Wong Kar Wai’s new movie The Grandmaster is about the Chinese Kung Fu master Ip Man, who is played by Tony Leung. Ip Man, you may know, was Bruce Lee’s martial-arts instructor. You also may know, particularly if you have seen Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, that Leung is a fox.
He is also a peculiar genius of expression. In In the Mood for Love, he expressed, just with his eyes, all of the rapture of unconsummated love. In Chungking Express, where his character is not bright, but still handsome and charming, he changed his eyes, and they appeared, somehow, slightly dim. In The Grandmaster he somehow has the eyes of a spiritual master. I don’t know how he does that. He is a genius, and—to reiterate—he is a fox. I am married, and I know it sounds improbable to the unmarried, but I don’t think about anyone romantically except for my husband. However, when I interviewed Leung, after it was over, for just a moment, I dropped my chin into my palm.
VICE: Gong Yutian, northern China’s grandmaster, has declined challenges from grandmasters from the south. He accepts the challenge from Ip Man, but when they meet, they do not fight at all. Instead, Gong Yutian asks Ip Man to break the cake in his hand. Why?
Tony Leung: At that time, China faced internal fighting as well as Japanese invasion. Gong Yutian was looking for a suitable ally, in order to unify China. The cake was a symbol, laden with meaning. Understanding its significance was part of the test. The challenge, then, was that the outcome of the match had heavy symbolic consequences. If Ip Man were to default, reject, fail, or even winning the challenge, each would be problematic. But none of those exactly happens: Ip Man takes a hold of the cake. The two masters each hold it for a moment. Ip Man lets go, and a few moments later, the cake crumbles by itself from built-up stress. Ip Man shows that he is more than an equal, while still being an ally.
At a tea shop in Hong Kong, a Thai Chi master Ding Lianshan lights Ip Man's cigarette, and from that, he knows that he would have liked, if he were younger, to spar with Ip Man. In his words, he says that Ip Man has "got the gift.” How does he know that?
He watches the way that Ip Man moves. While experts do not necessarily flaunt their expertise, they can read it in the fluent motions of another expert.
What was your training like in preparation for the movie?
It was like torture. Hours and hours under the sun, six days a week for months. And that didn't stop once we began principle photography. Of course, I knew Wong Kar Wai wouldn't settle for just memorizing a few fight moves, but I hadn't expected how difficult it would be to build up the fundamentals. In the end, I think it paid off.
How did your basic awareness change with training?
This is what I mean. It's possible to fool even a trained eye over a short period of time, but in Wing Chun, in order for it to look right, angles, positioning, and timing all have to work together just the right way. There really was no shortcut. I just had to train until it became second nature. Now, it would probably be hard to unlearn it.
You hold a gaze in a particular way in the movie. I noticed it immediately and later read in Vanity Fair that you felt you could not have looked that way without training. Where does that look come from?
I think it comes from having sense of self-confidence in a confrontational situation. Of course, this is the movies and not real life, and I am just a student. But you have to start somewhere, and I was fortunate enough to work beyond forms and techniques, and do a little light sparring, which literally opens your eyes to the vastness of kung fu.
Check out this animated series inspired by Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster that takes you through the key martial arts styles that defined China and the world of kung fu.