Wong Kar-wai, Master of Hong Kong Cinema, on His Journey to 'The Grandmaster' (Video)
Wong's films over the past quarter-century helped to usher in the Hong Kong New Wave and earned him a reputation as one of the greatest filmmakers in the world.
Last month, I had the rare honor of conducting a half-hour interview with Wong Kar-wai, the writer-director whose films over the past quarter-century -- including As Tears Go By (1988), Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express (1994), Ashes of Time (1994), Happy Together (1997), In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004) -- helped to usher in the immensely influential Hong Kong New Wave and earned him a reputation as one of the greatest filmmakers in the world.
The night before, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which has not always embraced international films and filmmakers, hosted "A Salute to Wong Kar-wai." Inside its majestic Samuel Goldwyn Theatre, a full-house of more than 1,000 industry insiders welcomed the 57-year-old honoree with a lengthy standing-ovation, a real tribute to his impact and influence. Then, one of Wong's biggest fans, Mad Men showrunner Matthew Weiner, moderated a Q&A with him, after which Wong introduced the actress Ziyi Zhang and several other people with whom he collaborated on his latest film, The Grandmaster, which then screened for the audience.
The Grandmaster, which centers around Ip Man, a 20th century kung fu master who famously trained Bruce Lee -- and is Wong's first martial arts film and seventh collaboration with the handsome actor Tony Leung, who plays Ip -- premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February and was released by The Weinstein Co. in U.S. theaters this weekend. (The New York Times review of the film includes the passage, "It's been five long years since Mr. Wong, one of the greatest filmmakers working today, had a new movie, and it's a pleasure to have him back.")
During my visit with Wong, we discussed his introduction to the movies, his past films, working with Leung, his longtime production designer and cinematographers, the state of Hong Kong cinema and much more. You can watch video highlights above or read a full transcript below.
The Hollywood Reporter: Did you go to the movies a lot as a kid? And, if so, did you prefer any specific type?
Wong Kar-wai: I was born in Shanghai. I came to Hong Kong when I was five, but we didn't have any relatives in Hong Kong. My mom is a big movie fan, and she watched all kinds of movies, so when I was a kid basically we went to watch a movie everyday. She would pick me up after school. and then we would go right into some movie -- we would watch ghost stories and cultural films, French films, Cantonese films -- all kinds of films. We just wanted to spend some time in cinemas.
THR: When did it first occur to you that you might want to pursue a life in film yourself? And how did you pursue that? I've read that you were an apprentice for a while with Alan Tang Kwong-wing...
Wong: I was a graphic design student at that point. And in Hong Kong we have TVB, which is the local TV station. They started a program called the Directors Training Program, and at that point on the TV networks they showed independent films; they made film productions which really attracted me. That, basically, is the origin of the Hong Kong New Wave -- they were all students coming back from the United States or England, and they worked at the stations and directed short films, which is very good. I was attracted to that program, so I quit college and started working at the TV station.
THR: Since you began directing feature films in the late eighties, starting with As Tears Go By (1988), what has generally been the order in which the following things come to you: music, words and images?
Wong: There's not a specific order -- its not like every time you have the words first, the script, and then the images, and then the post-production you put on the music. Sometimes, when you're on the streets, certain music inspires you, and then you have a vision. But, at the end of the day, it's a synthesis of visions, so you have to think, as a director, of a scene, or how to deliver a line, or how do this visually. Some people say, "Well, you are very good at using music in your film. What is your taste in music?" I say, "Actually, what works with me -- my preference about music -- is that is has to be visual." What does that mean? That music has to inspire a certain image.
THR: I've read that during the making of Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart was called in one day and directed to stand on a balcony, look down and nod. He had no idea what he was nodding at -- but that scene was eventually cut together with the orchestra below waiting for permission to play -- and then playing -- "La Marseillaise," and it was one of the most powerful moments in the entire film. From what I gather, your films work similarly, in that the actors may not know exactly why they're asked to do something -- and you yourself may not know why you're asking them to do something, in that particular moment -- but it all comes together in the end. Is that accurate? And, if so, how did you develop that approach?
Wong: I think to be a director, sometimes you need to have certain hunches -- you have to believe in some gut feeling. I always say, "We're living in time in-reverse. There's already a picture, and what we're doing now is to bring all these missing pieces together." And sometimes, when you have a shot, maybe a set up, you may have intended to do it this way, but ended up differently. Or maybe, because of the light, you say, "Well, why don't we take a shot here?" And you don't know exactly where you're going to put it at that point, but somehow you know you are going to use it, and not until you finish a picture, when you put everything together, do you realize that, in fact, it is a very important point -- without this point, the structure would be impossible. So sometimes you need to do that. But you are not doing it for like, all kinds of reasons. Sometimes you really believe that would be a good shot.
THR: There are some filmmakers who prefer to edit "in the camera," like Clint Eastwood or--
THR: Hitchcock, exactly. And then there are others, like William Wyler or David Fincher, who prefer to shoot 50 or 60 takes of a scene and then figure it all out later in the editing room over the course of months. I've heard that you sometimes spend years in the editing room, so is it correct to say that you prefer the latter approach?
