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The making of a grandmaster

“The Grandmaster” (一代宗師), the long anticipated epic martial arts film by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai (王家衛) is finally hitting local theaters next week. The film portrays Chinese martial arts culture in Wing Chun master Yip Man's (葉問) era, featuring Wong's frequent cast members Tony Leung Chiu-wai (梁朝偉), Zhang Ziyi (章子怡) and Chang Chen (張震), as martial arts masters of different schools.

To establish a high level of authenticity, Wong consulted more than 100 Kung Fu masters and found instructors for Leung, Zhang and Chang, who each spent two to three years practicing the martial arts that their characters specialized in.

Prior to the premiere, Taiwanese actor Chang Chen, who plays Bajiquan (八極拳) master Razor (一線天) in the film, talked about his experiences learning and practicing the martial art known for its explosive, short-range power.

Disciple of the Master

Upon meeting up with his Bajiquan master Wang Shiquan (王世泉), Chang recalled that Wang asked him about his determination.

“The master asked me if I truly wanted to learn Bajiquan, or just needed to catch a few moves to make-believe. I answered 'Yes,'” Chang told The China Post.

“I couldn't really say 'No' under the circumstances,” he added half-jokingly.

Therefore Wang took Chang in as one of his disciples, and the latter began his training — three hours in both the morning and afternoon — in a forest in Beijing.

“The beginning is always the hardest. The training began at 5:30 a.m. in summer and 7 a.m. in winter. And no one should arrive later than the master,” said Chang.

Learning something from scratch is never easy. After two to three months of squatting and repeating other basics, Chang felt something was different for the first time. “The training process was actually kind of dull. I kept repeating certain steps and moves, until I felt something inside me was different. The change was subtle but I could feel it,” he explained.

Unexpected Gains

Spending time with a Kung Fu master and his other disciples also brought Chang into a new world. “The martial arts community has its own rules, standards and logic. They have a strong sense of honor and a reverence for hierarchy. My master is really a righteous and disciplined man, and I have benefited a lot in learning interpersonal skills,” Chang remarked.

Chang's efforts proved worthwhile. In December 2012, he participated in a national Bajiquan competition in Changchun, the capital city of China's Jilin province, and won the first prize in his category. Chang called the victory one of his “unexpected gains” from the three-year martial arts training.

Learning martial arts has also helped Chang develop his acting skills. “I used to listen to Yuen Woo-ping (袁和平) and do whatever he told me to do. Once I learned a little bit [about martial arts], I could better communicate with him and make alternative suggestions for the scene,” he explained. Yuen is the film's martial arts choreographer and one of the most influential figures in Hong Kong's action cinema circles.

Asked about whether he ever thought about dropping out of the training, Chang said his sense of pride was what made him persist through the painstaking training.

“If you give me a task today, I will prove to you that I can do a good job. It's a part of my personality … When director Wong asked me to learn Bajiquan, I did my best to do it well. And this character trait suits my role in the film just right,” Chang concluded.

“The Grandmaster” will hit local cinemas on Jan. 18. ■

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An 'Impossible' movie
Chang Chen thinks he has benefited a lot in learning interpersonal skills through spending time with martial arts practitioners. (Wang Chien-yu, The China Post)

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