As one of the maestros of modern cinema, Wong Kar Wai’s return to the martial arts genre this year after two decades was — as you would expect from the director of Chungking Express and In The Mood For Love — a sight to behold. His first new film since his 2007 English-language debut My Blueberry Nights, The Grandmaster takes viewers to 1930s China and inside the life and legacy of Ip Man, the kung fu teacher who, among other things, was Bruce Lee’s trainer. Distributed stateside by The Weinstein Company with a supportive Martin Scorsese Presents in the title, Grandmaster, which is now also available on VOD and Digital HD downloads, has made nearly $6.6 million domestically since it came out in late August. With a worldwide total of $64 million so far, it has become the most successful picture of Wong’s 25-year directorial career. This year, working with leading man Tony Leung for a seventh time, the director is also aiming for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar with the epic as the official submission from Hong Kong. Amazingly, the director has never been nominated for an Oscar and this is only the second time one of Wong’s films has even been submitted for the Academy Awards; In The Mood For Love was HK’s entry in 2000 though it did not receive a nomination. Before the Academy’s shortlist for the foreign language category is announced next week, Grandmaster has the Asia-Pacific Film Festival awards tomorrow. Coming off winning the Audience Award and several other prizes at the 50th Golden Horse Awards last month, the film leads the Asia-Pacific awards with nine noms including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor and Actress. I had no idea if Wong was wearing his trademark shades when he spoke to me from Shanghai earlier this week but his eyes were clearly on the prize.
DEADLINE: The Grandmaster is the first martial arts film you’ve made since 1994’s Ashes of Time. A lot has changed in the techniques and technology in filmmaking since then. What was different for you?
WONG: First of all, I remember Ashes In Time was our first co-production with a Chinese Studio. At that point we were one of the first productions that shot in China. The industry then, compared to today, was a lot different. In those days, all the equipment and also the technicians and the industry was not that mature, so we had to ship everything in. But after like almost 20 years we shot again in China with The Grandmaster and it’s different world now. First of all, the industry and support in China has really matured because there are so many productions there. At the same time, there’s been a lot of changes in the market, which I think also has enabled productions like The Grandmaster to happen and to be possible to shoot in China.
DEADLINE: China is becoming Hollywood’s hottest new market and one in which there’s almost daily expansion. How do you think the rise of American films in China is changing cinema in China?
WONG: Well, when you look at the films that are produced in China in the last 10 years, you can see a huge difference. After the Revolution in ’49, all the films were propaganda. They serviced the government and carried the message that the government wants to relay to the people. But I think in the last 10 years because the film market is opening and there’s an expansion of all the cinemas in China, it’s now a lot like Hollywood productions. It seems like the filmmakers and the industry are more market-driven. For me as a filmmaker, I think the only change is that its provided much bigger options. It’s like a larger playground for filmmakers like me to explore some topics which 10 years ago were impossible to imagine.
DEADLINE: With its history, its action and its return to the Chinese language, Grandmaster is a very different film from your last movie, the English-language drama My Blueberry Nights. Was your decision to make this film in some part a reaction to the critical response that My Blueberry Nights received?
WONG: No, that’s not true. I think when you look at My Blueberry Nights it cannot be called a Hollywood film. It is basically a Hong Kong film shot in the United States with all this talent from America. And it was a really good experience for me. With Grandmaster, I wanted to make a commercial and colorful film that really has a message about a world that I’m interested in. But I’m not just going to make a big movie — this is a story about one of the golden periods of the development of martial arts in China. To make a film like The Grandmaster I know I’m not going to make just a standard kung-fu film, it’s not going to be just tricks or like wire works. So I spent seven years on the road interviewing different schools and a lot of real grandmasters from Chinese martial arts. I went to so many practices and so many demonstrations and learned. To be a grandmaster you also need to have sense of the legacies, the generosities and the sharing of your techniques with the future generations. They are supposed to be the keeper and pass on the skill. That’s so important. As a filmmaker, when we were talking with all these grandmasters and watching these demonstrations you realize it’s not going to be like 15-minutes non-stop fighting because normally if you are that good, normally it’s like one punch and one kick — it’s so fast. So it’s very hard to play that on screen so we have to analyze the work. In fact, even though it is a very simple move but when you analyze it, it is about the balance of the body because it is the footwork and the details. I told my DP that I wanted to make this film as classic as possible. Because, for this film, I want to have the audience focus on what’s happening on screen instead of the technique. I’m really happy now, because with this film we can bring awareness to people, especially the younger generation in China, and they can revisit what exactly traditional Chinese martial arts are.
