Last night, Sunday, January 5th, Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema hosted a screening of Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster as part of The Weinstein Company’s annual awards season publicity blitz.
Annapurna Pictures founder Megan Ellison, an executive producer, spoke before the film. Dressed all in black, Ellison stood at front of the small, packed theater, and talked of her longstanding admiration of Wong Kar Wai, and her desire, when she entered the film business, to work with artists like him.
Ellison then introduced the filmmaker, who thanked The Weinstein Company and Tarantino for arranging a 35mm screening of the film, the first ever – though The Grandmaster was shot on 35mm, neither Kar Wai nor cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, also in attendance, had ever seen it on film.
The version of the film shown differed significantly from the one previously reviewed on this site. In addition to being a full 30 minutes shorter than the international version, the American theatrical cut contains a different narrative focus. Subplots are excised, characters removed, and different aspects of the main story – the relationship between Ip Man and Gong Err – are brought to the fore.
When asked during the post-film Q&A about the differences between the American and international versions, Kar Wai spoke of his contractual obligation to deliver a film with a running time of less than two hours. Rather than create a diluted cut of the international version, he wanted to use footage that didn’t make it into the international edit to create a new vision of The Grandmaster.
Kar Wai began the Q&A by explaining that, in making The Grandmaster, he sought to highlight the responsibility each martial artist has to the form, and the great traditions of all the forms of martial arts present throughout China. The martial artist does not own the form, he explained, but rather is part of a lineage, and owes responsibility to that lineage. Kar Wai set out to stress these elements over the criteria of personal achievement and pure physical prowess that dominates so many martial arts films.
This theme manifests itself in the film through the character of Ip Man, who lives through a period of great turbulence. As Kar Wai himself said, “At the end, you realize the film is not only about one person, but the time.” Throughout the vast historical changes of his time, Ip Man maintains a center to his being through Wing Chun, and his place in its lineage.
Kar Wai himself grew up on a Hong Kong street littered with martial arts schools. Though he never practiced martial arts, he’s long been fascinated with them. In order to accurately and respectfully represent martial arts in The Grandmaster, the filmmaker spent three years traveling throughout China doing research. During this time he met with actual grandmasters, who lent their expertise to the film.
Kar Wai and Le Sourd spoke at length about the process of making the film. The journey began on an unfortunate note – lead actor Tony Leung broke his arm in rehearsals, forcing drastic changes to the production schedule. These changes forced the production to move to northern Manchuria in the dead of winter. They faced temperatures of -20 C during harsh overnight shoots for a train station fight.
That train station fight was the first sequence shot for the The Grandmaster. Because of this, a great deal of back and forth took place between Kar Wai, Le Sourd, fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, and the actual grandmasters on set. Long, freezing nights were spent figuring out how to accurately portray grandmasters fighting, while also creating sequences that worked on film. Kar Wai remembered, with a chuckle, one particularly frigid night when Yuen Woo-ping’s coat caught on fire because he stood too close to a space heater.
Le Sourd joked about the number of close-ups of feet he shot, stating that eventually, whenever Kar Wai would open his mouth to speak, Le Sourd would respond “I know, I know. Feet close-ups.”
The Grandmaster marks the first feature-length collaboration between Le Sourd and Kar Wai, who previously collaborated on a number of short and commercial projects. Kar Wai mentioned that Le Sourd is extremely devoted to his family – a wife and four children – and so doesn’t like leaving France for long periods. When the two first talked of The Grandmaster, Kar Wai spoke of a six-month project. The two spent nearly three years working together on the film, all told.
When asked of his improvisational style, Kar Wai took offense to that phrasing, stating that, while he works in a loose manner, it isn’t improvisation. He doesn’t start a picture with a complete script because he writes everyday, coming up with scenes as the project develops and the actors grow into their characters. “It’s almost like a tailor-made process,” he explained.
“It’s important to work with a very close team, especially actors who understand the process,” he elaborated. The back and forth between Kar Wai and his actors creates the fully fleshed characters of his films, and from these characters the narrative grows and changes. “It’s almost almost like a dance,” he explained. He further noted that it’s a largely unspoken process. With Tony Leung, for instance, Kar Wai pitches a role, Tony makes it his own, and, during filming, they push and pull along the way while the project grows and develops.
Leung, a big Bruce Lee fan, jumped at the chance to portray Lee’s master Ip Man on film. When Kar Wai told the actor he’d have to learn to do all the martial arts himself, Leung joked, “It’s not too late, I’m only 47.” Leung then went through two years of training, during which he broke his arm twice.
Kar Wai ended the Q&A by stating, “The tradition of martial arts is not in good shape today.” He hopes The Grandmaster will inspire more films, and practitioners, to focus on the heritage, philosophy, and spirituality of martial arts. He said the living grandmasters he interviewed expressed the same desire. “This is a once in a lifetime chance,” Kar Wai explained. “We just want to make it right.”
After the event, trucks provided free Chinese food and Korean BBQ outside the theater, on Beverly Boulevard. Kar Wai mingled briefly, signing autographs and taking photos with fans, while sipping beer from a small plastic cup, before disappearing into the night.