Lessons from 'The Grandmaster': Wong Kar Wai chronicles life of legendary martial artist Ip Man


The Grandmaster, the latest film from Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai, explores the life of Ip Man, a celebrated martial artist and teacher who died in 1972. This is the fifth movie about Ip Man in as many years, but as can be expected from Wong, whose works include In the Mood for Love and 2046, The Grandmaster approaches its subject obliquely, with an arresting attention to atmosphere.

A native of Foshan in Mainland China, Ip Man helped popularize wing chun, a school of martial arts, in Hong Kong in the 1950s. He is remembered today primarily for having trained Bruce Lee, the most famous martial artist of the past 60 years. For Wong, the key to Lee's appeal is not just that he was a superb fighter, but that he was a well-educated, civilized one.

"When you look at Bruce Lee's interviews, you can see how much Ip Man influenced him," Wong says in a Manhattan office. "And what's interesting about Ip Man is that he wasn't even supposed to be a fighter. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, a kind of aristocrat. He was elegant, very formal, from a class that doesn't exist today."

The director refers to rival Ip Man movies indirectly, pointing out how authentic The Grandmaster is. He complains that other filmmakers portrayed Ip as a movie character. "They have him fighting the Japanese, which is pure fiction, just to make him more heroic," he laughs. "I thought an audience would like to see that wing chun is not just about kicks and punches and beating people up."

To Wong, what made Ip so intriguing is how he responded to the political and social turmoil in China at the time. "He experienced so much," he explains, "the early days of the Republic, the Japanese invasion, civil war. He lost everything, even his two daughters starved. He suffered all this, but all the time he's not fighting a physical opponent, he's fighting with his time, he's fighting with the ups and downs of his life."

In The Grandmaster, Wong and his longtime production designer William Chang Suk Ping (working with Alfred Yau Wai Ming) had to recreate everything from a pre-industrial Foshan, with its drab monotones and hidden luxuries, to a vibrant, post-war Hong Kong filled with sun-bleached pastels. Chang spent years collecting fabrics, wallpaper and props. (Chang also edited the film with Benjamin Courtines and Poon Hung Yiu.)

Even more important, Wong insisted on getting the fight scenes right. "Lately you see all these kung fu films, they are like show," Wong says. "They are over-the-top, all effects and tricks. Viewers end up doubting Chinese martial arts. Is it just for show? Does it work?

"I'm a big admirer of Lau Kar-leung," Wong continues, referring to an influential martial artist and director in the 1970s. "He had a very specific style of kung fu film, really hardcore because he came from a martial-arts family. His films are very precise, very authentic. From them you learn his wisdom and philosophy, as well as his skill. And I thought, I hadn't seen a kung fu film like this for a long time."

Wong met with master action choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, whose work stretches from kung fu classics in the 1970s to more recent Hollywood productions like the Matrix and Kill Bill movies. Wong insisted on a style of fighting that avoided wirework and impossible stunts. Making Yuen's task more difficult was the fact that the film's two stars, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Ziyi Zhang, had no serious martial-arts training.

Leung, who has starred in seven Wong Kar Wai films, says enthusiastically, "This is my most enjoyable movie with Gar Wai," using the director's nickname. "I knew my character from the first day of shooting, which I never experienced with him before. We never talk or meet on the set, I never watch the video playback, we don't even work with a screenplay, a complete screenplay, although I know he has one. But we are good friends for over twenty years now. If he knows what he wants, then I trust him."

The actor trained for four years before shooting, working with Duncan Leung, who met Ip Man through Bruce Lee, and his son Darren. "I used to think kung fu was just fighting techniques, defense, things like that," Leung says. "But it's very much like meditation, how to have a mind free from emotion and desire. It's about training your mind to achieve harmony with your opponent. You don't anticipate, you don't expect, you don't decide anything, you just follow your opponent's movements."

Wong quotes a Chinese saying, "'To fight is to kiss.' You have to get very close, you have to be confident, your whole body is pressed against your opponent. And there is this stillness—it's easy to trick the audience when you are moving, dancing around. The most difficult part is the pose, it has to be flawless. You move your hand like this," he says, demonstrating, "and it has to be flawless."

Wong decided to open Happy Together, a romance set in Buenos Aires, with a prolonged lovemaking scene, "so we could get the sex out of the way and let the viewers concentrate on the story." Here, he opens The Grandmaster with a nighttime fight that pits Ip against a dozen opponents. "We all know Tony is a good actor, but the people coming to this film will be asking, 'Can he fight?' So we had to make this scene right."

"It was a nightmare," Leung laughs. "I told Gar Wai this was the most difficult scene in my acting career. We have to do a master shot, so that means I have to fight like ten guys from the end of the street to here, and I'm feeling all this pressure, I don't want it to be an NG [no good] because of me. It's already difficult, and then he decides, 'It would be better in the rain.' Very heavy rain. Water this deep," he says, holding his hand above his ankle. "And I can't wear normal shoes because William Chang says the camera will pick them up."

The scene required 30 consecutive nights of shooting. "We slipped all the time," Leung remembers. "It was freezing cold, and we had to keep our costumes on all night long. After 30 days, I've got headaches, a runny nose, I'm taking all kinds of pills. When I get back to my hotel room, I'm catatonic."

About Gong Er, the role his co-star Ziyi Zhang plays, Leung jokes, "She is bad, a totally bad woman." But for Wong, "Gong Er and Ip Man are two sides of a coin. She's a fictional character, but based on the many great woman martial artists at that time. She's from the north, and represents the Bagua school of fighting. Like Ip Man, she's not supposed to be a fighter, it's a choice she makes, based on her beliefs and her loyalty to her father. The difference between them is that, unlike Ip, she decides to stay in her own time."

Wong shot The Grandmaster over a three-year period, in part because of unavoidable delays. Leung broke his left arm twice, for example. The director filmed all the action scenes first, saving the dramatic material for the last six months.

"We shot on film," he says, "because three years ago a lot of people were still working with film. Then one day I received a letter from Fuji, 'We are sorry to tell you this will be the last shipment because we are not going to produce the film stock anymore.' So it seemed like a good time to wrap the picture."

Wong completed a version for Asian audiences that ran a little over two hours. His U.S. contract with The Weinstein Company called for a shorter cut. "For many films you can just cut shorter, take out some scenes. But the structure of this film is very precise, so you can't just cut or trim."

The director prepared an entirely different version for the U.S. market, replacing some scenes and concentrating more on telling the story from Ip Man's perspective. "I skipped some of the build-up, certain introductions, and I showed more of his time in Hong Kong."

Soft-spoken, dressed casually and wearing his ever-present sunglasses, Wong grins and jokes frequently. He downplays the six years of work he put into the project, deflecting attention away from his methods. But when he describes specific scenes, you can start to appreciate the focus and determination he brought to filming.

But even Wong appreciates the essential contradictions in kung fu films. He remembers an argument on the set between wing chun and bagua trainers. "Ip Man always used a simple form, basically the shortest distance between two points is the straight line. But the bagua master said the straight line is not the fastest, the bagua timing is faster. And Duncan Leung points out, if these fighters are that good, they're not going to be fighting each other for fifteen minutes. But then we wouldn't have a movie."