At one point in Wong Kar Wai’s “The Grandmaster,” the Chinese kung fu legend known as Ip Man is confronted by an arrogant upstart who seeks to engage him in combat. Ip Man accepts, but not before inquiring as to whether the young man has eaten lunch yet. He has, in fact — rice and barbecued pork. Big mistake.
The brief slapstick episode that follows is not only the funniest moment in this lyrical and kinetic martial-arts drama, but also one of the numerous true stories Wong came across while researching Ip Man’s life firsthand. It’s a welcome reminder that although the Hong Kong auteur may be the cinema’s pre-eminent poet of romantic longing, even his celebrated arthouse weepies, such as “Happy Together” and “In the Mood for Love,” have their undercurrents of humor.
“I’m not a very serious person,” Wong chuckles, sitting down at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills to discuss his 10th feature (which the Weinstein Co. will release Stateside on Aug. 23). He could even be winking, though you wouldn’t be able to tell from those signature shades, which seem to deflect one’s questions in almost the same way his movies, with their playful surfaces and elliptical narratives, can resist easy interpretation.
These days, however, Wong seems happy to speak to audiences in more concrete terms. His first dip into the martial-arts well since 1994’s “Ashes of Time” and his first film since 2007’s critically and commercially disappointing “My Blueberry Nights,” “The Grandmaster” has an unusually didactic, almost evangelical sense of purpose: to capture the nobility and formality of Chinese kung fu as it existed in the 1930s and ’40s, and to make its competing schools, traditions and philosophies accessible to the broadest possible audience.
“It is not new, but it has been forgotten,” Wong says. “I wanted to revisit the tradition. Chinese martial arts is not only about skill, it’s not only about kicks and punches. There’s a certain wisdom in it.”
Although it follows a number of different fighters, to the point where Wong considered changing the title to “Grandmasters” (his son talked him out of it), the film offers a loose personal history of one of kung fu’s great wise men. In tackling the oft-told story of Ip Man (played by Wong’s usual male lead, Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung Chiu-wai), who pioneered the popular Wing Chun fighting style and famously taught Bruce Lee, the director fashioned an arty rejoinder to the entertaining if factually dubious “Ip Man” movies starring Donnie Yen.
“There are so many kung fu films and so many different interpretations of Chinese martial arts,” he says. “I didn’t want to invent stuff for dramatic reasons. I didn’t want to have Ip Man fight the Japanese. … I just wanted to set the record straight.”
The result, on one level, is a Wong picture through and through — another ravishing study of beautiful bodies circling each other in close quarters, their story coalescing in fragments of memory and snatches of voiceover. And like a few of the director’s recent movies, most famously “2046,” “The Grandmaster” ran into numerous delays, necessitating reshoots over the course of three years and missing a few of release dates before finally bowing in China in January. (It had its international premiere on opening night of the Berlin Film Festival, where Wong served as president of the jury.)
But in other respects, Wong’s latest is a film of significant firsts. It’s by far his biggest commercial success, having earned more than $50 million worldwide; in China, it outgrossed his previous four features combined. It also reps an unprecedented foray into biographical drama, and Wong, a free-form stylist but also a notorious perfectionist, met the challenge by insisting on strict historical accuracy: After exhausting various books, journals and archival materials, he spent three years interviewing hundreds of mainland martial artists in preparation for the script (co-written with Xu Haofeng and Zou Jingzhi), including several Ip Man proteges.
During production, the director’s obsession with verisimilitude extended to everything from the period-perfect sets created by his longtime production/costume designer and editor, William Chang, to the hours spent dressing, coiffing and training the actresses playing courtesans in a 1930s Foshan brothel, the site of the film’s extended first-act setpiece. Feeling the pressure perhaps most of all were Leung and co-star Ziyi Zhang, who plays Gong Er, a poised, powerful fighter who is inexorably drawn into Ip Man’s orbit. Both actors spent three years training for the picture’s dazzling fight sequences, many of which were shot under inclement circumstances, from an opening melee in the rain to a climactic clash on a snow-swept railway platform.
For Wong, the intense preparation was necessary not only to ready the actors for their action scenes, but to put them in the desired state of mind.
“Tony told me afterward that he would never have been able to play this character without his training, because the training enabled him to understand their body language — why they behave like this, what’s inside them, the confidence in the way they look at people,” he says.
Wong decided early on that the film would be released in two cuts: a 130-minute version for Chinese viewers and a more straightforward two-hour version for international audiences. In prepping the latter, he and Chang worked closely with Harvey Weinstein and exec producer Megan Ellison, whose Annapurna Pictures became a key financier in 2011. The result is not only simpler than the domestic version (which recalls the grand tradition of Chinese martial-arts novels in its tricky, convoluted structure), but also boasts explanatory intertitles, character identifiers and a reference to Bruce Lee in the closing credits.
If that sounds like a rare concession to commerce over art, the director has no regrets. With a film like “In the Mood for Love,” which Wong notes could be remade anywhere in the world, “you don’t need a lot of explanation, because the story is so universal. But “‘The Grandmaster’ is very specific. Because (non-Chinese viewers) don’t have much information or knowledge about the background and history, you have to give enough information for them to get into the story.”
Overcoming barriers of language, background and technology (a 3D conversion was briefly considered) is nothing new for Wong, a cultural chameleon whose own splintered sense of identity as a Shanghai-born Hong Kong transplant has supplied many of his films with a resonant, longing-for-home subtext. Incidentally, “The Grandmaster,” his first predominantly Mandarin-language film, fits into a trend of H.K. helmers venturing into the mainland movie industry — a transition with obvious potential benefits and drawbacks.
Still, Wong rejects the notion that collaboration necessarily means compromise.
“We don’t have boundaries in film,” he says. “It’s helpful to have a strong Chinese market, because without it, films like ‘The Grandmaster’ would not be able to get made. But it shouldn’t be a burden or a limitation. It should be your playground.”
Wong’s Finest Five
“Days of Being Wild” (1990)
Tony Leung Chiu-wai gets one of the great movie-star entrances. In the very last scene.
“Chungking Express” (1994)
A shot of pure neondrenched bliss. You’ll never look at canned pineapple the same way again.
“Fallen Angels” (1995)
Wong’s most visually extreme feature, and one of his most underrated.
“Happy Together” (1997)
Angst and alienation rule in this corrosively beautiful end-of-love story.
“In the Mood for Love” (2000)
Ineffable yet indelible. Wong’s undisputed masterpiece.