Hong Kong leading man Tony Leung and director Wong Kar-wai partner for the seventh time on The Grandmaster, which held its New York premiere last night. The Hong Kong-Chinese martial arts drama is based on the life of kung fu master Ip Man (Leung), respected for popularizing the Wing Chun school and famous for teaching Bruce Lee.
Best known internationally for his portrayal of a chain-smoking, suit-wearing, lovelorn journalist in an earlier Wong film In The Mood For Love (2000), for which he won best actor at Cannes Film Festival, Leung, 51, has in fact enjoyed critical and commercial success in a highly prolific singing and acting career spanning three decades, over a dozen studio albums, 80 films, and some of the most popular television series of the 80’s and 90’s.
Jing Daily joined in conversation with Leung, who is in town to promote The Grandmaster. Look below for his comments on a wide range of topics, including what it’s like to work with Wong.
Translated from Chinese.
On the literally unspoken chemistry between Wong Kar-wai and the actor:
“It’s a bit funny between us. We don’t interact much. In the two decades we’ve worked together, we’ve probably seen each other no more than twenty times off set. We don’t usually speak on set either.”
On how this project differed from previous ones with Wong Kar-wai, notorious for working off-script:
“The unique aspect of this film was that I had a historical figure to base my character on. I also did a lot of research. This was one of the most pleasant collaborations I have had with Wong because I had a very clear understanding of who I was from day one. For an actor, this is more enjoyable. Other than that, we’re the same as usual, seldom speaking.”
On whether The Grandmaster represents a shift from Wong’s more independent oeuvre and a desire to garner wider box office appeal:
“I don’t think so. I heard that Wong was inspired when he saw a photograph of Bruce Lee while filming Happy Together (1997) in Argentina. So it’s not for commercial or other reasons.”
On critiques that the film’s final version seems “unfinished” and characters are unevenly developed:
“Actually I think Wong has always worked this way. He tends to film in excess. For actors, the most enjoyable part is the filming process. The more you experience, the deeper your understanding of your character. So for actors, it’s interesting. But the final cut is up to the director. So we’re never quite sure about the plot because we don’t use a concrete script during filming. Sometimes we even forget what we’ve filmed because it’s been too long. That’s why I say that whenever I see a premiere, I’m no different from other members of the audience; I’m busy looking for scenes that were shot but may not appear in the film. But I think it’s ok, because this is his method.”
On how his Ip Man differs from other versions throughout film history:
“I’m sure every actor has a different approach to Ip Man. When Wong approached me to play Ip Man, it was a childhood dream come true. Like a lot of people from my generation, I idolized Bruce Lee and learned about Ip Man through him. Back then, my understanding of Bruce Lee and kung fu was very basic; kung fu was just a fighting technique and Bruce Lee was a fighting superstar. I always wanted to learn kung fu as a kid but my family didn’t allow it because back then it seemed like it was only for two kinds of people: future police and gangsters.
Wong wanted me to blend Bruce Lee and Ip Man. Through my research of the role, I was exposed to Bruce Lee’s teachings and mission, as well as the more spiritual aspects of kung fu. As a 4,000-year-old tradition, it is actually highly influenced by Zen and Daoism. Aside from being a physical training, it is also a training of the mind. A lot of philosophy and meditation. I found the spiritual elements very appealing.
This also helped me develop Ip Man’s character because there was very little information about his life before Hong Kong. At first I didn’t understand why Wong wanted me to merge Bruce Lee’s character with Ip Man. But then I realized that Bruce Lee was greatly influenced by Ip Man. Ip Man is great not for his physical ability, but his knowledge and vision of kung fu.
I think that when Ip Man was younger, he was charismatic, confident, and playful like Bruce Lee. That’s how I constructed him. He came from a wealthy family and didn’t have many responsibilities before the age of 40. He practiced kung fu for pleasure. The dramatic shift came when he moved to Hong Kong. My teacher, who was a student of his, told me about Ip Man’s difficult life. One winter, a student even lent him his comforter because he didn’t own one. Yet, in photos he is refined, like a scholar as opposed to a kung fu master. He has a dignified air and is smiling. But I knew the truth about his life. I wondered how he could display so much dignity in the face of hardship. Wong said that he was optimistic but I think it was the spiritual teachings of kung fu that helped him cope with life, and this was something I experienced in my own training. Kung fu isn’t just about fighting or health benefits, it’s a cultivation of the mind.
So to answer your question, I constructed his character as someone who persevered through tough times, aided by the spiritual cultivation of kung fu.”
On filming the opener, an epic fight scene in the rain:
“Initially, Wong wasn’t around and we filmed the opening scene with Yuen Woo-ping. I was wearing head-to-toe black. It was the end of summer, and we wrapped the shoot in just seven days. But after a while, Wong thought I should wear a white hat instead, so of course we had to reshoot. The final version took 40 nights in the rain and colder weather. On the thirtieth day, I told Wong that I didn’t think I could film anymore. He said ok, and then we filmed for ten more days.”
On the history lesson he gained while filming:
“It was the first time I was exposed to Republican Era martial arts novels.”
On seeing his hero in a new light:
“I have a newfound appreciation for my childhood idol Bruce Lee.”
On working with Ang Lee versus Wong Kar-wai:
“I appreciate and respect both. Our partnerships are different. Wong’s working process is more adventurous. It’s a different kind of challenge. If you ask Lee for something, he’ll provide you with it and more. So before you start filming, you’ve already reached most of the character development, whereas with Wong, you can never be sure.”