Martial arts epic The Grandmaster reduced Tony Leung to tears

Elizabeth Soh
Show-Buzz
Leung and Wong speaking at a press conference for The Grandmaster (AFP Images)


Yes, the normally stoic and calm Tony Leung was so overcome by emotion when he saw the final cut of martial arts epic The Grandmaster that he cried.

"When I saw the finished piece, I had a moment of extreme emotion, and I cried," admitted Leung in Mandarin at the Singapore press conference to promote the film with director Wong Kar Wai on Wednesday.

"I was overcome by the feeling -- it was the fruit of four years of work and challenges."

Challenging would be an understatement -- Leung, 50, reportedly broke his hands twice during training during filming, and he even began taking Wing Chun lessons three years beforehand to prepare himself for his role.

The cast also had to film through rough weather conditions -- toughing it out in China on the coldest winter in ten years and then later through a sweltering summer. The movie's release was repeatedly delayed, reportedly due to Leung's injuries and many scenes had to be cut as there was too much footage.

But if box office figures are anything to go by, it looks like all that pain and suffering was worth it -- "The Grandmaster" has grossed about S$2.3 million in Hong Kong and S$60 million in China so far.

Yahoo! Singapore finds out from the Asian cinema dream-team why exactly the film took so long to be made and if rumours about Wong and Leung being at odds are really true.

Childhood dream come true

"I grew up reading martial arts novels as a child and I was always curious - was Chinese Kung Fu really as mystical as it seemed in the stories? Was it only something visually appealing or was it as invincible an art as what I read?" said the Shanghai-born Wong.

And so the notorious perfectionist set out on an arduous journey to find his answers, travelling across China to meet modern day pugilists and historians who were experts in the fields of Wing Chun, Baguazhang, Bajiquan, and Xingyiquan martial arts.

"I found that it was indeed as mystical and as invincible as my stories -- and I hope that this is reflected in the movie," said Wong.

Wong was so moved by his research that he made it a requirement for all his main actors to spend at least a year training under a kung-fu grandmaster in order to develop the "spirit" of a Chinese pugilist.

Leung is all smiles at the Singapore press conference for The Grandmaster (ROSLAN RAHMAN / AFP)

Discovering the 'soul' of martial arts

Veteran method actor Leung not only took on Wong's challenge but took it a step further, training for three years until he was strong enough to break a wooden board that was a few inches thick with one blow.

"You cannot find the true essence of martial arts in a book. You must find it through practice -- it is something that will take root in you and grow by itself. After three years of experiencing it, I can start to go beyond the physical aspects of kungfu to find it's true spirit," said the intense Leung, who plays the titular character in the story, Ip Man.

When asked if he ever thought of giving up when he was injured, Leung, who looked taut and trim in a white shirt and black cardigan, paused to find the right words to express himself.

"It (broken hands) was no big deal, you can also injure yourself exercising. What was frustrating was that I had to start all over again. I had reached this level at my training, and then the injury, and I was back at square one. But you just have to figure out how to overcome it."

Comparisons with Donnie Yen's Ip Man

However, fans expecting a straight-up, action-packed reboot of Donnie Yen's 2008 smash hit "Ip Man" may end up disappointed.

Wong's filming style remains cinematic and highly stylised with plenty of slow-mo cuts -- the focus being on the actors and their expressions of inner turmoil.

"To play Grandmaster Ip Man, Leung needed not just strength in body but also spirit and mind. He has exceeded my expectations of him as an actor -- this movie will show a totally different side to him," said Wong - high praise from a man of few words.

"He(Leung) has attained a very high level of acting - by just moving one muscle, he can completely change the expressions on his face and the feel of his performance."

Chang Chen, Tony Leung, Wong Kar Wai and Zhang Ziyi at the movie's Hong Kong opening (PHILIPPE LOPEZ / AFP)

Did Leung and Wong fall out?

It seemed like a silly question to ask after Leung and Wong had bantered with and praised each other repeatedly during the press conference, but rumour has it the two fell out after the release of "The Grandmaster" because Wong had cut many of Leung's scenes, placing the limelight on Chinese actress and co-star Zhang Ziyi instead.

Korean actress Song Hye Gyo, who plays Ip Man's wife, only received six minutes of screentime and has been conspicuously absent from all promotional tours for the movie.

Rubbishing the rumours, Leung said that he was not even sure himself how many cuts had been made.

"If Wong were to use all the footage, the film would be four to five hours long. Look at me, the product I am is the results of 49 years of experience, and it's impossible to share everything about me in one breath. The finished product is Wong's product -- I don't see it as a waste or a pity."

Leung also described the relationship between him and Wong as being one of "complete trust" and "unspoken chemistry" borne of 20 years of friendship and seven movies together.

"We have known each other for 20 years. Although we don't talk very often, we have a relationship of absolute trust. When you work with someone you trust completely, you only have to focus on yourself," said Leung.

However, he was coy about actress Song's absence.

"I have a lot of empathy for Song. I have shot many movies that are not in my native language and I know how it feels when you don't understand the language. It's like you're deaf and dumb," he said.

One last thing -- Wong would like you to know that no expensive qipaos (Mandarin gowns) were damaged by Zhang Ziyi during the three years of filming.

"She (Zhang) is a very cultured lady of impeccable bearing. She would not even sit in between takes so that the dress would not get wrinkled or untidy. I have told the young actors to learn from her," said Wong with a laugh.

"Be aware of your appearance, your behaviour and the impressions you make," he intoned, tongue in cheek.

Watch the trailer here.

Related links:

Wong Kar Wai returns with "The Grandmaster"
Tony Leung endures 3 years of pain
Tony Leung and Wong Kar Wai fell out?