“I sometimes compare making a film to cooking,” Wong Kar-wai tells me.
“Some dishes need to be stewed while others need to be fried.” It’s an intriguing analogy for the Hong Kong auteur’s career. Both methods have produced sublime results, whether it’s his flash-fry films – like Chungking Express, his international breakthrough film, shot during the three-month hiatus on his 1994 martial arts spectacular Ashes of Time – or more simmered-to-perfection works like the great love story In The Mood For Love, which took 15 months to shoot.
Nevertheless Wong has garnered over the years a reputation for being “slow”, which he resents. “The time I invest in a film isn’t a choice but rather something dictated by the subject matter,” he says. As well as bad luck; 2004’s meditative sci-fi 2046, a follow-up of sorts to In the Mood for Love, took four years to complete because the shoot was interrupted by the SARS epidemic. His new film – and the tenth of his career – The Grandmaster, also had its fair share of misfortune, with star and regular muse Tony Leung twice fracturing his arm and delaying production.
Wong has been stewing this latest effort ever since he hatched the idea in 1999; indeed he has dedicated the past seven years to researching and shooting The Grandmaster, ever since finishing his 2007 English-language film My Blueberry Nights.
It tells the story of Ip Man, the legendary kung fu master who taught Enter the Dragon star Bruce Lee, and brings Lee back to a genre that he last explored 20 years ago in Ashes of Time. Since then, Wong has become a master of melancholic romance more than large-scale spectacle; but in The Grandmaster, casting Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’s Zhang Ziyi as the love interest, he fuses both in what is his most expensive production to date.
At least it hasn’t aged him. Now 56, Wong looks much as he did when we first met in 1997 during the publicity for Happy Together, a drama about a gay couple in Buenos Aires that won him Best Director in Cannes – right down to his ever-present shades. “He’s probably the only guy in the world who can pull off wearing sunglasses indoors”, as one interviewer put it, adding as it does to the alluring sense of mystery that swirls around the man and his movies.
In interview, Wong seems unflappable, yet he admits his latest film was a “gruelling” experience; all in all, it took so long to produce that two rival films Ip Man and Ip Man 2, starring Donnie Yen, made it into cinemas first. The Grandmaster shoot, which began in 2009, was blighted by “extreme weather” in mainland China and after the on-off three-year shoot came to an end, one of his stuntmen, Ju Kun, was one of the passengers who lost their lives aboard the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
There’s no clue to the film’s troubled production history on screen, however: the end result, whose costumes and cinematography were nominated for Oscars, is sumptuous and enthralling. “I always wanted to tell a story about the rich tradition of Chinese martial arts, rather than [using it] just as a vehicle for kicks and punches,” he says. Ip Man’s life proved perfect. “What I learned [about him] blew me away.” Beginning in 1936, he deliberately sets The Grandmaster in the early part of his subject’s life, long before he ever tutored Bruce Lee in the art of wing chun, the kung fu style he popularised.
“Ip Man was an extraordinary man who lived during extraordinary times,” he says. “He was born to a rich family when the country was still a monarchy and lived through various civil wars, revolutions, the Japanese invasion and the establishment of the Republic. By the time he was an old man, he was broke and living in Hong Kong.” You see the admiration in Wong’s eyes. “Ip Man was a survivor who preserved his ideals in the face of many hardships.”
Anything but a conventional biopic, it also features fight scenes far removed from the romanticised style of the wuxia pian seen in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Wong’s own Ashes of Time. “The Grandmaster is much more realistic and closer to the wushu tradition,” says Wong, and here is where it breaks ground; it’s a rarity to see an arthouse kung fu film, it being a fighting style usually reserved for mass-market action flicks .
The film marks his seventh collaboration with Tony Leung – a relationship that stretches back to 1990’s Days of Being Wild. But just as important to the film is his collaboration with Yuen Woo-ping, the celebrated martial arts choreographer who worked on the stunts in The Matrix. “We both insisted on representing the different fighting styles in an authentic way,” says Wong, “similar to how Bruce Lee approached his fight scenes; we wanted real martial arts in The Grandmaster, not movie martial arts.”
While Wong recently told Sight & Sound magazine that he’s spent “30 years…watching kung fu films”, the truth is it’s been even longer. He grew up on a street filled with martial arts schools. “When I was a kid, martial arts were extremely popular in Hong Kong. They were everywhere: movies, TV shows, radio programmes and novellas. My mother was a big fan so I grew up watching [Hong Kong martial arts studio] Shaw Brothers films – particularly the ones starring Lau Kar-leung – and Bruce Lee movies.”
Born in Shanghai, Wong left for Hong Kong with his mother when he was five; the plan was for his older brother and sister, and his hotel manager father, to join them but the onset of the Cultural Revolution meant the borders were suddenly closed. While he wrote regularly to his siblings back in Shanghai, he had a lonely childhood, surrounded by adults and able to speak only Mandarin. “I didn’t understand Cantonese, and we didn’t have any relatives. I became like an observer.” Cinema became his lifeline.
After school, he spent two years on a graphic design course, before moving into television, as a screenwriter, and then film. He wrote scripts in the 1980s, before making his directorial debut in 1988 with As Tears Go By, a crime melodrama borrowing heavily from Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. And come his next film, 1990’s Days of Being Wild, a wistful mood piece about mis-spent youth in 1960s Hong Kong, his stylistic hallmarks were already becoming evident: a lush palette, ineffably cool soundtrack and a fascination with memory.
Despite being beloved overseas – his popularity spearheaded by Quentin Tarantino, who released Chungking Express in the US via his short-lived distribution outfit Rolling Thunder – Wong has never really cracked the English language market in the way his compatriot John Woo has. My Blueberry Nights, a road movie with Norah Jones, was a rare miscalculation, while The Lady From Shanghai – a proposed film with Nicole Kidman – never got off the ground. Would he consider another English-spoken movie? “I’ve been reading some scripts lately,” he nods.
He’s equally elusive when I ask how he feels about the fact that The Grandmaster now exists in three different versions: a Chinese cut, a festival cut and a more linear version that was released in the US by The Weinstein Company, and will be shown here. “It’s difficult to say. Each version speaks to a different audience,” he says, diplomatically. “It really is like picking a favourite child.”
At least the trying nature of the production didn’t dent his enthusiasm. He’s already shaping up to direct The Ferryman, again with Leung, a story based on the best-selling novel I Belonged To You by Zhang Jiajia. Despite recently receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Goa Film Festival (dedicating it to his wife, Chan Ye-cheng), this masterchef is not planning retirement just yet. “To be honest with you,” he smiles. “I feel I’m only halfway done.”
‘The Grandmaster’ is on general release
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