Released in the spring of 2008, My Blueberry Nights was expected to be the big American breakthrough for the esteemed Chinese filmmaker Wong Kar Wai — the first English-language movie from a director whose previous work ( In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express, Happy Together, 2046) had earned him an international fan base on the arthouse and film festival circuits.
But despite a starry cast (Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz) and a healthy promotional push by The Weinstein Co., the movie was a critical and commercial failure in the United States, grossing less than $1 million (the film fared much better overseas, earning nearly $22 million).
So Wong turned his back on Hollywood and returned to his roots. Six years later, he emerged with one of his best films to date. The Grandmaster, which opens Friday, is a sweeping epic that uses the life of Ip Man (played by Tony Leung), the kung fu master who trained Bruce Lee, to recount two tumultuous decades in China’s history.
Packed with elaborate, eye-popping fight sequences choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping ( The Matrix, Kill Bill), The Grandmaster is the most action-intensive film Wong has made. It is also among his most personal. The movie incorporates his recurring theme of romantic longing (Ip has an unspoken, unfulfilled love affair with Gong Er, another martial arts master played by Ziyi Zhang) into a re-creation of Japan’s invasion of China in 1937 — an event that forever changed the country’s culture.
“ The Grandmaster was new territory for me, because I knew nothing about martial arts,” Wong says. “This is also the first time I’ve made a film about China in the 1930s. But when I was writing it, I wasn’t conscious of the love story elements. The immediate attraction between Ip and Gong is more than just man and woman. They are both martial artists. They are more like comrades. When they’re forced to say farewell, they’re not just saying goodbye to a friend or a lover. They’re also saying farewell to an era, which will probably turn out to be the best times of their lives.”
Wong spent three years researching The Grandmaster before a frame was shot. He traveled to various cities in China and Taiwan in the company of martial arts coach Wu Bin (who trained the action-film star Jet Li) and met with a number of masters who shared their philosophies and differing fighting styles. Wong wanted to make sure he got even the smallest details right, because he felt a responsibility to pay homage to a past that was on the verge of being forgotten.
“I didn’t want to make a kung fu film,” he says. “I wanted to make a film about the history of kung fu. It’s a film about that world at that precise time. In the 1930s, people like Ip Man and Gong Er were not typical martial artists. They weren’t street-fighters. They came from very wealthy families with their own banners and rituals. That is a class that doesn’t exist any more.”
The Grandmaster was shot in 22 months over a period of three years, allowing time for the actors to becomes experts in the various schools of kung fu they were representing. Wong insisted that Leung and Zhang perform their own fighting (no stunt doubles were used), and the action sequences were so elaborate that they would take weeks to film (the opening setpiece, in which Ip fends off hordes of kung fu students under a rainstorm, took a month).