Wong Kar Wai takes on a master

"The Grandmaster" New York Premiere
Wong Kar Wai on the “Grand Master.”
Credit: Getty

Chinese filmmaker Wong Kar Wai takes a fantastical look at the history of his nation through the lens of kung fu with “the Grandmaster,” about Yip Man (Tony Leung), the father of modern kung fu who eventually taught Bruce Lee. But first, according to the film, he had to wrestle with China’s changing political climate and go through a lot of gorgeously stage fights.

This film is “inspired by a true story.” How much historical accuracy did you go for?
It’s quite accurate. The only thing I invented was the character of Gong Er [played by Zhang Ziyi]. This is a fictional figure, it’s not a real person. But in fact this character is based on several remarkable women at that time. When China was going through the changes from the monarchy to the republic, there were a lot of great men, and at the same time there were also remarkable women coming from all walks of life. Before then women were taking a much more minor role. They had to be a good daughter, good wife, good mother, and at that point you see women trying to have their own rights to express themselves, to pursue the path that they want to pursue.

The film examines how kung fu used to be incredibly exclusionary, solely an upper class pursuit.

In the traditional sense, martial arts were not for poor people. To practice martial arts you needed to be extremely wealthy because you couldn’t do anything else. You had to practice — like, they had specific hours, like 3 o’clock in the morning and then 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Not too hot, not too cold. And then there are so many formalities. People visit you, you have to have a big party. When they leave, you have to send them with gifts. All these expenses, it’s a big thing.

How do you think it’s changed?
Today it’s a different skill. When I was doing the research I found they’re not very wealthy people, but once you visit them in their town they take care of everything. They will feed you no matter if it’s in a restaurant or their home, always treat you with hospitality. Because the thing is, for martial artists and masters, they are very humble, very cautious, because they know what they have is a weapon. So they are very careful, they don’t want to make enemies. They treat people very, very nicely. But when they are doing the demonstrations, they are a different person.

What does the Chinese film industry make of Hollywood films like “Iron Man 3″ participating more with the country’s filmmaking world and audience? A welcome growth or a threat?
I always find it very silly to say, “As we are invaded by Hollywood” because we’ve been in this business for a long time. The only thing that’s important is to keep the audience coming back to the cinema. Today is not like 10 or 15 years ago. They have more options for audiences today. They can look at a lot of things on cell phones or computers, so watching at the cinema is not their only option. So it’s good to have different genres of film in the market.

What do you make of the rising importance of the global audience for Hollywood?
Now we see very clearly that the film industry cannot rely on a single market. Even for a Hollywood film, they cannot live on the domestic market alone. They need the international markets. So that’s why there’s more and more focus on the Chinese market, because it’s growing so fast. It becomes a major market for here, for everywhere.


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