Berlinale 2013: Wong Kar Wai And The Cast Share Insight Into THE GRANDMASTER

Brian Clark, European Editor
Wong Kar Wai's The Grandmaster, a sumptuous ode to martial arts and the people who practice them, was warmly received in China, but the critical reaction to the newly-cut version that opened Berlin has been decidedly mixed. Afterwards, Wong Kar Wai and his cast did not get into the changes that were made to the film, so those will have to remain a mystery until someone sees both versions. What they did say, though, reinforced my own initial feelings about the film, which basically amounted to unabashed love, despite whatever warts or hiccups the film does have. 

While several others have embraced The Grandmaster as well, numerous tweets and reviews have popped up complaining about the choppy fight scenes, the sprawling narrative and even about the fact that the film is over-stylized. (What were they expecting from Wong Kar Wai?) While all the critics seem stuck on the formal and narrative elements, they never mention the aspect that, to me, is more important and powerful in a film than all of the structural and stylistic aspects combined -- the passion. 

Every frame of The Grandmaster oozes with reverence toward Ip Man and his ilk, and fascination with their philosophies and fighting styles. Far be it for me to speculate, but it feels like Wong Kar Wai is more engaged with his subject matter here than he has been in years. It is a film comprised of moments and abrupt flashes forward in time as opposed to a straight-forward biopic, and many of the small exchanges and lingering close-ups gave me the same sense of joy and elation I felt when I first saw Chungking Express. Purists may complain about the overuse of slow-motion during the fight scenes -- and even I'll admit that the opening one was nearly unwatchable from the front row -- but these too become more assured and even begin to weave a hypnotic spell as the film progresses. I do wish he hadn't cut quite so fast during these sequences, but there are still amazing things to behold in each one. 

But back to the press conference. While there was, as usual, some filler, a few awful questions and some meandering, listening to Wong Kar Wai explain his fascination with Ip Man gave credence to my feeling that, despite its grand scope, this was his most personal film in years. And so, here are some highlights from the conversation with Wong Kar Wai, Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi (who did not speak as much, I think because of her English).  


Wong Kar Wai on the inspiration for the film: 

I had the idea for this film in 1999, when I had a chance to look at a documentary of The Grandmaster, Ip Man. That documentary is actually a family video, and it was shot three days before he passed away. 

In it, he did a demonstration of the Wing Chun 108 combinations, which is a long demonstration, He was very ill. And in that video -- in fact its not video, but Super 8 -- we can see this old man, 70-something, very weak, wearing his pajamas, doing his demonstration. You can see the cat and his grandchildren around him.

So, it's a very long demonstration, and, almost near the end, he stops. We don't actually see what his face looks like, but [even] from the back, we can tell this is a very agonizing moment. He's either too weak, too tired or he simply forgot. That's the moment that really moves me. Later on he carries on the demonstrations and finishes, and this is the only archived shot of this demonstration.

Wong Kar Wai on what makes a Grandmaster

We all know that the 108 combinations is a very important part of the Wing Chun school. In fact, a lot of people, including Bruce Lee offered him a lot of money to perform the demonstration for them personally, and he refused. He was very poor at that point. He said... I'm not going to do it for one person, if I have to leave it, I want to leave it to all my students.

I think this spirit -- this is why we name a person a Grandmaster. Someone can be a good fighter, but doesn't mean they're a Grandmaster. For Grandmasters, there's one thing: he has the generosity, he has the responsibility to carry on the torch and to pass the skill that he inherits from early generations, from his master, to the next generations.

Wong Kar Wai on the difference between a Kung Fu film and a film about Kung Fu:  

A lot of people call The Grandmaster a Kung Fu film, they ask, is it your first Kung Fu film? It's more than that! It's actually a film about Kung Fu; it tells you about more than just the skill. It tells you more about these people, martial artists, and the world of martial artists. What is their code of honor? What are their values? What is their philosophy? I think this is something that's really fascinating. I hope this film can bring the audience a new perspective about martial arts, Kung Fu and also China. 


