Last update: 2013-8-3

As I said before, The Grandmaster (2013) is a truly great movie.  This is a martial arts movie that breaks new ground.  Even though this is the easiest movie to understand among the ones made by director Wong Kar-Wai, there are still many questions viewers may have about it.  Fortunately, there are several interviews of the director and the other screenwriters 徐皓峰, 邹静之 answering some of those questions, and I believe these interviews would be valuable to Western viewers who also love this movie.  For this reason I try to translate those interviews into English.  (This article describes the original 130-minute cut shown in Hong Kong.  The cut for Berlin Film Festival has some different scenes.  The latest American cut has 108 minutes only.)

I try to integrate and re-arrange the information I read from multiple sources, and extract only the portion that is most significant to the understanding of the movie.  However, do not expect this to be a professional quality translation.  There are discontinuities between the paragraphs because they come from different interviews, and generally I avoid changing their wordings.

(My wife doubts that people would actually discover and read this article.  If you do, please leave a comment or press Like.  This is much appreciated.  Thanks a lot.)

Notes on Translation

At the time when this article was initially written, the official English subtitle translation for the movie was not available.  So my translation of key terms will likely be different from the official one.  To minimize the possibility of confusion due to mistranslation, some names, places and special terms may not be translated.  Much of the information that do not contribute directly to the understanding of the movie, and the discussions about martial arts, are dropped.  (Not that they are not interesting – in fact I find all of them to be fascinating, but to translate all of them would make this even a greater task than it is for me.  Some of those things would be much harder to translate, especially the kung fu specifics.)  Remarks not present in the original interview are enclosed in [ ].  All names (except Tony Leung and ChiLam) begin with the family name.

  • In this article, 面子 is translated to Face and 裡子 is translated to Inside.  The official English subtitles translate them as Light and Shadow respectively.

Sources:

<SPOILER WARNING>

<This article is really meant to be read ONLY AFTER you have watched the movie>

Translation by: moonlightknighthk

CHARACTERS

葉問 (Ip Man, played by Tony Leung)

Wong Kar-Wai: In the past, people are more concerned with how 葉問 Ip Man fights, but I want the audience to see him grow.  His growth did not start from age 7, but from 40.  What’s so interesting is that before age 40 he had everything.  However, after 40 he began to lose everything.  The only thing that remained was his spirit of martial arts.

[In the changing times as depicted in the movie] Everyone has to make a choice.  Some chose to go forward [葉問 Ip Man], some chose to stay [宫若梅 Gong Er], some made a wrong choice [馬三 Ma San].  During such times, living is actually the most difficult task, however good your martial arts skills may be.  Living is like crossing a high/difficult mountain, it can drain your spirit and weaken your career.  In the end of the movie many people could have become a grandmaster, 宫若梅 Gong Er could, 一線天 Razor / Yixiantian could, and even 馬三 Ma San, too.  However, only 葉問 Ip Man could reach the finish line, and preserve the precious skills taught by ancestors.  [I think this is why the title of the movie changed from The Grandmasters to The Grandmaster.  A lot of web sites still use the wrong movie title.]

In the past many people used to think that martial arts secrets skills must not be taught to more than 16 people, and must not be given to outsiders.  However, after he reached Hong Kong, he developed 詠春 Wing Chun martial arts [creating many masters, including Bruce Lee].  They said he caused the classical essence of 詠春 Wing Chun to be lost, saying that it began with him and ended with him.  He did not reject other schools of martial arts, and believed that martial arts should be a unified world.

宫若梅 (宫二) (Gong Er played by Zhang Ziyi)

Wong Kar-Wai: [On the common complaint of 宫若梅 Gong Er having even more screen time than 葉問 Ip Man, since most people expect to watch a movie about him portrayed by Tony Leung. ] I have not calculated the proportion of her screen time, but the amount given to a character is very important.  I made up this character.  She is legendary.  There are many of such legendary heroines in the 民國 Minguo era, such as 施劍翹 Shi Jianqiao.  [Note: In the movie, Zhang Ziyi plays the role of the second sister 宫若梅 of the 宫 Gong family, also known as 宫二 Gong Er because 二 Er means two or second.  宫若梅 is based on the real-life character 施劍翹 Shi Jianqiao – Her father was in the army, got captured and murdered by northern warlord 孫傳芳 Sun Chuanfang.  The corpse was left in daylight for 3 days.  At the age of 20, 施劍翹 Shi Jianqiao vowed to avenge her father.  She hoped that her cousin could help, but this did not happen.  Someone offered to help if she marries him.  She really did marry him, but her husband continually refused to honor his commitment despite progressing in his government career, saying that the time is not ripe.  10 years after her father was murdered, she eventually left with her young son to find 孫傳芳 Sun Chuanfang without saying goodbye.  Finding him in 天津佛教居士林 (a Buddhist temple in Tianjin), she killed him by firing 3 bullets from a Browning pistol.  This became a great news in that era.]

Several movies about 葉問 Ip Man were made, and the audience are more familiar with him.  The character 宫若梅 Gong Er would be more refreshing to see for the audience.  [In another interview it was said that her character is the classical tragic type – born with a talent but at the wrong time.]

