Before Bruce Lee, there was Ip Man, the real Kung Fu grandmaster. Ip Man devoted his entire life to an elite form of martial arts known as Wing Chun – now, one of the world’s most widely practiced forms of Kung Fu, adopted by over 64 countries.
During the divisive Republican era that brought an end to China’s last dynasty, Ip Man was tested by many tragedies – Japanese invasion, grief stricken poverty, and the loss of his children and home. Years later, he fled his native China to Hong Kong, where he put his expert skills to use, opening a premiere martial arts school and teaching many great students – Bruce Lee, among his most gifted.
This week, acclaimed director Wong Kar-wai presents Ip Man’s story in The Grandmaster, an epic martial arts extravaganza that covers the life and times of the legendary Kung Fu master. Presented by Martin Scorsese and Samuel L. Jackson (big fans of the film), The Grandmaster stars Hong Kong native, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, as Ip Man, alongside Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen as rival martial arts experts through 30s, 40s, and 50s China.
Says Leung, “Ip Man taught Bruce Lee the theory of Kung Fu and specifically, how to forget about himself. What makes him great is not just his physical abilities, but his wisdom and knowledge of Kung Fu. That really inspired Bruce Lee.”
Known for his dark, anti-heroic, action/dramatic roles, Tony Leung is also quite the master. A masterful actor. Considered one of the finest actors of his generation, he sizzled on screen as a gangster and an undercover cop in John Woo’s double dandies, Bullet in the Head (1990) and Hard-Boiled (1992). He teamed up with some of Asia’s top talents like Maggie Cheung, Chow Yun-fat, and Jet Li; he starred in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, (2007), Zhang Yimou’s Oscar nominated, Hero (2002); and remember Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in Martin Scorsese’s Best Picture, The Deparated?
That was originally Leung in Andy Lau’s Infernal Affairs (2002).
Most importantly, Tony Leung has built a long standing relationship with internationally acclaimed director, Wong Kar-wai, from Chungking Express (1994) to Happy Together (1997) to In the Mood for Love (2000), which earned Leung the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Together, 7 terrific collaborations, including The Grandmaster (2013).
“I think we are the same kind of person,” says Leung. “We’re always looking for perfection, always passionate about moviemaking. So really, no matter what kind of movie he wants me in, I will gladly join.”
Throughout his career, Tony Leung has personified both the crouching tiger and the hidden dragon – an actor with great intensity, grace, and emotional firepower waiting to pounce on screen and the sophistication, charm, and mystery to ward off outsiders quietly off screen.
With his defenses down, we seized the opportunity to discuss the impact his father’s departure had on him early as a child, the real power behind Kung Fu, his thoughts on acting versus singing, and what it was like portraying ‘the grandmaster’ of his childhood hero (Bruce Lee).
So your father left you, your sister, and your mother at an early age. How did that affect you growing up and how did it pave the way for a career in acting?
After my father left, I rarely spoke because I didn’t want others to know that I didn’t have a father. So, I used to keep everything inside. And it made me look very sad and serious with everything so suppressed.
Honestly, I never thought about being an actor when I was young. It was only by coincidence, when I met Stephen Chow, who aspired to be a director. With his guidance, I enrolled in acting classes at a local TV station and began performing.
Was your mother ever concerned about this new career? Did she want you to get a traditional education and job?
Yes, she didn’t want me to go to the training classes from the very beginning. But now, I’ve proven I’m right (laughs)!
Did you watch a lot of movies growing up?
Oh, yes. My mother’s nine brothers and sisters would always bring me different kinds of movies every week. And so, I got to see a lot of movies in Hong Kong and a lot of Hollywood movies growing up.
How did you become involved with The Grandmaster? What was the attraction?
It was all because of Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee was my number one idol when I was a kid and I knew of Ip Man. Learning Kung Fu was always my dream, but I was not allowed to learn because my mother said there are only two kinds of people who learn Kung Fu: policemen and gangsters. That was her concept of Kung Fu.
So, after all these years, I finally got a chance to play my number one idol’s master, learn Kung Fu, and was able to do so with a dream team. It was a once-in-a-career type of thing. Even though there were very difficult times, I enjoyed and learned a lot with the film.
You’ve been in a lot of action films over the years. Where did you learn martial arts?
Actually, I never really learned martial arts (laughs). I just learned a lot of drills. I had some training back when I was working in television – we had to study for a year there and I learned everything, i.e. singing , dancing, and all kinds of things for acting.
So, I learned a little. Some karate mostly, but nothing serious. And I still had no idea what Kung Fu was. I thought it was just for fighting until I started to prepare for this movie. And that’s when I realized it’s not just physical training; it’s also a training of the mind. Something like meditation. In the 4,000 year history in between the transformation of Kung Fu, it was greatly influenced by the Chinese philosophy of Daoism. So, there is a lot of philosophy inside. It’s really fascinating!
