Tony Leung Interview For Wong Kar Wai’s ‘The Grandmaster’
Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, ‘The Grandmaster’ is an epic action feature inspired by the life and times of the legendary kung fu master, Ip Man. The story spans the tumultuous Republican era that followed the fall of China’s last dynasty, a time of chaos, division and war that was also the golden age of Chinese martial arts. Filmed in a range of stunning locations that include the snow-swept landscapes of Northeast China and the subtropical South, ‘The Grandmaster’ is lead by Tony Leung as Ip Man. The film also stars Zhang Zi Yi, Chang Chen, Cung Le, Bruce Leung Siu-lung and Wang Qingxiang. Set for a August 23rd bow in the US, ‘The Grandmaster’ was released in Hong Kong and Mainland China and a number of countries in Asia earlier this year. Fingers crossed there’s a UK release date announcement shortly.
While you trained extensively for this role physically, what mental preparation did you do for it and what was your impression of Ip Man?
Tony Leung: My first impression about Ip Man is that he didn’t look like the kung fu man, he looks like a scholar, with his look being very refined and graceful. In the film I tried to – because the director asked me to combine the Bruce Lee character into Ip Man – I tried to portray my ideal Ip Man. I tried to blend in the Bruce Lee character into the Ip Man character. In the beginning the director gave me a lot of books about the northern masters, but only a few things about Ip Man. He did a lot of research himself, of course. But he wanted me to read more about Bruce Lee. The character would be a kind of blend of Ip Man and Bruce Lee. I’ve collaborated with Wong Kar Wai for over ten years. We have a strong mutual trust. The movie doesn’t aim to be a documentary; we wanted to create a kind of ideal, “perfect” Ip Man.
My impression of Ip Man is that he was very gentle, civilized, a deepthinker and a gentleman. When he fought, he became someone else, fierce, almost animalistic. I thought this was a fascinating blend. A man who, as the son of a wealthy family, the son of a landowner had everything until the age of forty. Then he experienced a huge fall in his fortunes, and much trauma; and yet, in the end, he was still standing. That really fascinated me. And so with the director’s research into Ip Man and mine into Bruce Lee, and through our teamwork, we produced an ideal vision of Ip Man. He’s very positive. I’ve never played such a positive character in any Wong Kar Wai film.
What do you mean by “positive”…..?
Tony Leung: He was extremely optimistic. Otherwise, how could he still be standing at the end of everything he went through? I heard my Wing Chun master[Duncan Leung talk about Ip Man as he was when he first got to Hong Kong. It was like he had gone from heaven to hell. He had nothing at all. His home, his wealth, his family, they were all gone. His two daughters died. My master told me Ip Man didn’t even have a blanket with which to cover himself when he first got to Hong Kong. He had to borrow one from a disciple, who then needed to take it back. But he remained the sort of person who faced life with a smile on his face. I felt that this was true positivity. I believe that kung fu informed and inspired his approach to life.
With Bruce Lee, on the other hand, it was the opposite: life informed and inspired his kung fu. Bruce Lee studied philosophy, Daoism. In fact, Ip Man and Bruce Lee took different routes to the same destination. In his writings, Bruce Lee often spoke of Ip Man, calling him one of the greats of the kung fu world. Ip Man inspired him to understand that kung fu wasn’t just physical training or a means of self-defense but a form of mental cultivation and a way of life. Only by learning kung fu myself did I really come to really understand this. The training helped me to achieve more authenticity in the way I would fight on screen. At the same time, it helped me to get into character in a way just reading about it couldn’t do. So I could see why the director asked me to undertake such a long and rigorous process of physical training, during which I broke my arm twice (laughs).
Studying Bruce Lee, what did you learn from him?
Tony Leung: I learnt a lot from Bruce Lee, I studied not just his movies but his books about his thinking of kung fu and his philosophy. It impressed me a lot (laughs), and I’m still trying to figure it out through training – and that’s why I’m still learning and practicing in kung fu. Not just for the technique, but to try to workout the spiritual side of kung fu – and that is very interesting to me.
Before you began this process, what was your thinking or attitude towards kung fu?
Tony Leung: I was a fan of Bruce Lee as a kid. I saw his films when I was seven or eight. But in the 60s we were taught that there were only two types of people who learned kung fu: policemen and gangsters (laughs). It seemed to be about fighting, brawling, or performing. It was only after taking on this role that I really fathomed what kung fu is about. It was a tough four years but a really satisfying time as well. I want to show young people – and their parents as well – what kung fu really is about, the true spirit of it. The lessons of hard work, discipline, and mind training apply to life. Ideally, you got to a level that’s like zen: you want to harmonize with your opponent. He is not your enemy, no more than your environment is your enemy. The goal is not victory but to open your own mind. The more I studied kung fu, the more fascinated I became.
