In ‘The Grandmaster,’ Wong Kar Wai Takes Audiences on an Ip Trip
At one point in Wong Kar Wai’s “The Grandmaster,” the Chinese kung fu legend known as Ip Man is confronted by an arrogant upstart who seeks to engage him in combat. Ip Man accepts, but not before inquiring as to whether the young man has eaten lunch yet. He has, in fact — rice and barbecued pork. Big mistake.
The brief slapstick episode that follows is not only the funniest moment in this lyrical and kinetic martial-arts drama, but also one of the numerous true stories Wong came across while researching Ip Man’s life firsthand. It’s a welcome reminder that although the Hong Kong auteur may be the cinema’s pre-eminent poet of romantic longing, even his celebrated arthouse weepies, such as “Happy Together” and “In the Mood for Love,” have their undercurrents of humor.
“I’m not a very serious person,” Wong chuckles, sitting down at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills to discuss his 10th feature (which the Weinstein Co. will release Stateside on Aug. 23). He could even be winking, though you wouldn’t be able to tell from those signature shades, which seem to deflect one’s questions in almost the same way his movies, with their playful surfaces and elliptical narratives, can resist easy interpretation.
These days, however, Wong seems happy to speak to audiences in more concrete terms. His first dip into the martial-arts well since 1994’s “Ashes of Time” and his first film since 2007’s critically and commercially disappointing “My Blueberry Nights,” “The Grandmaster” has an unusually didactic, almost evangelical sense of purpose: to capture the nobility and formality of Chinese kung fu as it existed in the 1930s and ’40s, and to make its competing schools, traditions and philosophies accessible to the broadest possible audience.
“It is not new, but it has been forgotten,” Wong says. “I wanted to revisit the tradition. Chinese martial arts is not only about skill, it’s not only about kicks and punches. There’s a certain wisdom in it.”
Although it follows a number of different fighters, to the point where Wong considered changing the title to “Grandmasters” (his son talked him out of it), the film offers a loose personal history of one of kung fu’s great wise men. In tackling the oft-told story of Ip Man (played by Wong’s usual male lead, Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung Chiu-wai), who pioneered the popular Wing Chun fighting style and famously taught Bruce Lee, the director fashioned an arty rejoinder to the entertaining if factually dubious “Ip Man” movies starring Donnie Yen.
“There are so many kung fu films and so many different interpretations of Chinese martial arts,” he says. “I didn’t want to invent stuff for dramatic reasons. I didn’t want to have Ip Man fight the Japanese. … I just wanted to set the record straight.”
The result, on one level, is a Wong picture through and through — another ravishing study of beautiful bodies circling each other in close quarters, their story coalescing in fragments of memory and snatches of voiceover. And like a few of the director’s recent movies, most famously “2046,” “The Grandmaster” ran into numerous delays, necessitating reshoots over the course of three years and missing a few of release dates before finally bowing in China in January. (It had its international premiere on opening night of the Berlin Film Festival, where Wong served as president of the jury.)