Interview: Wong Kar-Wai, Tony Leung And Zhang Ziyi Talk THE GRANDMASTER

Director Wong Kar-Wai is renowned for legendarily long incubation periods for his films.  Five years after his last movie, Director Wong brings us The Grandmaster, his kung fu-filled biopic of Wing Chun master, Ip Man, which reunites him with 2046's Zhang Ziyi and the Mastroianni to his Fellini, the Mifune to his Kurosawa, Tony Leung.  During a hectic New York promotional trip, yours truly was able to have a few words with the director and his stars about why the multiple Ip Man films didn't faze Wong one bit, Leung's Bruce Lee connection and Zhang's retirement from martial arts films.

 

Twitch: Director Wong, the US cut of THE GRANDMASTER is different from the one that was shown in Asia and in the Berlin International Film Festival.  What has changed from the earlier edit?

Wong Kar-Wai:  This cut is shorter than the Berlin version and also it's very different because we restructured the story; we tell the story in a more linear way.  What's so special about this version is there's 15 to 20 minutes of unseen footage, so it's not going to be a short version; it's going to be a US version. It is going to be a brand new version.  And also for this film, we have the support of Dolby, so this film will be in Dolby Atmos System, so it will be the first Dolby Atmos System Chinese-language film, so I think it will be very exciting.

Is the movie's title, THE GRANDMASTER, a bit deceptive?  One might presume you are referring specifically to Ip Man, but it also encompasses the lives of the other kung fu masters in the film like Zhang Ziyi's and Chang Chen's characters.

WK-W:  In fact, that's a very good question.  Since we went through this process, I can tell you the changes, the metamorphoses of all the different titles. At the beginning, we called this film The Grandmaster, because we thought it was going to be about Ip Man, and then later on we felt like it's not only about Ip Man. There's so many grandmasters in the film, so we called the film The Grandmasters.  But at the end, when we finished the film and I looked at the film, this was some advice from my son, actually, he said, "Well, I don't think you should call this film The Grandmasters because it's not very catchy."  He said, "You should call the film The Grandmaster, because it's not about the number of grandmasters in the film, it's really about the state of mind of being a grandmaster."  And I think that makes sense, so we changed the title back to The Grandmaster.  It seems like a back and forth, but in fact it shows in us so well what process we went through during the making of this film.

Ms. Zhang, I've always admired Director Wong's depiction of women in his films, but Gong Er is like someone we've never seen.  She has many of the traits one associates with males in kung fu movies; she's the inheritor of the house, she displays the filial piety, she challenges the other masters and seeks revenge for the family honour, but somehow she retains her femininity.  How did you first read Gong Er and what was there that you added in that might not have been in the script originally?

Zhang Ziyi:  First of all, there's no script.  That's a Wong Kar-Wai specialty {Laughs}, but I still love him.  I believe there is a Gong Er in every single woman.  I love this character, that's why I am very grateful to Wong Kar-Wai even though he tortured me for so long. I think you have to be yourself, know yourself and do what feels right.  So, for me, I think the character developed between our trust, because I don't know the script, I don't know my character.  I only knew my character and the story before the movie opened in China.  So, for me, everything's new, but during the process, I learned so much.  I felt so much of the character.  I think I'm just the luckiest actress in the world because a character like this, you will never know her again. It just happens once in your life.  That's why I said in China that I don't want to do any more martial arts films because I don't believe there's another role that can surpass this.

WK-W:  {Regarding working without a script} Basically, it's like we all know this before we start a film. The process is a little bit different; I think the most general way to make a film is first of all, you have a script and then you make the film according to that. Because I'm also the writer and I know more or less where the story goes; one of the reasons I don't want to have a full script is because I don't want to stick myself.  And the other way is just imagine The Grandmasters; we announced the film and then later on we have like seven Grandmasters, it's the story about Ip Man, and I'm not very fast.  So there were like six or seven films about Ip Man released, but that's not a problem. 

The one thing that I will say is once you work with actors and actresses like Tony, who I've worked with before, I know how high they can fly.  And in fact like the character of Gong Er is basically something I want to borrow from Ziyi herself, because she looks very in a way petite or feminine, but in fact, what I can see is that she's a fighter. In a way, the character of Gong Er is very, very difficult because you have to understand that at the time in 1946, it's like the early days of the Republic. There were a lot of great men because we went through the transition from a monarchy into a republic, and there are new ideas and there are new passions to build the young country. At the same time, there were also great women from all walks of life - they were martial artists, they were opera singers, they are intellectuals, they are like artists. - and these women, they all have a dream; they don't want to be bound to the traditional role of being a good wife and a good mother. They made their share to build this country and they want to have their own identity.  So in the film, they go through the training to become a martial artist; you also have to train to be a doctor, to be a singer. The thing is it's very hard to portray the women in those days without the elegance, without the air.  They are very civilised; they are not just fighters, they are from a very civilised family, and in a way in the film like Tony Leung's character of Ip Man.  Zhang Ziyi, the character of Gong Er doesn't only mean a woman or comrade in the same discipline, but also a time that is almost like a Paradise Lost that was best of his life.