Ip Man is the Wing Chun grandmaster. What did you learn in portraying him?
A lot of grandmasters moved and brought martial arts to Hong Kong. Ip Man was one of them. And that’s why we have so many great action and Kung Fu movies. If we didn’t have those grandmasters moving to Hong Kong, we wouldn’t have them.
In portraying him, I studied the philosophy and knowledge of Kung Fu from Bruce Lee because he was the only one who left us with books about his understanding of Kung Fu. I really needed that. It helped me get into character. Not just the look or the physical ability, but also the soul. The soul needs the knowledge of Kung Fu.
What was it like working with legendary choreographer, Yuen Woo-ping?
Yuen Woo-ping was great. He always gave us time to rehearse before shooting so everything would go smoothly on the set. But the preparation for the movie was very hard. I started a year before shooting and I broke my arms twice. I think it was a bit too much for somebody like me to learn Kung Fu at the age 47 (laughs)!
I trained indoors and outdoors and certainly didn’t expect I would be practicing that hard. In fact, I didn’t expect the movie would take that long to finish. But I practiced from day one until the movie wrapped. It was pretty tough, but as they say in China, practice makes perfect.
You’ve worked with Wong Kar-wai on many films. As a director, what makes him special to work with and come back to again and again?
In general, I think we are the same kind of person. We’re always looking for perfection, always passionate about moviemaking. It was very fortunate that we met because it’s not easy to build trust and friendship over twenty years. I admire his work very much and follow all of his movies. So really, no matter what kind of movie he wants me in, I will gladly join.
What do you see in Bruce Lee that is a reflection of Ip Man’s teachings?
From my studies, I think Ip Man taught Bruce Lee the theory of Kung Fu and specifically, how to forget about himself. What makes Ip Man great is not just his physical abilities, but his wisdom and knowledge of Kung Fu. That really inspired Bruce Lee.
Also, when you look at him, Ip Man doesn’t look like a Kung Fu warrior. He looks very refined and graceful. Like a scholar. And I think a true grandmaster should be very intellectual. He will never look like a typical fighter or a bouncer.
What was your favorite moment from The Grandmaster?
Everything was memorable to me because of Bruce Lee. He was my idol and having gone through this experience, I came to admire him even more.
When I was a kid, I didn’t really know that much about him – only through his movies. So, I learned a lot about Kung Fu. And the action scenes? I never ever thought I could do them. For instance, in the opening scene, I have a prolonged fight in the rain. And it took something like fifty nights in the freezing cold. It was so cold! And throughout, I had to keep my costume on – all night until the early morning. For fifty nights? I couldn’t even imagine doing something like that! I broke my arms twice, I had several minor injuries, and got sick after every action scene. But just like life, there are good times and bad (laughs). And overall, I enjoyed the process very, very much.
You co-sang the theme to Infernal Affairs with Andy Lau. How is your singing career coming along?
(Laughs) I think everybody loves to sing; otherwise, karaoke wouldn’t be that popular! But I never saw it as a job or a career. I just love to sing. And I had the chance to sing a lot early on. I used to sing the title song for almost every TV series. But after a while, I realized that maybe I’m not that good of a singer?
For an actor, singing is something you need to practice every day because you need to know how to use your voice – it’s part of what an actor should do. Just like dancing and learning and how to control your body. You need to practice singing to be able to control and change your voice. You need to know the techniques.
But for me, I was always shy and never enjoyed singing on stage. I didn’t really like myself when I was a kid because of my family situation. And I used to hide behind a mask. So, it was good for me to become an actor because you can cry, you can express your emotion, and nobody knows it’s you. They think you’re doing somebody else. And I think that’s why I love acting so much.
There’s nothing to hide behind as a singer.
Right! To be a singer, I would have to be myself. And I wouldn’t have the confidence. I wouldn’t like people to know who I am. I don’t know why. I just feel much better hiding behind somebody. It makes me much more relaxed.
Hypothetically, imagine that you just received a call from a Hollywood studio. And they say, “Tony, for your Hollywood debut, you can do whatever movie you want with whomever you want.” Who would you like to work with?”
Oh, there are a lot of great directors I’d like to work with. Recently, I would have to say Christopher Nolan because I really enjoyed Inception.
What type of movie would it be?
With Nolan, it’s probably best if it’s drama.
You mean, you wouldn’t do a Christopher Nolan musical?
(Laughs) Oh no! That would be about as difficult as Kung Fu!
Mark Sells, “The Reel Deal”
Mark Sells is a nationally recognized film/entertainment journalist and Critic-at-Large for 100.3 FM The Sound (Los Angeles). In addition to his blog on 303, you can follow The Reel Deal on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook for the latest entertainment news, reviews, and interviews.
*Photos courtesy of The Weintein Company and Tony Leung, 2013.
The Grandmaster – Official Movie Trailer (2013)