It’s like something Master Gong says to his daughter. He criticizes her for only caring about victory.
Tony Leung: Yes. It’s true, and it’s why this tradition has continued over 4,000 years. It’s not just about fighting. If it was that simple, anyone could be a grandmaster. You know, making this film was a blast. I’ve never made such a film with Wong Kar Wai
before! I’m always playing these dark, repressed characters. But this is such a positive, optimistic role. It was very enjoyable. Of course, there’s this part where the war comes, and I lose everything…
Tony Leung: Exactly (laughs). And I’m crying out of frustration as well as loss. But in the end – Ip Man is still standing, not because of how he fights but because of how he lives. It’s so interesting. The only thing I knew about Ip Man before this was that he was Bruce Lee’s teacher. I knew he was extraordinary, but didn’t understand why or how. But learning Wing Chun, becoming a disciple myself and then being able to portray a character who was a combination of this great man and Bruce Lee – I feel really happy about it. It felt like a kind of karmic connection. Now that I’m over 50, I’m not that keen on acting in very heavy dramas anymore. I’d rather play characters with a lighter attitude towards life. I felt so lucky to be able to play such a positive character – I felt so lucky on every level to be doing this. But I didn’t know how I was going to play Ip Man before we started filming. I was just doing my Wing Chun training. The first three years, we just worked on the fight scenes. For a year or two, it was all fighting. We didn’t shoot any of the other scenes. I didn’t even have a clue what the story was about! It was only in the last six months of filming that I began to shoot dramatic scenes.
That’s such an interesting way to make a film….
Tony Leung: It was crazy! But that’s what Wong Kar Wai is like. It really is fun. Every time I make a film with him it’s an adventure. I usually don’t watch the rushes when I work with him. So I’m in the dark about the story, and don’t know what the other characters are doing. I don’t want to know. I fear I’ll start imposing my own ideas on the process. It’s got to be Wong Kar Wai’s film. My job is to help him fulfill his vision, and I think the film is stunning. The process takes time. The more time you have, the more you’re able to enter the character. Its not just an action movie, I think it is a movie about the culture of Chinese kung fu as well as the Chinese culture. It is also about a lost martial arts world, the beauty of the martial arts world.
After all that training, when you were doing those big fight scenes, like the one in the rain, what was it like in your head? Were you in a state of excitement? A state of calm? How did you feel?
Tony Leung: Under a lot of pressure! I could never relax. I was really nervous about hurting people. My master said, “Don’t think of them as people. Think of them as punching bags.” I couldn’t do that. No way.
So in the film’s fight scenes, they’re landing serious blows?
Tony Leung: Yes. They didn’t want to film the kung fu scenes in the usual way. They wanted it to be authentic. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t cross that bridge. I’m a bit disappointed in myself for not being able to let go like that. On the other hand, my character wasn’t fighting to kill people. For him, it was a kind of game. So there was no need to hit that hard. But I was really tested during these scenes, it was hard for me. I said to Wong Kar Wai that of all the fight scenes, the one in the rain was the toughest – from every angle. We shot it for 30 successive nights. All night every night. From about 7 pm, we were soaked but couldn’t change clothes till we wrapped the following morning. By midnight, I’d be shivering with cold. It was like that every night. I began to take cold medicines. I felt myself getting sicker and sicker. When we finished up on the scene, I was laid up for five days. I was taking medicines and living on rice porridge. I thought I had pneumonia. I was coughing and coughing, I couldn’t stop. It turned out to be bronchitis. That was the hardest thing about the filming. Also, we were fighting in water that was up to here (points to above his ankle) but Ah Suk (William Chang) is so exacting about the costumes: we had to wear cloth-soled shoes. But they were so slippery. So there we were, fighting in the rain, with slippery shoes… the training doesn’t prepare you for conditions like that! It got so cold.
How did you find it working with Zhang Ziyi?
Tony Leung: Zhang Ziyi is a very talented and hard working actress. It’s very tough for guys like me (laughs), after a few years of training I still feel that it’s very difficult to master the action scenes. But she can handle that so great, and after watching the movie she’s done such a brilliant job – I can see a lot of layers in her character and the evolution of her character from a young girl to a mature woman. I think she’s fantastic.
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