NEW YORK — On the 30th night of filming the same scene, an acrobatic martial-arts fight in a pouring rainstorm, Tony Leung Chiu-wai went out to dinner with Wong Kar-wai, and quietly told his director that he couldn’t work anymore. The incessant rain, the endless takes, the treacherous puddles, art director/costume designer William Chang’s refusal to let him change his soggy shoes from one take to the next for continuity purposes, and the pills he had to take every night in his hotel room to combat his perpetually running nose and headaches made for “the toughest scene in my acting career.” Wong managed to convince his sniffling leading man that the end result would be worth the heartache. On the 40th night, they wrapped “The Grandmaster” and Leung immediately flew back to Hong Kong, checked into a hospital, and spent five days recuperating from bronchitis.
“Horrible. It was horrible,” Leung says with a laugh, demonstrating his onset trembling from the cold and illness by clasping his shoulders, arms crossed, and violently shivering. “But it looks good. I know it looks good, but it takes a lot of effort.”
Leung could hardly have been surprised by the toll of life with Wong Kar-wai. “The Grandmaster” was his sixth collaboration with the famously perfectionist filmmaker, known for regularly requiring upward of 20 takes per shot. Opening in the Boston area on Friday, their latest work is Wong’s self-described “once upon a time” kung fu film, pairing the most famous Hong Kong director of his era with the genre that forms the backbone of its movie industry.
The new film combines his trademark lush camerawork and highly stylized decor with traditional kung fu motifs and plot lines. Leung plays Ip Man, a master sent to unite the traditionally combative northern and southern Chinese schools of kung fu during a time of great upheaval. The film takes place against the backdrop of the Japanese invasion of China in 1936, with Ip falling for Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), daughter of a grandmaster and protector of the vaunted 64 Hands style. Ip and Gong Er are fated never to be together, their thwarted affair coming to stand for all that is best and most fleeting in their lives. “They are the lost paradise,” Wong says of the lovers’ relationship to each other. “They are time.”
Its surface attributes as an action epic to the side, “The Grandmaster” bears a distinct resemblance to earlier Wong films like “In the Mood for Love” and “2046” as tales of unrequited, doomed romance.
‘With this film,I finally walk through the door and find out what is so great about Chinese martial arts.’
Wong emerged in the late 1980s as a masterful stylist, his luxurious sense of tone and rhythm almost immediately marking him as an inheritor of the Hong Kong kung fu film tradition of a preceding cinematic generation, mostly minus the kung fu. Early films like “Days of Being Wild” and “Chungking Express” were slinky, gorgeously photographed (with Wong collaborating with mercurial cinematographer Christopher Doyle), and surprisingly quirky; a key plot point of “Chungking” revolves around expired cans of pineapple slices. “Chungking” and “Fallen Angels” must rank high atop any list of Hong Kong classics, as well as of the best films, period, of the 1990s. The overwhelming majority of Hollywood filmmakers could only dream of creating something so propulsive and yet so personal.
With his taste for acrobatic action sequences and copious gunplay, Wong was loosely affiliated with the hard-boiled style of John Woo, but as his international profile grew, the mayhem mostly fell away, replaced, in films like “In the Mood for Love,” by an elegance and mournfulness that had always lingered beneath the surface.
“The Grandmaster” is a return to Wong’s action-film roots, while also being the first kung fu film he has made since 1994’s swordplay-oriented “Ashes of Time.” Always interested in reorienting the Hong Kong film in his own idiosyncratic direction, Wong has now embraced the style that made Hong Kong a destination on the cinematic map.
The 57-year-old Wong remembered growing up on a Shanghai street lined with kung fu schools, and clamoring to get a look inside their windows. At the end of “The Grandmaster,” a boy we are meant to understand is a young Bruce Lee peers through Ip’s school window, spotting the man who will one day be his teacher. “That could be me,” Wong says of the coda. “I always want to know what exactly is happening inside. With this film, I finally walk through the door and find out what is so great about Chinese martial arts.”
“The Grandmaster” was originally announced more than a decade ago. In the intervening time, Wong directed his first English-language film, “My Blueberry Nights” (2007), which arrived to a mixed reception. (“‘My Blueberry Nights’ is a huge hit in Russia. I just don’t understand why,” says Wong.) Wong also needed the time to acclimate himself to the foreign world of kung fu. “Psychologically, for myself, and creatively, I need time. I need to understand the period. I need to understand martial arts. So I spent three years doing interviews, and to live with those martial artists.”
The burgeoning Chinese domestic film market also increased the international appeal of the project, making financing easier. “In 1998, it [wouldn’t have been] possible to make a film with this skill,” says Wong. “And I don’t want to compromise to make something more simple. If I have to make a kung fu film, I want to make it this way.”
Because of contractual obligations, the US release of “The Grandmaster” clocks in at 108 minutes, which required some rethinking of the 127-minute international version. “You can’t just take out one scene, or make some trims,” says Wong. “The structure will collapse. It doesn’t feel right. Instead of cutting and trimming, I restructured the picture. There’s 15 minutes of new footage in the film.”
Wong’s unpredictable film sets had occasionally been a source of controversy and consternation for his actors. “It’s like a train,” he says of the filmmaking process. “You know the next stations, but somehow, you haven’t decided where the destination is.” Leung defined Wong’s style as less improvisational than experimental. “He would put you in different sets, different situations, different weather. And he would do it again and again.”
Leung is still rattled by the surprise Wong had in store for him on the set of 1997’s offbeat romantic drama “Happy Together.” Leung had first been told that his character’s father was gay, prompting the visit to Argentina that sets off the film’s plot. After a few days shooting, Wong revealed another dimension to Leung’s role. “He said, ‘I think you are a homosexual!’ ” Leung recalls. The actor was panicked, but ultimately appreciated the shock tactics. “That’s the fun part to work for him. You never know what happens next.”
Wong asked Leung, 51, to invest his Ip Man with touches of Bruce Lee. Leung, who had been mostly unaware of kung fu tradition beforehand, took to studying Lee’s books for inspiration. “I never knew kung fu is like that,” says Leung. “I’m not just trying to portray the look of a kung fu great. To have the soul, you need to have the knowledge.”
On “The Grandmaster,” Wong came in with a more polished script than usual, and a strong sense of where the film would end: with Ip Man arriving in Hong Kong, his glittering career as a martial-arts master about to come into bloom. Wong compares the work done on set to that of an artist executing a final painting from copious drawings and drafts: “As a painter, you have the sketches, and then you have the outlines. The process of making it is you have to put in all the details.”
To inspire his performers, Wong would regularly play opera recordings while filming. “I would follow the music, the rhythm. I would have a special kind of rhythm when I act,” says Leung. The kung fu sequences, including the backbreaking fight in the rain, and a flashback to Gong Er practicing as a child with her father, play like musical numbers as a result, dance sequences set to the sound of breaking bones and whizzing fists.
Leung sighs wearily at the thought of all the work his friend and director put him through in the service of another film. “I don’t know how I can do it. I don’t know. [But] after I saw the movie, I think it’s worth [it].”
Saul Austerlitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.