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.”