of screen time in the 130 minute film, with lead actress Zhang Ziyi occupying 100 minutes!

Although Song Hye Kyo had little screen time and declined to participate in the promotions, lead actor Tony Leung still praised her professionalism despite having a language barrier with the crew and basically gave a lot of ‘face’. Leung said: “I totally understand her situation. In the past, I went to Taiwan to shoot Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s film not knowing any Mandarin. At the time, I felt as if I was mute and couldn’t speak. But, Song Hye Kyo was very professional, she was able to portray the elegant woman, she’s a very rare actress.” Wong Kar-wai’s production style is ‘patient work makes a good product’, and may not necessarily understand every artist. Leung works very closely with the director, asked if he tutored Song Hye Kyo? He laughed: “She’s very professional, it was not necessary.”

Tony Leung also praised Zhang Ziyi, he said: “I admire her. I don’t need to say much about her acting, but she trained her Kung Fu well. It’s amazing. I had a few action scenes with her, because we had to accommodate several things, I couldn’t hit her lightly. That night we were shooting the scene 50 times, so absolutely there was accidental hitting and stepping involved, I know she was in real pain due to her old injuries, but she held it all in. I really admire her, very rare!”

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Tony Leung has to watch ‘The Grandmaster’ 9 times to understand it

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Sina:

Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Zhang Ziyi and other actors continue to promote their film ‘The Grandmaster’ nonstop. Leung promoted the film in Guangzhou with Ip Man’s oldest son Ip Chun and Max Zhang Jun. Critics praised Leung for having a grand master aura. He humbly said that now at this age he would not lose his head over compliments but would appreciate everyone’s support very much. He has already used his greatest strength as an actor to perform. Leung even said that he believed he had to watch the film until the 9th time before he would be done, because he watched the first time for what scenes were removed, the second time for his own expressions, the third time or other actors’ performance, the fourth time for the story structure, the fifth time for costumes and sets, the sixth to the ninth time he would finally consider in depth what director Wong Kar-wai wanted to say. He revealed that the most regrettable decision was not being able to provide his voice for the Mandarin version, he even joked that if life had no regret it lacked joy as well.

Tony Leung said, “Once Stephen Chow Sing-chi said, ‘Let me tell you what Wing Chun is.’ I said, ‘I know.’ He said, “We are friends, I know you are studying this, I just want to help. After you hear what I say if it’s useful use it, if not then whatever.'”

Zhang Ziyi went to Beijing cinemas for close distance exchanges with the audience. She even turned into “Master Gong Er” and practiced the Eight Trigram palm with the audience. Would actors blame directors who work slowly like Wong Kar Wai? Zhang Ziyi said that the energy that he put in would definitely be more than that of the actors. Thus she loved Wong Kar-wai for giving a lot from body and soul; she even revealed that she will work on a John Woo directed film soon.

Wong Jing (director of Young And Dangerous: Reloaded which was defeated at the box office by ‘The Grandmaster’) earlier online took a jab at Wong Kar-wai for spending so much time and money on ‘The Grandmaster’, but after watching the film yesterday he finally praised Wong Kar-wai online.

Yesterday morning Wong Jing wrote, “I realize that people who dislike ‘The Grandmaster’ really don’t understand what his intention is. Do you think Wong Kar-wai can’t make the entire film as exciting and entertaining as the battle in the rain and Ziyi eradicating Zhang Jun at the train station? However that would be no different from WilsonYip Wai-shun’s ‘Ip Man’, he must use all of Wong Kar-wai’s style to make this film well in order for it to be a real success! I admire that you are able to withstand countless pressure to make the movie like this. From 1988 to now, this is the first time that I completely concede.”

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Song Hye-kyo slaps Tony Leung in ‘The Grandmaster’ featurette

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbdGMyhECrs]

Sina:

Two days after being released in Hong Kong, Wong Kar-wai’s ‘The Grandmaster’ accumulated HK$2.82 million at the box office (excluding late shows). With stronger and stronger momentum it pulls away from the same week release, Wong Jing’s‘ Young And Dangerous: Reloaded’; the latter grossing only HK$860,000 over two days.

Wong Kar-wai initially cut ‘The Grandmaster’ into a 4 hour version. Due to running time restrictions he cut it down to the current release of 130 minutes; many scenes were “missing”. A newly-released production special showed glimpses of some of the deleted scenes. Tony Leung personally explained Ip Man and talked about his kung fu training.

In Tony Leung’s eyes Ip Man was mild mannered and elegant, he did not resemble a kung fu person; he rose and fell and in the end he was able to calmly be himself. Wong Kar-wai hoped that Leung’s Ip Man performance would be a mix of Ip Man and Bruce Lee. He tried to combine them for the effect. Leung said that Ip Man enjoyed kung fu as much as Bruce Lee but normally he was so mild mannered that no one knew he could fight. He said that Bruce Lee was his childhood idol. When he was 7 or 8 he was already a kung fu fan. Because his family was poor and felt that he would get into fights after learning kung fu, he was not permitted to learn.

When he explored the character, he thought that the character’s appearance could be expressed through technique. Yet if he did not understand the inside of the character he had no way to express its aura, which was not something that could be achieved over night; this his long term training was necessary.  “The first the fracture was only a hairline, the second time it was already cracked like shark teeth!” Because he did not want to hinder the progress, Leung originally wanted surgery but the doctor did not suggest it. He could only tell Wong Kar-wai to wait 4 months for him; thus Wong Kar-wai could only head to the Northeast of China and shoot the Zhang Ziyi train station duel first, but he ran into the coldest winter in history. Zhang Ziyi had to shoot in 30 degrees below zero.
Wong Kar-wai revealed that Tony Leung was reluctant. After recovering for about three weeks he headed to the Northeast to look for him and said that he could work on dramatic scenes. In the film Ip Man said that if life had four seasons, his before age 40 was all spring. Turning 50 this year Leung said, “Now is still spring for me. Because I have been very lucky to run into very excellent film people to work with. Making this film has changed my view on life. In the future I will choose to be optimistic because the character of Ip Man is different from my characters in recent years. My recent characters are all depressed, but this time he is very positive and optimistic. Now I like to happy and joyous, I feel the world has hope. Thus after ‘The Silent War’ I wanted to make some happy and warm movies.” 

In the production special the removed scenes included Tony Leung and Song Hye-Kyo’s sweet romantic couple scene, Ip Man sweetly smiling with his wife in his arms. When the Japanese military arrived, they got into a struggle and she slapped him. In the released version of the film, Chang Chen’s exciting duel with Leung at the end of the film was removed. His appearance with a razor to fight Leung was also unveiled.

Leung in one scene washed his wife’s (played by Song Hye-kyo)’s feet. He said, “I was forced to, Wong Kar-wai asked me to choose between bathing my wife or washing her feet. I could only choose washing her feet.”

The production special even uncovered that Ip Man once visited Master Gong Er in the Northeast. Leung in the drifting snow passed through the plum blossom courtyard, where they encountered each other again. Leung said he did not mind so many scenes and dialogue being cut because ‘The Grandmaster’ was Wong Kar-wai’s film. The director shot so much that cutting was necessary. Chang Chen agreed with Leung and said that he did not mind.

The featurette also revealed Julian Cheung Chi-lam as two characters, not only as a Chinese Opera actor but also Zhang Ziyi’s fiance. In this scene he only made an appearance in a flash.

Although the film received good response, Leung never thought about winning Best Actor with this film again because that was not his goal for making the film.

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