Tony Leung on acting in THE GRANDMASTER compared to other Wong Kar Wai films

[Working with Wong Kar Wai] used to be very frustrating... It used to be like an adventurous journey every time. This time, I was the most lucky guy -- I had something to work on. I had a real man to work on, a character! I think it was the most enjoyable Wong Kar Wai film -- I don't meant I don't enjoy the others -- but this time it is much more enjoyable because at least I know who I am.

(Laughter)

Always, I know he has the script, but he never shows us! We only get the script that day [that we shoot the scene]. And sometimes you are not very sure about your character or who you are, and then you get very frustrated because different personalities will have different attitudes if something happens. So this time,  I'm happy, because I know exactly who I am and I know what I'll do in different situations.

Zhang Ziyi follows up: 

For me, even though I didn't know what I was doing (who my character was), I still think I'm the luckiest actress in the world. We shot for... 20 months. If you asked me for another six months, or to do it again, I would do it. That's how great he [Wong Kar Wai] is. 


Wong Kar Wai on researching for the film and his fascination with Kung Fu: 

The biggest challenge (of the film) for me was basically that I don't practice martial arts. I'm a big fan of martial arts, not only the skill, but also films and novels. But during this film, I was really amazed by this (whole) world. I was on the road for three years (doing) interviews with all these masters and grandmasters, and one thing affected me a lot: their modesty. They are very humble. 

There is one scene in the movie with a young person looking into the window of this (Kung Fu) school, out of curiosity. That would be me when I was young. But, as a filmmaker it's also me. And at the end, it's still me. This journey is so interesting, there are so many layers -- I wish I could spend more time with it. 


Wong Kar Wai on martial arts as a weapon: 

Today, to a lot of people, martial arts means sports. Some people consider it to be something like yoga. In a classic sense though, martial arts is a weapon. It can kill. The reason that they (masters) are so humble and modest, is they know very well, they have deadly weapons in their hands. They are all very disciplined. 


Tony Leung on the four years of Kung Fu traning he did for the film: 

I studied Kung Fu, and after four years of hard training, I know that it is not just fighting techniques. To me, I think it's a way of mind training as well as a way of life. There is a spiritual side of Kung Fu, and that side cannot be learned from books or from fact-finding or instruction. It grow spontaneously with a mind free of emotions and desires. That's why I had to practice for four years. You can only know that thing through practice... It inspired me a lot, not (just) in terms of acting, but also as a way of life... This four years made me turn into someone more disciplined and hard working. 


Wong Kar Wai on the purpose of movies:

I think film has several qualities, for some it is entertainment and for some, it is expression. 
Here's an example which illustrates what a film is to me personally:

When we had the premiere for the film in Beijing, one of my writers, a very interesting man,  was too nervous to watch the film with an audience. So he sneaks into the press screening at 9 o'clock, and he looks at the film and he feels very very emotional afterwords. But somehow he doesn't have friends around, because he didn't want to bring anyone. But he has a lot of things to say. So he just picks up his cell phone and calls up a friend that he hasn't spoken with for a long time and he just keeps talking for half an hour.

And I think for us as filmmakers -- we have something we want to say, to share with you, and that's why we need an audience to share these things with. Some people (see it) and think, "This a lesson." Some people think, "This is entertainment." And some people think, "This is bullshit!"

Around the Internet:
  • Luca B

    Wong Kar-wai's posters: http://hkmovieposter.blogspot....

  • hutch

    I'm excited to see this. And have been for (literally) years, but can I say: 'International cuts' are lame. We live in a globalized world now. I'm a big boy. I don't need films from other countries catering to what they think I can handle. If I don't understand something culturally, I'll look into it after the film and maybe *gasp* learn something I didn't previously know about that culture.

    Raise your hand if you preferred the 'international cut' of 'The Good, the Bad, and the Weird'. Put your hand down Kim Jee-woon. You got some 'splainin' to do with this Hollywood debacle.

  • "A film about Kung Fu," I am ready to perform my viewing duties Master.

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