葉問 Ip Man and 宫若梅 Gong Er represent the yin and yang of attitude towards life.  葉問, like his style of martial arts, always 眼前路 looks ahead because Wing Chun martial arts basically considers a straight line between two points to be the shortest.  宫若梅 Gong Er turns and looks back, just as her martial arts skills may have 身后身 her circle around you and go behind your back.  In the end, she chose to stay, because her whole life was to look back.  That’s why 葉問 Ip Man said she lacked a turn – she did not look ahead.  [As for why 葉問 Ip Man said he could not look back 身后身, that’s because his wife had already died.]

There is one scene that does not made into the theatrical cut.  In this scene, 宫若梅 Gong Er said “This 宫 Gong family never has the chance to win because of me, it can only lose because of me.  It is because I destroyed the unique skills my father taught me in one night.  I defeated 馬三 Ma San, it looks like I made my revenge.  However, at the same time I also destroyed the skills perfected by my father in his whole life.”  This is why her father gave her the order not to avenge him in the movie.  He knew that her daughter would do exactly that, and he did not want her to take this risk.  Another consideration is that all skills in the 宫 family would be destroyed.

[At the end she died young because of addiction to opium, which she did to lessen her pain from fighting 馬三 Ma San in order to “take back” the skills her father taught him.]

一線天 (Razor / Yixiantian played by Chang Chen)

Wong Kar-Wai: 一線天 Razor / Yixiantian and 葉問 Ip Man are parallel.  Both are masters, but 葉問 Ip Man got a “halo” (well-known and recognized) to become a grandmaster.  The other became a barber.  This is what the movie said about 面子 Face [e.g. 葉問 Ip Man] and 裡子 Inside(?) [ e.g. 一線天 Razor / Yixiantian] .  Skills are secondary to environment factors.  Both of their important fights toke place in the rain – this is not repetition as some viewers say.  This is done to emphasize they rise from the same platform.  They both can stand after fighting so many people.  However, the outcomes are different.  In this world of martial arts, not everyone can get the halo.  Many people did many things diligently without halos, they pass on the teachings to people.

一線天 Razor / Yixiantian is a spy since that era is full of assassinations.  His 面子 “face” shows a normal life, but 裡子 behind this face he is an assassin [note: he was affiliated with 國民黨 Kuomintang.  He was pursued by Japanese after killing a Japanese officer, and was saved by 宫若梅 Gong Er in a train.]  The basis of 一線天(played by Chang Chen) comes from two people.  The first one is a master of 八極拳 Ba Ji martial arts – 李書文.  He fights without mercy, but is very lazy, he said one useful 招 move(?) is enough.  The other is a master known as 劉雲樵.  During the 民國 Minguo era he was a spy and did a lot for the anti-Japanese resistance.  He later went to Tai Wan and taught 八極拳 Ba Ji martial arts there.

The reason why 一線天 opened a barber shop is because when I was young, there was a Shanghai-style barber shop opposite to my home.  When I researched for this movie, I discovered that when the martial arts of 形意門 (Xing Yi Quan) was first established in a building upstairs in Hong Kong, below it is a barber shop, and many of its staff joined the school.  Originally I wanted to shoot a movie about those martial arts schools in Hong Kong, but I found that they originated from mainland China.  So this movie talks about the roots of them, and finally they exiled to Hong Kong.

[In the deleted scenes, 一線天 Razor / Yixiantian tries to guard for 宫若梅 Gong Er in Hong Kong.  So his barber shop is nearby 宫若梅 Gong Er’s clinic.]

丁連山 (Ding Lianshan played by 赵本山)

[丁連山 Ding Lianshan is the 師兄 senior of 宫羽田 Gong Yutian.  He has very little screen time, and his dialogue is cryptic.]

Wong Kar-Wai: In the scene of making snake soup, note that 丁連山 Ding Lianshan said that he left the North East in 1905.  That year marked an important event in Chinese history – 北方暗殺團 group of assassins from North who tried to overthrow the 满清 Qing government by assassinations.

They thought it was impossible to overthrow the 满清 Qing government by mild political movement, so they needed to do that via the extremist means of assassinations.  When 丁連山 Ding Lianshan and 宫羽田 Gong Yutian (father of 宫若梅 Gong Er) got separated, 丁連山 Ding Lianshan asked whether it is easier to manage a family or easier to wander around.  宫羽田 Gong Yutian answered that of course it is easier to manage a family.  So 丁連山 Ding Lianshan said he goes to do the uneasy thing instead.

This really happened: a Japanese ronin known as 薄無鬼 drew a circle in the street 東北奉天大街 with his sword, and claimed that this circle is Japanese territory.  This was a trap, many Chinese challenged him and died.  The circle grew larger.  丁連山 Ding Lianshan killed this Japanese, left North East and went to 鬼道 (?).  So he got a nickname of 關東之鬼 (Ghost of Guandong area).

This story is very moving.  However, due to the health of 赵本山 this subplot could not be shot in more details.  [Note: 赵本山 once thought he was playing the father of 宫若梅 Gong Er.]

