Wonderstruck, A young boy in a Hong Kong bylane peers into a dingy room. The space is charged with energy as martial art students soar in the air, practising their flying chops while their unflappable master stands in the centre. The scene is from Wong Kar-wai’s latest offering, The Grandmaster, set in China in the 1950s, when kung fu schools were secretive and unlike karate, didn’t enjoy the status of a children’s sport. The film abounds with the myths and magic of kung fu and features the inquisitive boy (who might have grown up to be Bruce Lee) trained by the watchful teacher, Ip Man. Its maker argues that the child could have been him, too. “I was not allowed to join kung fu classes, I was curious to know what went on inside and would look at them amazed. With The Grandmaster, I got the opportunity to walk through the door and find that out,” says the Chinese filmmaker, who was in Goa for the 45th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) last week.
Though his childhood desire to learn kung fu was thwarted, the Hong Kong-based auteur’s curiosity about the martial art remained. Years later, while filming Happy Together (1997) in Argentina, Wong chanced upon a magazine cover featuring Bruce Lee, and it stoked his desire to create the charming old world of Kung fu. It wasn’t the star he wanted to train his lens on, but Lee’s legendary teacher. “This gave me the perfect opportunity to revisit the history of Chinese martial arts through the life of Ip Man,” says Wong, who is admired the world over for his period movies such as Days of Being Wild (1990), Ashes of Time (1994) and In the Mood for Love (2000).
The Grandmaster has all the trappings of a Wong Kar-wai movie: a non-linear narrative, almost balletic fight sequences and a love story without a happy ending. It took five years to complete, and Wong says that he spent years on researching the project.“I’m not a very patient person. Yet, somehow, while working on a film, times passes at a different speed. If there is a certain thing I want to achieve in a film, I don’t keep track of the time it takes. Shooting for The Grandmaster took three years as Tony Leung, who plays the lead, broke his arm twice,” he says. In spite of his injuries, Leung, who Wong calls “a rare professional” and has cast in seven of his 11 films, refused to use a body double for the fighting scenes.
The Grandmaster was the closing film at IFFI and Wong was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award. At 56, he is the youngest recipient of the award at IFFI. “The award is a great honour. But it is also a big surprise as it came to me a bit early. I need to gather more knowledge to deserve this,” he says.
Wong’s brush with cinema started at a young age when he accompanied his mother to theatres. He began his career in television and after a decade of television writing and direction, Wong made his debut in 1998, with a gangster drama, As Tears Go By. In the following years, he rolled out the pop-romance of Chungking Express (1994), the neo-noir fantasy Fallen Angels (1995). Along with the futuristic 2046 (2004), these films made the West take notice of his stylised, visually-arresting work. The acknowledgment came when Wong bagged the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997 for Happy Together, a road movie that focusses on the tumultuous relationship between gay lovers. But it was In The Mood For Love (2000) that consolidated his position in world cinema and won him followers informally called “Wongcolytes”. The film also established his style — dreamy and lyrical — accompanied by a haunting soundtrack that lingers on much after the movie is over.
Wong promptly admits that the soundtrack decides the “rhythm” of his films. “Normally, I play music on the sets. And that gives the cast, crew and cinematographers a sense of what kind of rhythm I am looking for in the movie.” Talking about the different ways of narration that he often adopts, the director says films are mostly about form and substance. “It’s the task of a filmmaker to find the right form to deliver the substance,” says Wong, who shoots his films without a script.
Longing and love set the tenor of most of his movies but he says that is only partially true. “People call my films love stories. But I say that they are about passions, obsessions, and longing — it could be longing for a woman, man or other things in life. These emotions form the crucial life experiences. In films, love mainly signifies the emotions between a woman and a man. But it can be larger than that,” says Wong.
And unlike the lovers in his films who suffer the pangs of separation, often silently, Wong is a lucky man. “You are my biggest achievement, Chan Ye-cheng,” he says, dedicating the Lifetime Achievement award to his wife.