The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Grandmaster.
When did Ip Man first come into your life?
Kar Wai: In 1998, I had a chance to meet with the family of the Grandmaster Ip Man. And they showed me a short film of him – which you can find on YouTube now. His son recorded it just a few days before Ip Man passed away. And you can see that it’s almost like a home movie; he’s very sick and quite thin. In the short film, we see the Grandmaster doing a demonstration of a famous Wing Chun combination. Near the end, there is a point that is very moving. We can see the Grandmaster actually stop. It seems he’s in pain, or that he’s too weak, or that he’s forgotten the combination—we don’t know. But that moment lasts for a few seconds, and then he carries on. And that’s the point that really touched me, and really made me feel something. Why is he doing this, at the very end of his life? The importance of legacy, of passing on his knowledge, was what made Ip Man a true Grandmaster; not simply mastering technique. And that is what made me want to make this film. Unlike most kung fu films, I wanted mine to be about the importance of passing on knowledge and honoring legacy.
“The importance of legacy, of passing on his knowledge, was what made Ip Man a true Grandmaster”
Could you talk about working with Director Wong?
Zhang: Working with Director Wong is a very special experience. It’s like he’ll give you a map, and get on the train with you, but will never tell you the final destination. At each stop, you learn more and understand your character more. I saw that although Gong Er lived in a man’s world, I had to create this power in her so that she can have the life that she wants. She has a strong personality that represents a woman’s power.
How did this role impact your understanding of Martial Arts?
Leung: I realized that kung fu is not just fighting techniques. It is something much more than that—it is a way of training your mind. It’s like meditation, and is more of a way of life. And I think this really helped me get into the character. Because in order to just look like a Grandmaster, physical training is good enough. But in order to have the soul, you have to have the knowledge to build up your confidence as a Grandmaster. And what I saw in my research of Ip Man, is that after the war started and he went to Hong Kong, he looked like a scholar—not a “kung fu man.” He looked like a very refined and graceful person, very erudite. And I could see the dignity in his eyes.
How did you compose the film’s visuals?
Kar Wai: I’ve worked with the outstanding Production Designer William Chang on all my films, and Philippe Le Sourd did a tremendous job with the cinematography. But I always believe it comes back to the process of how we work, which is very organic. What is the reference – for everybody – for this film? It’s very hard to find visual reference for this period, from 1936 until after the second World War. Most of the photos are very formal, posed group photos in black and white. So I told my team, “I want this film to be like a photo album.” So at the end of each “chapter” there’s a shot that reminds you of this.