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An Interview with Tony Leung
Author and translator Linda Jaivin caught up with Tony Leung in Bangkok, where THE GRANDMASTER was in post-production. They spoke in Mandarin.

LJ: We've heard quite a lot about the physical training you undertook for this role. What mental preparation did you do for it?

TL: In the beginning the director gave me a lot of books about the northern masters, but only a few things about Ip Man.

LJ: Really? I thought there'd be a lot written about him.

TL: There is, but he didn't give me much of it to look at. He did a lot of research himself, of course. But he wanted me to read more about Bruce Lee. The character would be a kind of blend of Ip Man and Bruce Lee. I've collaborated with Wong Kar Wai for over ten years. We have a strong mutual trust. The movie doesn't aim to be a documentary; we wanted to create a kind of ideal, 'perfect' Ip Man. My impression of Ip Man is that he was very gentle, civilized, a deep- thinker and a gentleman. When he fought, he became someone else, fierce, almost animalistic. I thought this was a fascinating blend. A man who, as the son of a wealthy family, the son of a landowner had everything until the age of forty. Then he experienced a huge fall in his fortunes, and much trauma; and yet, in the end, he was still standing. That really fascinated me. And so with the director's research into Ip Man and mine into Bruce Lee, and through our teamwork, we produced an ideal vision of Ip Man. He's very positive. I've never played such a positive character in any Wong Kar Wai film.

LJ: What do you mean by 'positive'?

TL: He was extremely optimistic. Otherwise, how could he still be standing at the end of everything he went through? I heard my [Wing Chun] master [Duncan Leung] talk about Ip Man as he was when he first got to Hong Kong. It was like he had gone from heaven to hell. He had nothing at all. His home, his wealth, his family, they were all gone. His two daughters died. My master told me Ip Man didn't even have a blanket with which to cover himself when he first got to Hong Kong. He had to borrow one from a disciple, who then needed to take it back. But he remained the sort of person who faced life with a smile on his face. I felt that this was true positivity. I believe that kung fu informed and inspired his approach to life. With Bruce Lee, on the other hand, it was the opposite: life informed and inspired his kung fu. Bruce Lee studied philosophy, Daoism. In fact, Ip Man and Bruce Lee took different routes to the same destination. In his writings, Bruce Lee often spoke of Ip Man, calling him one of the greats of the kung fu world. Ip Man inspired him to understand that kung fu wasn't just physical training or a means of self-defense but a form of mental cultivation and a way of life. Only by learning kung fu myself did I really come to really understand this. The training helped me to achieve more authenticity in the way I would fight on screen. At the same time, it helped me to get into character in a way just reading about it couldn't do. So I could see why the director asked me to undertake such a long and rigorous process of physical training, during which I broke my arm twice.

LJ: Ouch.

TL: Yes. I trained for almost four years, only stopping when I got injured. I'd never studied kung fu in my youth. I began when I was 47. After I broke my arm the first time, the doctor said I needed to rest for six months. But I'd have forgotten everything if I did that. I'd have to go all the way back to the beginning again. It was a hairline fracture. So I just had the arm wrapped up and went back to training two weeks later. But it hadn't healed, and the first day I went back to training it broke again. The second time it broke it was a lot worse. So I didn't dare to disobey the doctor's orders again and rested for about four months. Those were the only two times in four years that I wasn't training. So that's how I came to truly understand how a martial artist comes to be, to feel it and not just know it intellectually. If you ask me to imitate the body language of a kung fu master, that's easy. But if you want to portray the spirit of one, that's another matter. This process was crucial for my ability to do that.

LJ: Before you began this process, what was your thinking or attitude towards kung fu?

TL: I was a fan of Bruce Lee as a kid. I saw his films when I was seven or eight. But in the 60s we were taught that there were only two types of people who learned kung fu: policemen and gangsters. It seemed to be about fighting, brawling, or performing. It was only after taking on this role that I really fathomed what kung fu is about. It was a tough four years but a really satisfying time as well. I want to show young people -- and their parents as well -- what kung fu really is about, the true spirit of it. The lessons of hard work, discipline, and mind training apply to life. Ideally, you got to a level that's like zen: you want to harmonize with your opponent. He is not your enemy, no more than your environment is your enemy. The goal is not victory but to open your own mind. The more I studied kung fu, the more fascinated I became.

LJ: It's like something Master Gong says to his daughter. He criticizes her for only caring about victory.

