Wong Kar-wai's unique method of making movies—his encouragement of improvisation, his insistence on seemingly endless post-production sessions, and his frequent reliance on years' worth of reshoots—was confirmed by Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Ziyi Zang, stars of The Grandmaster, prior to my interview with the auteur. Leung spoke about having to reshoot the entirety of the film's opening fight sequence—a stunning piece of artistry that ramps between sped-up and slowed-down motion, between extreme close-ups and master shots—because Wong decided, after shooting wrapped on the scene, that the actor's character, the legendary Ip Man, should've been wearing a hat. Zhang, meanwhile, described the intense preparations she put into learning how to perform Beijing opera for one of few scenes where her character shows explicit emotion—a scene that would eventually be cut from the film.
Wong, then, is still the obsessive, but there's a classical, genre-influenced quality that runs through The Grandmaster that qualifies the film as the director's most accessible work since his debut feature, As Tears Go By. The film's slippery structure, which differs greatly across its three different cuts, treats elements of longing and romanticism not as the story's raison d'être, but as textures every bit as bold and detailed as the combat sequences. Speaking to the filmmaker, it became clear why. His previous films—among them 2046, In the Mood for Love, and Days of Being Wild—felt like confessions, the work of a man exorcising his own demons through cinema. But The Grandmaster owes its debt to cinema's past more than it does to Wong's own.
In The Grandmaster, as in your other films, much is made of reflecting on the past. How much of what you film is dictated by your own memories and personal experiences? And how does that affect something like this film, set in a time before you were born?
It's not really about memories; it's about curiosities. I think for The Grandmaster it's about a time I had only ever heard of, and never actually went through. Most of my films are about Hong Kong in the '60s, the immigrants, the Second Generation. And this film is a bit more…I wanted to know where they came from. We went to the early days, of the Republic, and for me, it's like new territory. It's not like going back. It's a discovery. When you look at the film, you see that a lot of people end up in Hong Kong for different reasons. That's how Hong Kong has become [what it is] today.
I feel a strong shift, over your past four films, from the type of photography you were composing during your earlier works. Do you feel that your aesthetic preferences have changed at all?
I never want to make beautiful pictures. I just want to make sure it's right. Every set up, every shot, represents a choice: what you want to see, and what you don't want to see. If you want to see precisely the button [the one Ip Man presents to Zhang's Gon Er in the film], then you have to look at the button. Because it's not just a button, it's a history, right? If you are going to show a punch, how can you show that a punch is very powerful? It's not about breaking windows; maybe a small nail will give you the impact. I remember when we shot the scene in the train station, I said that the first punch was too strong, that it breaks the nails coming out of the pillars. I asked, “If we want to be authentic, is it too over the top?” I said, “We'll see.” I think it's good enough to tell you that his punch is very, very strong.
So you're telling me you've never once composed a shot with the conscious intention of creating something beautiful?
No. [Thinks] No. What I'm saying is that I'm not going to frame a beautiful shot.
Yuen Woo-ping is credited as the fight choreographer of the film; he's created a distinctive signature for himself through his work. How do you two work together, and does his work influence the rest of the film, like the dialogue scenes, at all?
The way I work with Yuen Woo-ping is very straightforward. At the beginning of our meeting, I told him that I wanted this to be a hardcore kung-fu film. It has to be authentic. I don't want wires, I don't want tricks, and I want my actors to perform their kung fu, like in the early days, like in the Shaw Brothers films. So he was quite shocked, actually. I brought him to the training rooms, with Tony, and he realized that I was serious about it. Because he's from that background, he knows this world so well. Together we created action scenes that were choreographed with the trainers. If Tony is s a Wing Chun master, then all his moves should be Wing Chun moves.
You spoke about the idea of making a hardcore kung-fu film, about creating something that was more in line with the films made in the genre during the '70s. I assume you mean you dislike the wires, and overuse of CGI effects…
In the last 10 years, a lot of kung-fu films have become over the top. And at a point, audiences start to think that kung-fu films are just a show, or a gimmick.
So is this film intended as a corrective to the genre, as it stands now?
No, I think it's to open a window. It's more like a question than an answer. Do you really know what Chinese martial arts is? Are you interested? Do you want to learn more?
There's a lot in the film about different styles, about mastering different techniques, about fostering a command of many different styles. Hong Kong cinema has always been defined by a collection of different genres and styles. Is that something that attracted you? Do you even consider connections like that when making a film?
Because of the Chinese market, most of the Hong Kong filmmakers work in China. Through co-productions. So at a point, people said, “Well, where is Hong Kong cinema?” But in fact, the Hong Kong cinema has gone through a different stage. It has a bigger playground. But in a way you also have to keep the essence, the spirit, of Hong Kong cinema. When we were shooting this film, we were conscious to do an homage. Because the kung-fu film is a big genre. So in a way, you can see, in the first 30 minutes, when Tony is doing the three challenges in the brothel, it's basically an homage to the Lau Kar-Leung films, the Shaw Brothers, the Tsui Hark period. We are trying to get everything in. It's not just one kung-fu film. It's like a “once upon a time.”
So the music cue from Once Upon a Time In America...that's not just because you liked the music, then? There's a legitimate connection between that film and The Grandmaster?
Oh, it's an homage. We had these discussions, like two days ago, with a very good writer who wrote many big films. The interesting thing he said was that “it used to be that films were about stories. Today, films are about short stories.” And I think the reason I wanted to pay homage to Once Upon a Time in America, to Sergio Leone, to Morricone, is because people don't make films like that anymore. People don't have the patience for epics. Epics are really about time. It's a journey, and not just action.
I've seen two different cuts of the film, and there was plenty of “exclusive” footage in each. If it weren't for that lack of patience among audiences, would you like to release a version that comprises most of the footage, one that would be as long as most Leone movies? Or are the running times dictated by other things?
Yeah, sadly, today, the distribution of films is very competitive, so in China we can afford to release this film at two hours and 10 minutes, but we have an obligation to release this film under two hours in the United States. But I don't just want to do a shorter version, do some trimming, take out some scenes, because I think the structure of the Chinese version is very delicate, and very precise. So instead I want to do a new version, I want to tell this story in a different way. And in fact, American cinema, besides Chinese cinema, has the longest history with kung-fu films. So I think we can focus and go directly to the story. In the Chinese version, it's really about time. And here [in the U.S.] it's really about character. We follow the story of Ip Man and go through this world of martial arts.
You've been quoted in the past as saying that your editing process is so arduous because you love your movies too much, and don't want to let them go.
So the way you've gone and re-edited different cuts of your movies from the ground up—for you, is that about finding a way to release as much footage as possible as it is about creating the perfect final product for separate markets?
You have to imagine, when you're shooting a scene, and you really love that scene, it's a lot of work. It's not only the work of the director. It's the actors, writers, the whole crew. And sometimes that footage that doesn't go into the final edit, they will wake you up. They will call you. So you want to think, “Is there any way I can put this back? And tell the audience [the story] in a different way?” Just imagine if they said to you, “Well, you only have five minutes for this interview.” Then you have to make choices, right?