Wong: First of all, I don't do rehearsal. Some directors prefer to do rehearsal -- readings before the actual shooting -- but I don't like this process because I think there are certain things that are so spontaneous, and they cannot happen twice. If we get that mood in rehearsal, why don't we just shoot it? So I always say, "Shoot the rehearsal," in a way, without the rehearsal. That means that when we are actually working on a scene, you see there are other possibilities. I just want to make my cast feel more comfortable. In a way it’s more about themselves. I hate acting; I always have to borrow something from the other characters. So it’s a process of, like -- I custom make a role for them based on them. So it’s not Tony Leung playing Ip Man. I would say, "Well, what if Ip Man is like Tony Leung?"
THR: It’s rare for a director and actor to work together as often as you and Tony Leung have -- I think seven films in 20 years, even if he also does a bunch in-between.
Wong: He made like 20 others. [laughs] It's not too much for him.
THR: How did you two first meet? What is it about him that you like so much?
Wong: We met on my second film, and his part actually was much bigger than it is now in the final version. But during shooting there was an accident, so the part became much smaller, and he shows only up at the end of the film out of nowhere -- but it's so amazing. And from then on we've made more films together. What really impressed me about Tony is, first of all, he's a very, very extraordinary actor, and he likes to take challenges and he's very professional. For a film like The Grandmaster, we all know Ip Man -- he's not a typical fighter, so I could not ask just an action-star to play Ip Man, because it's not the spirit of this character. So I needed a good actor -- and I have one, but the problem was he never practiced martial arts. Would it be too late, at age 47, to practice martial arts? But he wanted to do it. He said, "I haven't made any kung fu films before. I've made all kind of films, and this is something that I want to do." And so he stopped taking other jobs, he focused 18 months doing practice to go into this character, and, in fact, after this film, you can see-- The spirit of Ip Man -- all the strain -- stayed with him. He looks a little bit different now.
THR: There are a few other people I have to ask you about whose names aren't as familiar to audiences, but with whom you've also worked for many years. One of the things people always remark about your films is how beautiful and distinctive they look. They have a visual style that many others now try to copy, but that you did first, in partnership first with William Chang, your production designer and film editor, and also your cinematographers, first Christopher Doyle and now Philippe Le Sourd.
THR: Some directors are very controlling and sort of tell their collaborators how to do their jobs. But you really trust these people to do their jobs well, don't you?
Wong: I'm very controlling, but at the same time I feel very relaxed with William and Philippe. Even though this is my first feature with Philippe, I worked with Philippe for a long time on my commercials. In a way, it is kind of a collaboration, because I know their standard and they know my standard, so a lot of things are unspoken. It is always good to work with a very regular group of people because we know how high we can fly and what are the parameters, and it becomes very enjoyable.
Wong: It is very interesting that so many of the greatest directors -- from John Ford to Woody Allen -- worked with the same people so often.
THR: A few years ago, the New York Times featured an article about you, and the writer wrote, "Wong also knows the value of withholding. He refrains from giving his opinion or approval as a way of getting actors and collaborators to offer more in an attempt to please him." Is that accurate?
Wong: I think it depends on the actors. Some actors like encouragement. Some actors prefer to have pressure. And sometimes, for some actors, its better to give your comment by silence, because they are so skillful, so gifted, that they understand without talking too much.
THR: People like me like to sit and dissect everything that certain directors do, and sometimes we see things that maybe aren't even there. One of the things that we often look for is a common thread that unites all of a director's films, and, in your case, it seems to me that the closest thing to that, in terms of themes that appear in almost every one of your films, is regret and longing. Do you agree with that? And, if so, is there any reason that would be?
Wong: I would say longing more than regrets. I think longing is something that keeps us going. Like I said to Matt last night, my films are always about hope -- longing for something better.
THR: There's now far greater interest in Hong Kong cinema than there was when you were starting out--
Wong: What makes you think so?
THR: Well, I don't think that festivals were programming films from Hong Kong or that the Academy was paying tribute to Hong Kong filmmakers back then. It just seems like the interest and awareness is much higher. Do you disagree?
Wong: I disagree with you. It used to be that Hong Kong cinema was the only entertainment for overseas Chinese. And later on it broke into the international festival circuits. In a way, it's very fresh from that point. People are curious about Chinese cinema -- Hong Kong cinema -- and they have more sympathy for Chinese cinema and Hong Kong cinema. Today I don't feel they have more emphasized. I feel like, in a way, maybe it's because of the growth or the changes in China. The way they see -- especially Chinese cinema -- is a bit more critical now.
THR: I think that the last line in The Grandmaster is very interesting: "What's your style?" You pose the question to the audience, but let me pose the question to you. If someone had not yet seen one of your films, how would you explain what your style is? And if, for some reason, they could only see one of your movies, which would you want that to be? Which is the movie that best represents what you are all about?
Wong: Basically, I would say that it’s like I'm making one movie, but in a different stage, in a different outlook. So they could pick any one, but it's still my movie. I don't make films which I don't believe in.
THR: There's not one that you're more happy with than the others? That you're proudest of?
Wong: I'm proud of them all. And about that line -- "What's your style?" -- that's very interesting, because that's a typical line of Bruce Lee. He said, "What's your style?" But the contradicting thing is, in this book, he said, "The best martial artists have no style. They should be like water."
THR: My final question is this: tell me the story of your sunglasses. You are never seen without them, right?
Wong: No [I am not]. It's just a habit to remind me I am working.
THR: It's great. I wish I could look as cool in sunglasses!