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Wong Kar Wai Says His 108-Minute 'The Grandmaster' Is Not 'A Watered-Down Version'

Grandmaster Screening - H 2013
Todd Johnson
Photo credit: Todd Johnson

The director insists his U.S. version of the film, shortlisted for the foreign-language Oscar, is his own cut, offering scenes not included in the version released in China.

An estimated 100 people had to be turned away Jan. 5 from a packed New Beverly Cinema screening of The Grandmaster, shortlisted for the best foreign language film Oscar. The screening was followed by a Q&A with director Wong Kar Wai and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, who were introduced by a soft-spoken but happy-looking Megan Ellison, executive producer of the film, who also produced two best-picture contenders, American Hustle and Her through her Annapurna Pictures.

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While the epic, about Bruce Lee's martial arts teacher Ip Man (Tony Leung), is Wong's top-grossing film in China, some critics have complained that the 108-minute U.S. version is less effective than the 130-minute Chinese original. But the 108-minute version played well at the New Beverly to an audience of art house fans and film students. "We have an obligation to give the picture [to The Weinstein Co. for U.S. release] within two hours, so we have to create a shorter version," Wong explained, "but I don't want to do a watered-down version. In fact, there are so many hidden treasures in our computer -- scenes which haven't made it to the original version. So the new version has more as well as less than the original."

The film chronicles Ip Man's fight to unify rival practitioners of China's diverse, competitive martial arts styles during the '30s and '40s, a period in which China was at war with Japan."The cultural background is quite complicated even for a Chinese audience," said Wong. "So if in the American version, I'm using captions for some of [the historical information], then we can have more space for some of the missing scenes. I know there always are questions -- 'Is this your vision? Is this something that you want?' -- so I have to make it very clear to you today that like the previous version, the U.S. version is something that I want, and this is my decision and I'm very proud of it."

Wong and Le Sourd explained their working method, which involves endless tinkering. "I don't have a complete script, I'm writing every day," said Wong. "The script changes. … I always want to borrow something from the actors, so I keep changing the way I tell a story."

Added Le Sourd, "You discover scenes through the camera, character through the lens." So while some filmmakers might find it intolerable to trim 130 minutes to 108, Wong saw it as an opportunity for more creative discovery.

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Wong and Le Sourd were particularly happy to see The Grandmaster at the New Beverly. "We shot this film on film," said Wong, to the first of many bursts of applause. "This is the first time we show it on print. I would like to thank Harvey Weinstein personally for making this happen. It's my first time to watch this film in 35 mm. With this audience, watermarks, secret codes -- it really feels like a movie!" Added Le Sourd, "The projector's doing something very nice for me: you see a little bit of flicker, the texture is beautiful."

Wong and Le Sourd said it was worth all the travails of making the film -- the 22-month shoot, the 20 below zero degrees Celsius temperatures in Manchuria. "It was so dark everywhere and deserted," said Wong. "If you look at the lights on the set from far away, we were the only people, it was like an island. During a shot, I saw smoke coming up from [action choreographer Woo-ping Yuen]'s jacket -- actually, he caught on fire."

Wong said he wanted The Grandmaster to convey the essence of martial arts: "It's so elegant, but at the same time very dangerous."