The Demonstrative Wong Kar Wai

Published August 22, 2013

ABOVE: WONG KAR-WAI FILMING THE GRANDMASTER. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY

Wong Kar-Wai has exactly 20 minutes before he has to catch a flight back to Hong Kong. But from the way he’s lounging all over a white leather banquette in a “secret” back room of New York’ City’s Mondrian SoHo hotel, you’d think he was settling into a three-martini lunch. The 57-year-old cult director—whose hyper-stylized films like In the Mood for Love (2000) and Chungking Express (1994) swerved Hong Kong’s Second Wave into a new visual tableau, filled with swirling cigarette smoke and bleeding colors—is probably the only guy in the world who can pull off wearing sunglasses indoors. When we exchange greetings in Chinese, his voice is both intimate and meditative.

Wong’s air of elegant moodiness creeps into all his films, including his latest, The Grandmaster, which opens tomorrow nationwide. Based on the story of Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s mentor, it’s a kung fu film for the art-house crowd, with fight scenes that resemble impressionistic modern dances. The type of Chinese audiences that adores the gritty gangster films of John Woo and Andew Lau might not get the chaotic action sequences it craves. But Wong insists his dip into the storied genre of martial arts films is meant to reinforce traditional Chinese values, not modernize them.

We discussed whether his decision to release two versions of The Grandmaster could be seen as an act of condescension, the future of Hong Kong cinema—and where he got those sweet shades.

MICHELLE LHOOQ: I read that you were inspired by a video of Ip Man demonstrating the Wing Chun method at 79 years old. What specifically about that video did you find so arresting? Why did those images propel you to make this movie?  

WONG: You can watch it on YouTube now, but when I saw it in 1998, it was like a secret. I had the privilege to look at this home movie.

LHOOQ: Wait, did you watch it in his living room where it was filmed?

WONG: No, I watched it in my office. When I looked at this video, I just kept wondering—because I knew it was shot three days before he died—I kept wondering why he would do this. And I was very excited to get this video because we know this demonstration was supposed to be secretive. The Wing Chun combination is the core of their combat skills. So many people offered him money, including Bruce Lee.

LHOOQ: How much money did Bruce Lee offer him, do you know?

WONG: He offered him a flat.

LHOOQ: An apartment?

WONG: Yes, and at that point Ip Man was very poor. Bruce Lee came back, and he was very successful. And he said, “Well, I want to help you so you can live comfortably. But I want you to do this demonstration.”

LHOOQ: So the intrigue factor for you was why he would want to do this three days before he died?

WONG: The reason why he refused to do demonstrations for an individual is because he didn’t want to do it for money. He simply said, “If I have to do it, I have to do it for everybody. I can’t do it for you only.” He wouldn’t do it until that point because he wanted to finally have a chance to record the skill and present it to all the students. So that was how I found the angle for this film. It’s really about legacy. It’s not only just… who’s the best fighter. It’s about exploring what is the quality of a “grandmaster.”

LHOOQ: But what I found so haunting about that video was how frail and old he looked. You know he had this epic history, but here you see him alone in a living room, at the end of his life.

WONG: That’s exactly what’s so moving about his story. He was born with a silver spoon. He was from a very rich family and never worked before 40. Because in those days, to be a really successful martial arts master, you had to be rich. You won’t be able to work because the training is very intensive. And if someone comes into town to challenge you, you take it as an honor. You have to feed them, provide a place for them to stay, and see them off with presents. He had a wonderful life. But he lost a lot of things because of the war, and ended up in Hong Kong. Finally at the end of his life, he had nothing but…

LHOOQ: Legacy?

WONG: Yes, exactly. In most kung fu films, they want to create a hero who’s always fighting a bad guy. In the story of Ip Man, he’s not fighting physical opponents. He’s fighting the ups and downs of his life. And he always kept his spirit to be the last man standing.

LHOOQ: When you were travelling around China, doing your research for three years, talking to martial artists and hearing their stories…

WONG: It was my dream! I wanted to know what exactly martial arts is. When you look at martial arts films, the later ones became more and more exaggerated. It’s like, wow, is martial arts only a show?

LHOOQ: So many Western audiences think it’s super cheesy!

WONG: Yes, yes, and like what I said—is it just a chop suey? It’s not, it’s a grand feast.

LHOOQ: If you wanted to sort of correct the way Westerners see martial arts films, why did you release two versions of your movie—one for Chinese audiences and one for everyone else?