TL: Yes. I haven't actually seen that scene! But it's true, and it's why this tradition has continued over 4,000 years. It's not just about fighting. If it was that simple, anyone could be a grandmaster. You know, making this film was a blast. I've never made such a film with Wong Kar Wai before! I'm always playing these dark, repressed characters. But this is such a positive, optimistic role. It was very enjoyable. Of course, there's this part where the war comes, and I lose everything...

LJ: You cry. And I cried watching you!

TL: Exactly. And I'm crying out of frustration as well as loss. But in the end -- Ip Man is still standing, not because of how he fights but because of how he lives. It's so interesting. The only thing I knew about Ip Man before this was that he was Bruce Lee's teacher. I knew he was extraordinary, but didn't understand why or how. But learning Wing Chun, becoming a disciple myself and then being able to portray a character who was a combination of this great man and Bruce Lee -- I feel really happy about it. It felt like a kind of karmic connection. Now that I'm over 50, I'm not that keen on acting in very heavy dramas anymore. I'd rather play characters with a lighter attitude towards life. I felt so lucky to be able to play such a positive character -- I felt so lucky on every level to be doing this. But I didn't know how I was going to play Ip Man before we started filming. I was just doing my Wing Chun training. The first three years, we just worked on the fight scenes. For a year or two, it was all fighting. We didn't shoot any of the other scenes. I didn't even have a clue what the story was about! It was only in the last six months of filming that I began to shoot dramatic scenes.

LJ: That's such an interesting way to make a film!

TL: It was crazy! But that's what Wong Kar Wai is like.

LJ: What fun.

TL: It really is fun. Every time I make a film with him it's an adventure. I usually don't watch the rushes when I work with him. So I'm in the dark about the story, and don't know what the other characters are doing. I don't want to know. I fear I'll start imposing my own ideas on the process. It's got to be Wong Kar Wai's film. My job is to help him fulfill his vision. But yesterday, when I was dubbing some voice-overs, I saw the film for the first time and it's stunning. The process takes time. The more time you have, the more you're able to enter the character.

LJ: How much time does it normally take to make a film in your experience, I mean with other directors?

TL: About six months. Maximum six months. People keep asking me if I found it hard going to work on one film over four years. I say, I've been making films for 30 years, and there's never been a time I haven't enjoyed it. What's four years? The more time you have, the more fun it is.

LJ: Now that you've finished, will you continue with your kung fu training?

TL: I'm not sure. To do it right, you need an opponent, someone to practice with. And it might not suit me at my age. What I'd really like to learn is Tai Chi Chuan. You can practice that into your seventies and beyond.

LJ: After all that training, when you were doing those big fight scenes, like the one in the rain, what was it like in your head? Were you in a state of excitement? A state of calm? How did you feel?

TL: Under a lot of pressure! I could never relax. I was really nervous about hurting people. My master said, 'don't think of them as people. Think of them as punching bags.' I couldn't do that. No way.

LJ: So in the film's fight scenes, they're landing serious blows? For real?

TL: Yes. They didn't want to film the kung fu scenes in the usual way. They wanted it to be authentic. But I couldn't do it. I couldn't cross that bridge. I'm a bit disappointed in myself for not being able to let go like that. On the other hand, my character wasn't fighting to kill people. For him, it was a kind of game. So there was no need to hit that hard. But I was really tested during these scenes, it was hard for me. I said to Wong Kar Wai that of all the fight scenes, the one in the rain was the toughest -- from every angle. We shot it for 30 successive nights. All night every night. From about 7 pm, we were soaked but couldn't change clothes till we wrapped the following morning. By midnight, I'd be shivering with cold. It was like that every night. I began to take cold medicines. I felt myself getting sicker and sicker. When we finished up on the scene, I was laid up for five days. I was taking medicines and living on rice porridge. I thought I had pneumonia. I was coughing and coughing, I couldn't stop. It turned out to be bronchitis. That was the hardest thing about the filming. Also, we were fighting in water that was up to here (points to above his ankle) but Ah Suk (William Chang) is so exacting about the costumes: we had to wear cloth-soled shoes. But they were so slippery. So there we were, fighting in the rain, with slippery shoes... the training doesn't prepare you for conditions like 20 that! It got so cold.

LJ: I'm cold just listening to you. What month was it?

TL: October, November. On the first night, despite all the fighting, I didn't feel at all hot, even though I was perspiring. I knew that it'd be awfully cold from then on. The fight scenes really did put me under a lot of pressure. After all, I'm not a kung fu actor. But the film takes kung fu very seriously. I was so nervous. On the one hand, I worried about hurting people, on the other about not fighting well enough. The dramatic parts were easier. There's pressure in those scenes as well, but not as much.

LJ: Thank you so much. It's been really thrilling.

TL: Thank you.


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