DEADLINE: Part of that is that Grandmaster has been a massive success in China. In fact it’s become the biggest box office hit of your career. Were you surprised with that?
WONG: I’m surprised, but happy because the thing is the people that react to this film is mainly the young audience. They haven’t seen a film like this before.
DEADLINE: Do you feel like a younger audience is discovering your work now because of Grandmaster?
WONG: Well, it’s not about my work it’s about this world. However, I do think for them this is a surprise because they don’t expect me to go that deep and to really tell the story. It’s not about today but it’s about a time which still means a lot today.
DEADLINE: There are 3 different versions of Grandmaster: the Chinese domestic version which is 130 minutes; the 123-minute version that debuted at Berlin earlier this year; and the 108-minute version that was released here in the States in August. What distinguishes each version for you?
WONG: I don’t think it’s so different for me but each version is for its audience. I think that though American audiences have a long history of Chinese kung fu films, I wanted a version that speaks to them. So instead of just cutting scenes and making it shorter, I use the captions and voice-overs to tell something about the background story and I can focus more on telling the story about this martial artist.
DEADLINE: Having said that, how do you think that the film has resonated with North American audiences?
WONG: I’m surprised because the reactions have been extremely good and it also makes me very happy because I think to make a film, especially a film like The Grandmaster, I want it to speak to as many audiences as possible. One of the reasons I wanted to make this film at this point is because I think in the last 20 years you can see the growth in China. You can also feel that the life has been running so fast and I thought it was time to revisit some of heritage and to see what exactly is the value, the core value of our culture.
DEADLINE: You’ve have made one English-language film with My Blueberry Nights back in 2007. Could we see you making another English-language film in the future?
WONG: It’s possible, why not? I’ve always wanted to make a film about the Tong Wars, the rioting and the crime factions in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the early part of the last century.
DEADLINE: This weekend could be an important one for The Grandmaster with its nine nominations in the Asia Pacific Film Festival. It has the most of any film this year including for Best Picture and Best Director. So coming off the Golden Horse Awards a few weeks ago, what do you think you’re chances are at the Asia Pacific?
WONG: I think we have a pretty good chance, I think this year I am very happy to see that there are so many great films from Korea, from Japan and from Taiwan, I think it’s good competition and it shows that this year in Asia there is very strong films happening, which is a good sign.
DEADLINE: What are some of the films out there that you think will be strong Oscar contenders this year?
WONG: I have seen Gravity, which I liked, and I also liked the Woody Allen film Blue Jasmine. I heard good things about American Hustle and also the Steve McQueen film 12 Years A Slave, which I haven’t seen yet. I think there’s really strong contenders this year. I think, especially now, with the season of all these awards and nominations, it’s also a very important time for The Grandmaster. Not for the film itself but because of the message the film carries. I really want to have this film be seen by as much people as possible and to be aware of the traditional martial arts in China. I hope this art form and this part of culture will get the attention that they deserve.
DEADLINE: The Grandmaster looks like a film that could so easily become a sequel. Do you have plans for that? Or what are your plans for your next film?
WONG: I don’t know. I’m still stuck in 1936 and I’m really amazed by this journey and I have a very fond memory of this journey, so I don’t have any plans at this point on other project yet. I’m enjoying this moment.
DEADLINE: You know many people would love to see you take the story further to including the story of Bruce Lee.
WONG: Yeah, it’s possible. It’s possible but I need some rest now (laughing).