Before Bruce Lee, there was his instructor, the Kung fu Grandmaster Ip Man. The tale of this incredible non-fictional character is presented in The Grandmaster, the latest film from perfectionist director Wong Kar Wai. Tony Leung stars as the title character, and is at the center of the film’s numerous wondrous sequences of Kung fu, as choreographed by Woo-ping Yuen, who previously worked on Twin Dragons and Kill Bill: Vol. 2. Leung stars opposite Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Ziyi Zhang.
Leung is an Asian superstar actor, and has starred in a bundle of acclaimed Asian films from notable directors like John Woo, Yimou Zhang, Ang Lee, and certainly Wong Kar Wai. Such films include In the Mood for Love, Happy Together, 2046, Hero, Infernal Affairs, Lust, Caution, and Red Cliff. While he has reportedly expressed great interest in working with filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, he still hasn’t worked in a Hollywood production.
Along with Brian Tallerico of HollywoodChicago.com, I sat down with Leung to talk about his famous relationship with director Wong Kar Wai, why he complained more than ever while making this film, what The Grandmaster taught him about Kung fu, and more.
The Grandmaster opens in Chicago on August 30.
Martial arts is an acting tool along with dialogue. How as an actor did you use martial arts to express the character’s journey?
I think learning the techniques is often difficult but what I think is you have to understand is that the knowledge of Kung fu is more important. In order to portray a grandmaster you need your own understanding of Kung fu, and you need to have your own perspective and vision of Kung fu.
I did action movies before, but I never had this kind of understanding of Kung fu. If you understand Kung fu, and you know this is not … there’s lot of stillness in this one, even when they are fighting. I think if you don’t understand the state of mind of this kind of Grandmaster, you will just have nothing in your eyes, you will just go blank. You have to study how a lot of greats did it, and [study] what is the spiritual side of Kung fu. If you have that knowledge, and you know what you need, and what kind of mental state you’re in in that moment, I think this makes the action different. I spent a lot of time on it. You can’t just read two books and have that understanding, so that’s the reason why we took so much time in understanding. I think it was four years we prepared, and during that I broke my arms twice. You discover a lot after, after you have managed all of the moves, then you can start to train your mind. First you are working with your physical moves, but then when you reach some maturity, it is work with your mind. I think this is an amazing journey.
On being a fan of Bruce Lee.
I knew nothing about Kung fu before, and I am a big fan of Bruce Lee. I watched Bruce Lee when I was 8 or 9 years old, and what stayed in my mind was the technique. I was not allowed to learn Kung fu, because my mother said there are only two kind of people who do Kung fu, policemen and gangsters. So that’s what they think about Kung fu. So I think this is very meaningful for us to do a Kung fu movie at this age. It’s good to let all of the people know what is the true spirit of Kung fu.
This seems like a journey that changed you as a person as well.
After I studied Kung fu, I wondered how it has a history of four thousand years, and still exists. I found out that during the transformation of Kung fu, it was greatly influenced by Chinese philosophy, Daoism, the Zen, the I Ching. You know the philosophy of Kung fu can be applied to real life too. The philosophy in Kung fu is not to dominate your opponent, but to achieve harmony with him. In real life, it is actually is just a way how to achieve harmony with the nature. I was really amazed. I hate punching people. this is the only difficult thing I can overcome throughout this process, but I enjoyed the spiritual side of Kung fu very much. But in order to develop that side, you have to punch people. After you understand the theory, then you have to do the real practice, and somehow that kind of thing will grow spontaneously inside you. But you have to do it properly with hard work and intelligent thinking. To me, I know nothing about my Chinese heritage or my culture.
If Wong Kar Wai had proposed this project to you at a younger age, would you have been able to do it? Or does this project rely on your familiarity with how he works to to keep working with him?
I think this is the right timing for us to do it. I think he had the idea to do this back in 1996 or something around there. He had this idea after he saw a picture of Bruce Lee when we were making Happy Together in Buenos Aires. He was really curious about who was behind Bruce Lee, and who inspired him. But after having made this movie, I don’t think I could have done it at an earlier age; this is the proper moment.
Along with your disinterest in punching people, were there any other decisions in this film or in others that you and Wong Kar Wai could not agree upon?
Not much. This is the only one. We always have something that I can not do in our previous experiences. I remember one time when we were making Happy Together, and we were in the slaughterhouse. I needed to use an electrode to make a cow move, and I said I could not do it. And they kept rolling and did twenty takes, and I said, “I just can’t.” It’s like punching people, it’s tough.
From your experience with other directors like John Woo and Andy Lau, how is Wong Kar Wai different from other filmmakers?
I think he is very good with telling stories. The first time I met him I was like “Wow.” I can feel him. I think he is very amazing in how he tells a story, and it is very attractive and romantic. After we did the first movie together, when I went to the screening, I was like “Wow, this is the man I want to work with.” I think we are the same kind of people. We have great passion, and we will try our best no matter what happens, and try to do it a perfect as we can. Our relationship is very strange. We’ve known each other for more than twenty years, but we seldom hang out. Maybe like ten times in our lives. We never talk much; we don’t talk on set.
Is that true for how you interact with other directors? Separating on-set life from personal life?
No. Me and [Wong Kar Wai] need to keep a distance with each other. I think he always wants me to guess what he wants to do. Every time I went on set and got in front of the camera, I knew. I never watch playback. And of course he never shows up the script, and I know he has the script, but he wants us to experience and explore ourselves. But this time, I have more real character to work on, and this time is different from what we have done before. I have never done this much preparation for Kar Wai. This is maybe because of the Kung fu thing. But this is the most enjoyable movie I’ve worked on with him.
I never have that kind of experience where I am very confident because I knew my character very well. So I knew how to react, because I don’t need to know what the story is about, I need to know who I am and how to react. Because different persons have different reactions.
When doing a sequence like a rain sequence you have a lot of physical demands. But was this mentally one of the more challenging scenes to perform?
Yes. That was my first scene. We spent 40 overnights and the weather was extremely cold, and Kar Wai makes it more difficult with the heavy rain. It’s slippery, slippery. We would do the master shot at the beginning first, so that means I have to fight fifteen people from that end to over there. For everyone else, they needed to memorize two moves, and for me I needed to memorize thirty moves. But everyone is so professional, and everyone is under the rain in the freezing cold. You have a lot of pressure. You don’t want it end because of you, and that was a nightmare. That was the most difficult scene that I ever did in my acting career. Not just trying to do the acting, but the weather, and you have to take care of the camera movement, and everything. I never knew how I could do that. But after 20 days of shooting, I had a runny nose and headache every night, and I would take all types of cold tablets. I said to Kar Wai, “I cannot do it anymore. I am very sick.” And he said, “Okay, okay, okay.” And then we shot for ten more nights, and I went straight to the hospital after that scene. I laid in my bed for five days.
Were there any points in which you wanted to give up on the production? This scene you’re talking about could have gone on for longer.
At least you die so there is no other options. I never complained that much in our previous projects. But with this one, I complained a lot. It’s not really complaining, but I had to tell him my situations. “I’m exhausted.” But he is used to pushing me that far.