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'Grandmaster' full of martial arts philosophy

Some movies take days to make, others take years.Hong Kong film auteur Wong Kar-wai (王家衛) is known for the latter. After years of research and at least three years shooting it, his newest film, “The Grandmaster” (一代宗師), finally had its world premiere in Beijing earlier this month. The movie, which hits local cinemas today, will open the Berlin Film Festival next month.

In chronological fashion the film tells Wing Chun (詠春) master Yip Man's (葉問) life story along with those of masters of different martial arts forms, including Ba Gua Zhang (八卦掌) master Gong Er (宮二), played by Zhang Ziyi; and Bajiquan (八極拳) master Razor (一線天), played by Chang Chen.

Wong and leading actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai (梁朝偉), who stars as Yip Man, talked about the making of “The Grandmaster” last week during a visit to promote the movie's Taiwan premiere.

“'The Grandmaster' is about the martial arts community in the Republic Era. As I read through historical materials about Yip Man I realized many movies about him neglected the fact that he lived through a time of turbulence,” said Wong, who apparently knows Yip's history by heart, as he read out the order of the eras Yip lived through for the press.

“I think Yip made it through because of his persistence and tolerance,” Wong added. Instead of working with actors who already have martial arts skills, Wong once again chose his frequent cast members, all of whom went through two to three years of training in different forms of martial arts in order to play their characters authentically.

For the actors, martial arts training wasn't a piece of cake. According to Leung, who suffered bone fractures twice while shooting, it took a great deal of time to understand what kung fu really is.

“To mimic a martial arts practitioner's image is simple, it may take three months; but not when you want to act like one. I can read all about their skills, but I won't have the spirit unless I spend time and experience it on my own,” Leung explained.

The first time Leung broke a bone he was forced to stop practicing for a few months. But he couldn't lie in bed and let his previous efforts go to waste, so he still practiced with bandages on his hand. What happened next was a setback to Leung, Wong and the whole crew. With his hand yet to fully heal, it broke again when he resumed shooting six months after the first fracture.

Parallel Storylines

After the premiere in Taiwan, many questions were raised about Chang Chen's scarce screen time in the movie. Like other actors, Chang went through three years of Bajiquan training in Beijing, and even scored a prize at a martial arts contest.

In fact, it didn't come as a surprise to those who are familiar with Wong's way of filming — there's likely no screenplay and no one knows what the movie will look like until he finishes editing it. Therefore, when questions about Chang's screen time were raised, Wong was more than ready to answer.

“The characters Yip Man and Razor actually develop from the same starting point. In the movie there's a line saying that a person's life doesn't depend on his capabilities, but the opportunities. Some people get the halo and become the grandmaster while others don't. They may become a barber,” said Wong, adding that both Yip and Razor arrived in Hong Kong in the 1950s and spread out their disciplines.

“It's my intention to parallel the two characters … In several shots I put them in similar scenes, such as fighting in the rain, or engaging in an outnumbered fight,” explained Wong, who said he thinks filming triangular or quadrilateral storylines “lacks class.”

“The difference is that Yip believes all martial arts forms can become one, and it belongs to the world. He also had an outstanding protégé who followed his ideas through. Razor doesn't get the halo, but he is still a master,” Wong concluded.

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A stationary John Hawkes s moving in 'The Sessions'
Tony Leung Chiu-wai. (Wang Chien-yu,The China Post)

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