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Coming Soon: Wong Kar-wai’s Biopic of Bruce Lee’s Martial Arts Teacher

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Wong Kar-wai’s latest film “The Grandmasters” hasn’t yet booked an American distributor. Judging by the trailer, however, Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Productions, which bought the US rights, has acquired a film with the potential to be a massive critical success and an art-house-mainstream crossover hit along the lines of Ang Lee’s 2000 “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

“The Grandmasters” opens in China and Hong Kong on December 18. It stars Tony Leung Chiu-wai – the male lead of Wong’s “Chungking Express,” “In the Mood for Love,” and “2046” – as Ip Man (aka Yip Man, 1893-1972), the martial-arts master who taught Wing Chun (a concept-based form of self-defence) to the Hong Kong movie icon Bruce Lee. The Korean actress Song Hye-Kyo plays Ip’s wife. Zhang Ziyi (“Crouching Tiger,” “2046”) is also in the cast.

It is scarcely a fresh subject for Asian audiences. Ip was recently lionized in three recent semi-autobiographical movie:  Wilson Yip’s “Ip Man” (2008) and its sequel, “Ip Man 2” (2010), both starring Donnie Yen. Both were hits in China and Hong Kong but garnered little attention in limited US release. There has also been Herman Yau’s “The Legend Is Born – Ip Man” (2010), starring Dennis To. Ip Chun, Ip’s now 88-year-old eldest son, was involved in all three films, which can be seen via Netflix.

Given its cast and Wong’s stylistic sophistication, “The Grandmaster” will likely prove a greater landmark, though the moodily atmospheric trailer suggests it could be less of a populist success in mainland China. Thanks to the editors at Film Comment magazine, it is now possible to see the trailer with English subtitles.

According to the fan site wongkarwai.net, “The Road to the Grandmasters,” a newly issued making-of documentary, Wong was moved by seeing footage of Ip three days before his death. The idea to make a film about him emerged when he was shooting “Happy Together” – starring Leung and Leslie Cheung – in Argentina in 1996.

It was triggered when he saw a local magazine featuring Lee  on the cover and realized the extent of his influence and appeal. Since Lee’s story had already been filmed several times, Wong resolved to explore the life of the man behind the legend – Ip’s cventful life included stints as a policeman and officer with the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party). He left China for Hong Kong with the victory of the Communists in the Civil War in 1949.

During the film’s apparently torturous three-year gestation, Wong “visited Beijing, Tianjin, Xian, Hebei, Henan, Inner Mongolia, Taiwan, Guangdong, Hong Kong and other locations, and over a hundred different kung fu masters of Wing Chun, Eight Diagram, Tai Chi, Xingyi, and Tongbei in order to find the spirit and the philosophy behind kung fu,” the fan site records.

Wong’s last movie was 2007’s “My Blueberry Nights,” the only one he has filmed in English so far.

Image: Tony Leung Chiu-wai in “The Grandmasters”/Courtesy Block 2 Pictures

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  1. Thank you! I’ll correct it.

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