Wong Kar-wai: fighting is like kissing

In a rare interview, the director shares an exclusive clip and reveals why he's never seen without his sunglasses

Wong Kar-wai has never played by the rules – he’s a director notorious for not using scripts, after all. So, when he makes a martial arts epic, you know it's not going to be your typical kung fu film. Set in the 1930s, The Grandmaster is a pensive, handsomely shot riches to rags biopic about Bruce Lee's legendary teacher Ip Man (Tony Leung), that is as much about brains as it is about brawn. It’s fighting not just as wham-bam entertainment but as a meditative way of life.

It's a step back in the right direction for Hong Kong's most talented auteur after his last release – and first Hollywood film – My Blueberry Nights (2008) failed to enthral critics. But then he did set the bar dangerously high. Since his debut As Tears Go By (1988), he's developed his own dreamy take on romantic alienation; each film as intensely stylish and sublimely poetic as the next. Earlier films like Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995) explored the bittersweet ache of unrequited love with quirky humour and memorable one-liners. Days of Being Wild (1990) and Ashes of Time (1994) were lush, atmospheric mood pieces while Happy Together (1997) felt grittier and more visceral. In The Mood For Love (2000) and its follow-up 2046 (2004) established Wong as the master of restrained passion. One of cinema’s great hopeless romantics, he understands that the beauty of love lies in its shimmering mystery. Here, the filmmaker opens up about why fighting is like kissing.

What was it about Ip Man's story that you found so fascinating?

Wong Kar-wai: Ip Man was an extraordinary man who lived during extraordinary times. He was a survivor who preserved his ideals in the face of many challenges and hardships. I always wanted to tell a story about the rich tradition of Chinese martial arts, rather than just a vehicle for kicks and punches. When I learned about Ip Man, I found that story.

Were you a fan of martial arts films growing up?

Wong Kar-wai: When I was a kid, martial arts were extremely popular in Hong Kong. They were everywhere: movies, TV shows, radio programmes and novellas. I grew up watching Shaw Brothers and Bruce Lee films.

You spent three years travelling around China interviewing martial arts masters to prepare for The Grandmaster. What did you learn from them?

Wong Kar-wai: During my research, a master I met compared fighting to kissing. He explained that to be a capable martial artist, you need three qualities; strength, technique, and, most of all, courage – as there is a great deal of physical intimacy involved when you are fighting someone. You can’t be afraid to get close and make your move. In a way, it’s also good advice in dealing with many issues in life.

Can you tell us a bit about working with choreographer Yuen Woo-ping on the fight sequences?

Wong Kar-wai: Yuen comes from a family of martial artists. He lives and breathes kung fu. Similar to how Bruce Lee approached his fight scenes, we wanted real martial arts to be featured in The Grandmaster, not movie martial arts. One of our goals was to represent these styles in a real and honest way, which meant keeping CGI to a bare minimum.

“There is a great deal of physical intimacy involved when you are fighting someone. You can’t be afraid to get close and make your move” – Wong Kar-wai

What was the most difficult scene to shoot?

Wong Kar-wai: The showdown between Leung and the Bagua master inside the teahouse. The master was played by Zhao Benshan, who is the most popular comedian in China. He’s not a trained martial artist and, prior to filming, he just had major brain surgery so he was unable to physically exert himself. I had to find a way to demonstrate the character’s skill without being able to stage an elaborate fight scene.

You created the character of Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of one of Ip Man’s rivals, who holds her own as a fighter. Why was it important for you to have a strong, female role in this?

Wong Kar-wai: In much the same way Ip Man embodied the struggles of the Chinese people, I wanted Gong Er to represent the changing role of women. Instead of conforming to the old traditions, she saw herself as an equal to her male counterparts and set out to prove it.

You’ve collaborated with Leung on seven films now. What makes your relationship work?

Wong Kar-wai: To commit to a film without seeing a script needs more than just courage, but also trust. In our 20 years of working together, we have been able to build a strong collaboration with trust and mutual respect.

There are several versions of this film. Which is your favourite?

Wong Kar-wai: It’s difficult to say. Each version works on a different level and speaks to a different audience. It’s like picking a favorite child.

Why do you prefer improvising to using a script?

Wong Kar-wai: I started out my career as a screenwriter and quickly discovered that adhering to a script isn’t always the best way to make a film. You have to take into consideration the nuances of the characters and what the actors bring to their roles. Working this way makes filmmaking more of a discovery process rather than a mechanical one.

How do you think this method benefits the actors?

Wong Kar-wai: I don’t know how much my actors actually benefit but that’s the only way I can work. I’d like to think it keeps them more engaged and gives their performances more texture.

Which character from all of your films do you identify with the most?

Wong Kar-wai: I don’t make films for self-reference or therapy. I create the characters but I can’t say I really identify with them.

You developed your visual style with cinematographer Christopher Doyle but you haven’t worked together since 2046. Do you think you’ll collaborate again?

Wong Kar-wai: Sure. We talk from time to time.

You’re never seen without your sunglasses. Why’s that?

Wong Kar-wai: I’d love to answer that but I enjoy reading all the different theories.

The Grandmaster is out in cinemas December 5