With his latest picture, The Grandmaster, Wong Kar-wai tells the story of martial arts legend (and Bruce Lee instructor) Ip Man, conquering the kung-fu movie genre for the first time in his career, and with the same sense of yearning and sensuous melancholy that made his previous work (In the Mood for Love, Happy Together) so powerful. Vulture sat down with the auteur to discuss three key scenes from the movie (in theaters today). Here, a look at those scenes, plus fascinating (albeit it painful-to-watch) footage of stars Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi training for their roles. No, you can't do this at home.
1. FIGHTING IN THE RAIN
Wong Kar-wai: We all know Tony [Leung, who plays Ip Man] is a very good actor, but I was sure many in the audience were going to ask, “Can he fight?” So that’s why I wanted to open the picture with a big fight sequence, to make the audience believe that this is a Grandmaster, not just Tony Leung as before. And Tony preferred to have a long sequence — he wanted to fight ten people, twelve people, and he didn’t want it to look like tricks.
Originally, we were going to shoot this scene first, and we were going to shoot in winter. Then Tony broke his left arm during rehearsal. When you’re actually shooting, there are small protections, but sometimes during rehearsal you forget to wear them. We couldn’t afford to stop, so we moved the production to the North [of China], and shot three months there, and came back to the South. By then, Tony’s recovered, so we can shoot the scene. But it’s getting hot now, and we know it’s going to be a long shoot. So we thought, Maybe it’s a good idea to have some rain, so you don’t feel that hot. But that caused a lot of trouble [laughs]. It was actually freezing, with all that rain. It was terrible.
But the rain makes the scene. The way you shoot the water flying off his hat, the puddles of water — it becomes sensuous, not really like a fight at all.
The rain also gave us something really rich. Because Wing Chun [the martial art that Ip Man practiced] is not actually very eye-pleasing; it’s too straightforward, too simple. The only thing you can emphasize is its directness, and also its power. And with the rain, with something constant, when you shoot it at, like, 500 frames per second, you can actually see how these raindrops interact with the actions, and it’s very beautiful.
This scene is not about violence. I want to introduce the audience to this man, at this time. This is not a fight for anything — it’s more like a playground, to refine his technique, because you always have challenges as a martial artist. When we look at the background of Ip Man, he’s not just a street fighter, he’s from a very rich family. So that’s why I wanted to make him different from the rest of the fighters and give him this white hat, which gives some flair, some humor.
I like how you emphasize the footwork. This isn’t something I remember seeing in many kung-fu films, and it’s funny because anyone who’s done any kind of fighting sport, like boxing, or martial arts, knows footwork is so important.
Everybody thinks Wing Chun is about punches; in fact, it is not. When you look at Bruce Lee, you know he gets its essence, that it’s really about the footwork. The way Wing Chun moves is always a contradiction. When you want to move forward, you always step behind and charge in. So you need this contradiction to create the momentum. And I want to make it right, make it convincing. When I watch a demonstration, sometimes I think, Well, I don’t believe this punch is going to hurt people. But if you see the whole momentum of the body, you know it’s not just the fists, basically it’s the coordination of the whole body.
2. FIGHTING AT THE TRAIN STATION
Wong Kar-wai: We were supposed to shoot the train fight during spring, in the north, because then it wouldn’t be so cold. But because of the accident with Tony, we had to move to the north in winter. But we could only work at night, because in the daytime [the station]'s so busy. And at night the temperatures were below zero. We had to block this train station with the train compartments, to surround it, so it wouldn't be that cold. Most of the crew is hiding in the compartment with all of these heaters, but for the actors, it’s impossible. Every night it’s so hard; you can do only a few setups because you can’t stand it. We spent two months on this.
Tell me about the character of the old man. [Editor's note: He doesn't appear in the clip above; this is an abbreviated version of what we watched with Wong.]
Actually, in the China version of the film, we [explain] the background of this old man. He is the last executioner of Imperial times. He used to chop people’s heads off, and he’s expert in things like this. But after the revolution, he has no job, so he becomes a servant taken in by the father. But it’s because of his background that he always uses knives, and blades.
That’s interesting, and poignant, because at first the character reads almost like comic relief — he has a monkey.
Do you know why he needs the monkey? An executioner always had a monkey, because they practiced with a monkey. A monkey is so similar to the structure of the human body, so they practice by touching the neck of a monkey. The monkey is a pet, a companion, and also a tool. And that monkey is very entertaining to look at, but it’s terrible to shoot because she’s a girl and she’s very jealous.
3. FLASHBACK TO GONG-ER [ZHANG ZIYI]'S CHILDHOOD
Wong Kar-wai: The film is structured in a way that both these characters go back to their childhood. For her, it’s the time when we see her doing the practice in the snow, in Manchuria, in the forest. That scene we shot in a very, very nice golf course. We didn’t want to be too far away from our base camp, because it was freezing, and we had to start at like six o'clock in the morning. But when you looked at the space, and you looked at the image with the camera, it looked like it would be so memorable. And I knew I either had to put this scene at the beginning of the film or at the end of the film. So, that was a choice I had to make at the end. At the end of the film, all these moments come back to us. It’s really about this sense of loss. Those times are the best times of their lives — almost like Paradise Lost. It’s the “Rosebud” of their lives.
We also see the Hong Kong streets in this section. [Editor's note: not in this abbreviated clip.]
The street I grew up on had so many martial arts schools. But I didn’t have the chance to do any martial arts, because in those days most of them were associated with triads, unlike the martial arts schools today. It used to be always very dark, always very mysterious, so parents normally would not encourage kids to practice martial arts. But you had all these stories about established martial arts masters. This is also one of the reasons I wanted to make this film. In the film, there’s a kid standing outside Ip Man’s school. In the film that’s Bruce Lee, but it could have been me, because I was always wondering what’s happening inside. With this film, I can finally walk through this door and find out.
Now watch behind-the-scenes footage of Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi training.