WONG: Because we had an obligation to release the film under two hours, and the original version is two hours and 12 minutes. So normally, we’d just cut it down and be fine. But I didn’t want to do that, because the structure of the Chinese version is very precise. Taking out scenes to make it shorter doesn’t serve the purpose. It would collapse.

LHOOQ: But you were just saying you want Western audiences to understand the “true” martial arts film instead of just the cheesy chop suey stuff. By watering it down for them, don’t you think that’s kind of contradictory?

WONG: That’s why I didn’t want to do a shorter version. I wanted to do a special version where I restructured the film. The Chinese version was also released internationally. When you look at the American version, I tell the history and the background with the captions. I’d rather have more scenes in the film, rather than spending time on the buildup, so you can go directly into the story of Ip Man and Gong Er. It’s not a watered-down version. I call it a different version.

LHOOQ: You were one of the first crossover Hong Kong directors to gain a following abroad. Do you think there’s still a huge gap between Hong Kong cinema and so-called international cinema?

WONG: Of course there has to be. Because what makes international cinema so interesting is that each territory has its own sensibility. When you look at an Indian or French film, there’s a certain flavor. And even though the language is different, if the film is successful, it has something very common and understandable. I’m sure the audience can identify with Gong Er and her feelings towards her father. I’m sure the audience can identify how Ip Man kept himself respectable and stuck to his principles during the hardships of his life.

LHOOQ: Were you thinking about these two audiences when you were making the film? Were you juggling them both in your head?

WONG: [shakes head] One thing is, for this film, it gave a very important message. When we look at the changes in China in the last 20 years, it’s become very modernized. But the problem is that the modernization of China cannot merely be Westernization. We have to revisit our heritage. And what we found in martial arts is that there’s a certain value or spirit, or even wisdom, in our roots. And we should revisit them to apply them to today. And it’s not only about China. The reason why I wanted to make this film is because, I hope, it will help people to realize what is actually in the roots of the Chinese mentality. So that’s why I don’t mind making changes to this film—to make more people understand it.  

LHOOQ: I’m sure you get asked this questions a lot, but I can’t help it. What’s the future of Hong Kong cinema as China continues to assert itself not just as an economic, but also an artistic force?

WONG: I think what makes Hong Kong cinema so special is that the industry is very aware of not just making films for the local market. Since 1949, Hong Kong cinema has been for export. It’s the entertainment for Chinese communities around the world. And later on, they made films for Southeast Asian markets, Korean markets, and Japanese markets. In the ’70s, most cinemas in Hollywood portrayed the Chinese—if it’s a major role—by a Western actor, wearing crazy makeup to make their eyes like this. Kung fu films broke this barrier. Bruce Lee could be a front man. A Chinese playing a Chinese.

In a way, this is what the difference is between Hong Kong and Chinese cinema—Chinese cinema was made for their own communities. It was for propaganda. But Hong Kong made films to entertain, and they know how to communicate with international audiences. This is something that Chinese cinema needs. That’s why so many Hong Kong companies work in China. Because it’s a bigger playground.

LHOOQ: What are some of the advantages and drawbacks of making films in China?

WONG: Grandmaster was a Chinese co-production film. And without this market, we wouldn’t have been able to make this film, because it’s too expensive. But as you know, we have to deal with the censor department. They’re actually very liberal. They’re very aware they have to build the market, because otherwise it will become dominated by Hollywood blockbusters. But at the same time, there’s no rating system in China. That means films are supposed to be seen by all ages. There are certain types of genres that are impossible in China. Ghost stories, something too graphic, too violent, and of course if it’s too political. Other than that, it will be fine.

LHOOQ: Did you run into these problems?

WONG: No. But I know there are certain topics you can’t touch. Maybe in a few years, they’ll apply a rating system. And that will help, to have more options.

LHOOQ: You were the president of this year’s jury at the Berlin Film Festival. What are recent movies you’ve seen lately that you’ve enjoyed?

WONG: I’ve seen two that I felt were impressive. One was from the director Steve McQueen, Shame, which I thought was very stunning. And the other one was from Romania, which got the Golden Bear this year. It’s not a fancy director, but he’s a very precise and a very good storyteller.

LHOOQ: Last question: where did you get your sunglasses from?

WONG: A few years ago, I went to Japan and came across a guy who told me there was one artist who used to make samurai swords and now does frames for glasses. And I asked him to do something similar, and he said sure, so I ordered a few pairs. And when you look at the work, you can see that there are certain angles and certain textures that feel like a samurai sword.

LHOOQ: So you’re basically wearing a samurai sword on your eyes.

WONG: Crazy, right?

THE GRANDMASTER IS OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE TOMORROW, AUGUST 23.