For Mr. Leung and Ms. Zhang, the film is based not only on the life of Ip Man, someone who lived and still has people alive who remember him, but also deals with very authentic principles of martial arts that are practised today.  Did that basis in reality affect your approach or your own research into playing Ip Man and Gong Er?

Tony Leung: I was lucky because I had a real character to work on this time.  Kar-Wai showed me a lot of books; martial arts novels in the new republic period so I had a chance to understand all the culture and the customs of the martial arts world during that period of time.  And he asked me to merge Bruce Lee's character into Ip Man, too.  Of course I didn't know why: I didn't know how can I merge Bruce Lee when I cannot fight like {Does Bruce Lee kung fu imitation - with sound effects}, but he asked me to, so I studied, and because Bruce Lee left us a lot of books about his vision of kung fu and the philosophy of kung fu and his understanding of kung fu and this really helped me to build up the confidence; to build up the soul of The Grandmaster.  It really helped. 

For Ip Man, I only had information after he settled down in Hong Kong.  I saw his picture.  I learned about Ip Man from my kung fu master because he was the student of Ip Man, and I learned about how difficult his life was in Hong Kong. What I saw from his picture is that he didn't look like a kung fu man; he looked like a scholar.  Very refined, erudite and graceful.  I could feel the dignity in his eyes and he always wore a smile.  I think that is so amazing; how can someone look like that if he went through that difficult life in Hong Kong?  I wanted to know how he can do that. 

So after all this study, I think kung fu might've inspired him.  Kar-Wai said, "He is very optimistic."  I said, "No, not just optimistic. Kung fu might've inspired him to deal with life." After I studied all the books from Bruce Lee, I know that kung fu is not just fighting techniques, but also a way of training your mind, kind of like meditation in Buddhism. How to keep your mind free from emotion and desire.  Actually, the goal of kung fu is not to oppose your opponent, or to give way, but to be harmonised with your opponents. If you put it in real life, it's just like you tried to be in harmony with nature and the whole world and not trying to oppose or give way.  I think kung fu really inspired this man, so he can move on.

ZZ:  I didn't have any books because the character is fictional, but for me this kind of training and feeling is not so strange because I used to be a dancer and I trained for six years professionally. So I understand what Tony said, because it's not only to train your body - physical work - it's about training your brain and building up the strength.  That's what I learned with my dance background. 

For this movie, I didn't think that much, I didn't do any research. For me, I don't want to think too much, I just wanted to concentrate on the training, and slowly, because I didn't know my character at all and Wong Kar-Wai didn't tell me that much, as well, so I think we built up the character together as we [were] shooting, so I understood her a little bit more and better.  I knew that she is living in this kind of a world:  She needed a lot of strength and power to get the life that she wants. Because the story of her is she's not allowed to do a lot of things, but she doesn't believe this, that's why she represents the independence and she represents the strength.

Ms. Zhang, you've said this is your final martial arts film.  How much do you think that conviction will stick?

ZZ: I've had so much injuries from a long time ago in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; I hurt my neck.  And shooting House of Flying Daggers, just something happened that I felt was for a long time, but it was only a few seconds.  Those old injuries really bother me and after three years of this one ... First of all, my body cannot take it anymore, and also I just think nothing can really surpass this level of acting and craft - everything.   So, I think this is pretty good to just leave a good memory.

Mr. Leung, this was your first kung fu film, but you broke your arm twice during production, how likely are you to do another kung fu movie? 

TL: I really don't mind to do a kung fu movie. If I can do it with Kar-Wai, I can do it with anybody.  He is the most demanding director I have ever worked with...

{ZZ Laughs}

TL: ... with such a long period of time.  At the end, I told him many times almost a few months before we finished, I said, "I cannot do it anymore. I'm really so tired."

ZZ: So tired...

TL: But he was more pale than me, so... {Laughs}

Director Wong, did making this film  based on a real-life person and also on authentic martial arts and their philosophies, not just imaginary or fantasy martial arts, affect your approach in terms of research or the way you laid out the narrative?

WK-W: Yeah, sure, because when you look at the film, you can't have too much liberties, because first of all Tony and Ziyi, they are not from martial arts backgrounds, and I wanted them to perform all the action by themselves; so in all the action scenes, you have to be very precise. So you need to take weeks of choreography and rehearsal, and on set you have to work with the camera.  So everything had to be very precise. 

Also, I wanted to tell the story because there are so many stories about Ip Man, but I wanted to tell the story about Ip Man which was really true and historically correct because I didn't want to show him like just a fighter, or to make up some episode about fighting the Japanese, or fighting the Western fighters, because it didn't happen.  I know they want to make him look more heroic, but in this film what I find from Ip Man is in fact it's more heroic for him to fight not a physical opponent, it's actually fighting with time and the ups and downs of his life.  Because when we look at his life story, he was born with a silver spoon and he lost almost everything except the commitment to these martial arts.  He went through so many different periods to remain at the end the last man standing.

This interview is cross-published on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy exclusive photos from the junket there.
Around the Internet:
blog comments powered by Disqus
​​