Hong Kong Second Wave movie maestro, director Wong Kar-wai, has taken center stage at the 63rd Berlin Film Festival, with his wuxia (martial hero) epic The Grandmaster kicking off the festival on Thursday.
Starring long-time Hong Kong collaborator Tony Leung (In the Mood for Love) and Chinese megastar Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Wong’s latest directorial effort tells the tale of Yip Man, the near mythological man who taught Bruce Lee kung fu. The film tracks the life of the Grandmaster’s life, including the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s. “Epic” is a fair description.
Wong, who was the first Chinese director to sit on the jury at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006 – he won the fest’s Best Director award for Happy Together in 1997 – has also been appointed head of the jury this year in Berlin, where 400 films are set to screen. Nineteen films will compete for prizes, including Steven Soderbergh’s thriller Side Effects and Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land.
After an impressive performance so far on the mainland, there is buzz surrounding the possibility that Wong could truly take The Grandmaster global via Berlin. The international rights to the film have already been snapped up by the Weinstein Company. Could this be a sign of things to come?
“There is no such thing as a Western or Eastern audience,” Wong told reporters at a press conference in Beijing last month. “The elements of cinema are the same worldwide, although their expression is different.”
Confirming what fervent cinephiles already know, at 54 Wong has proven himself to be a virtuoso of his medium, which he has mastered over the course of a 25-year career that began with As Tears Go By (1988) – often compared to director Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Wong has produced a richly varied series of brilliant films characterized by a lush color palette and understated performances in stories of romantic longing, crime and misspent youth, set against the backdrop of Hong Kong at various periods of history.
Repeat collaborators include: Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Takeshi Kaneshiro and most significantly Tony Leung, who plays Yip Man in The Grandmaster; as well as masterful Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Stand-outs from Wong's filmography include Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, 2046 and Chungking Express, which has been passionately championed by Quentin Tarantino.
When watching Chungking Express on video, “I just started crying,” Tarantino said while introducing the film at UCLA in 1995. He said that he wept not because he was sad, but because he was “just so happy to love a movie this much.”
Speaking to reporters in Berlin on Thursday, Wong said that the greatest challenge in making the film was that he himself does not practice martial arts. “His life basically is like the modern history of the early days of our republic,” Wong said. “During all these periods you can see how a martial artist stands up for his principles and his honor in front of all this hardship.”
After building a passionate fan base over more than two decades, there are signs that this movie could open the world’s eyes to Wong’s own status as a grandmaster on the global cinema scene.