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).
Born in Shanghai in 1956, Wong moved to Hong Kong with his parents when he was 7, and his childhood memories were part of the motivation that led him to make The Grandmaster.
“I grew up on a street where there were several different martial arts schools,” he says. “Some of them were from northern China and some from the south. I was curious to know where they all came from and what happened to their past. When you spoke to an established master in Hong Kong, their best stories were all about their younger days. Nineteen thirty-six was one of the golden years for Chinese martial arts. It was right before the Japanese invasion, and after that happened, all these martial artists wanted to do their part. They had a platform to be noticed and do something other than challenge each other, so they joined forces to help defend their country.”
One of the pleasures of The Grandmaster is learning about the multitude of kung fu styles. Ip practiced Wing Chun, which consists of only a few basic but critical moves. Gong was the daughter of a master of Bagua, a more complex form of kung fu that was sometimes referred to as “64 Hands.”
“I had to understand the differences between all the various schools so I could film them properly,” Wong says. “I spent a lot of time attending demonstrations and meeting martial artists. One master said something to me that I never forgot. He said ‘When you go into a fight, it’s almost like kissing the other person.’ I [asked] what that meant and he said ‘First, you have to get close to your opponent. And when you kiss someone, you can feel it throughout your whole body. Your reaction is very concentrated. It’s almost like a reflex.’ That was his way of describing kung fu.”
Wong clearly remembered that description while shooting the face-off between Ip and Gong: In one beautiful, slow-motion shot, the two warriors hover in the air, their faces just inches apart, like lovers about to embrace. The sensuality of the moment is so subtle that some viewers may not even notice it. And even though the film’s third act takes on the dreamy, gorgeous aura that is Wong’s trademark, The Grandmaster is categorically an action movie first.
“ The Grandmaster is Wong’s most accessible work, primarily because it clearly belongs to the kung fu genre,” says Stephen Teo, head of cinema studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and author of Wong Kar Wai: Auteur of Time. “Wong doesn’t try to reinterpret the genre as he did with his last martial arts film, Ashes of Time. Fans who are just looking for kung fu will get a lot of it, but they’ll also come away with some thoughtful and beautiful imagery. And Wong Kar Wai fans can accept the kung fu without losing too much of his avant-garde narrative touches.”
But some of Wong’s stylistic flourishes have indeed been lost. The version of The Grandmaster being released in the United States by The Weinstein Co. runs 108 minutes; the cut released in China was 130 minutes.
“We had an obligation to release the film here under two hours,” Wong says. “But I didn’t want to just cut and take out entire scenes. The structure of the original version is extremely precise: If you removed certain things, the movie’s structure would collapse. So I decided to make a different version for American audiences that tells the story in a more linear way.”
Eugene Suen, a Chinese-American filmmaker and producer of the upcoming drama Abigail Harm, has seen both cuts of The Grandmaster and strongly prefers Wong’s original edit, which may still get a DVD release stateside.
“The differences are very noticeable, to the extent that I feel they are different movies,” Suen says. “The American version works quite well on its own terms. But in the Chinese version, certain dramatic elements are more powerful and the pacing is more deliberate. The chronology is completely different. And it’s also a film that is heavily geared toward Chinese audiences. Many of Wong’s previous movies dealt with Western preoccupations and a heightened sense of romance, so they could travel the world without any re-editing. This one is a great reappropriation of his prominent themes — the passage of time, unfulfilled love, romantic longing — as a survey of contemporary Chinese history.”
Suen also says the references to Bruce Lee in The Grandmaster are much more overt in the U.S. version (including a title card preceding the end credits that spells out the connection). “There are a couple of scenes of Ip Man training his students and there’s this little kid there practicing, but there’s no strong hint as to who he is,” Suen says.
But in the same way Lee helped popularize martial arts movies in America in the 1970s, his aura may help attract audiences who might have not otherwise noticed The Grandmaster. And this sumptuous, spectacular movie merits attention.