宫羽田 (Gong Yutian)

Wong Kar-Wai: [The father of 宫若梅 Gong Er,] 宫羽田 Gong Yutian is a 面子 “face” because he toke over as the chairman of 中華武士會 Chinese Warrior Society from his senior 丁連山 Ding Lianshan.  On the surface this society uses martial arts to save the country, but [裡子] underneath it is actually the group of assassins from the North.

In the beginning, 宫羽田 Gong Yutian came to 佛山 Foshan to represent the 中華武士會 Chinese Warrior Society, which is related to 同盟會 Tongmenghui, the underground resistance movement.  In the movie we chose not to describe their background.  The reason why he came in 1936, is because of the historical event of 兩廣事變 The Two Guang Incident (Guangdong and Guangxi officers rebel against the government in the name of anti-Japanese resistance) that split the North and the South.  That’s why it’s very inappropriate for him to say “南拳北傳 pass Southern martial arts to the North”.  So he faced difficulties, but still insisted: “If we separate martial arts into North and South, do we also split the country into North and South?”

張永成 (Ip Man’s wife, played by Song, Hye-Kyo)

Wong Kar-Wai: I told Song, Hye-Kyo: your character is not an ordinary lady, she possesses great wisdom.  In this movie, she first appeared behind a door.  In ordinary movies the male perspective is to admire women like a pet.  This story is opposite: this woman treats his man like her pet.  This is why 葉問 Ip Man did not marry another woman [after she died], because of her.

宫若梅 Gong Er’s financee

[The fiancee of 宫若梅 Gong Er is played by 張智霖 ChiLam, who also sings in the brothel 金樓.  From every interviews I have read, this is most likely just a case of one actor playing two different roles.  It is not meant for 宫若梅 Gong Er to marry the singer.]

DIALOGUE

念念不忘 必有迴響 (Keep remembering, there must be echoes)

Wong Kar-Wai: Keep remembering your original intention, not changing it makes you a hero. You must keep remembering your work, you must focus, only through continuous irrigation can a tree be grown.

The first generation members of the 中華武士會 Chinese Warrior Society intended to strengthen the people and use martial arts to save the country.  The snake soup represents this intention and concept.  They would like to let this intention continue.  宫羽田 Gong Yutian is a great old man, he sees this hope from 葉問 Ip Man, so he admitted to losing to him and said “I pass my fame to you”, hoping him to pass on the torch.

“見自己.見天地.見眾生” (Meet yourself.  Meet the world.  Meet all the living)

[This comes from the Taoist philosophy of “三家相見”.  The commentary given by the screenwriters for this dialogue is not easy to understand from the context of the movie.  I prefer the explanation from the martial arts fiction author 喬靖夫 instead.  This translated version is shortened from the original article.]

喬靖夫: This view can be applied to 葉問 Ip Man in the movie.  [Meet yourself: ] Before age 40, he focused on improving his own skills and overcoming his own weaknesses.  [Meet the world: ] After having solid skills, he could meet other masters in different styles of martial arts in the world, such that he could make even further improvement.  [Meet all the living: ] After going to Hong Kong, he opened the school to teach many people.  He became a grandmaster and passed the torch to future generations beyond his own life.  He completed himself, and also completed others.

“所有的相遇,都是久别重逢” All encounters are reunions after a long separation

Screenwriters: This is Taoist philosophy.  It has the notion of three lifetimes [past, present, future].  In the past Chinese has this concept, with farmers saying “work not done in this life needs to be done in the next life”.  This statement can be understood from this context.

Wong Kar-Wai has a different view of this.  He thinks that just like those classic Buddhist scriptures, they may have disappeared for five centuries before reappearing.  Even if good things are gone, it may only be temporary.  If they worth to be preserved, some day they will come back.

LOCATION

金樓 (Golden Building)

Wong Kar-Wai: “風塵之中必有性情中人” (in the prostitution business (?) there must be people who are emotional and act on their instincts (?)) is my intuition.  The brothel 金樓 (Golden Building) in the movie is actually called 共和楼 (Republic Building).  Before 宫羽田 Gong Yutian said he did three things in his life, there was another dialogue which was cut in the movie because it is too long.  He said, “That year I led my group of people wearing fur-lined jacket and removing them on the way, went from North East to 佛山 Foshan.  Only after reaching 金樓 did I know that I’m a country bumpkin.  This place is so golden without a single dust…  But we did not come for prostitutes.  We came here to deliver a bomb.”  This bomb was made by 蔡元培.  Three days after that, it bombed the 州 Guangzhou general 鳳山, beginning the republic.  That’s why it was called the 共和樓 (Republic Building).  It is a brothel, but inside it you find heroes.

Because this section was cut, viewers may not understand why all the kung fu masters are in a brothel.

Screenwriters: in that old society people went there to buy affection, not flesh.

Did 葉問 Ip Man go to North East?  Viewers have discovered a scene showing him wandering outside the home of 宫 family.

Wong Kar-Wai: This is left to viewers to interpret.  You may say he went there, or this is just a dream of Ip Man.

[Note: In spite of this answer, there are deleted scenes showing he did go there.  At the end of the movie, when we see a flashback of 宫若梅 Gong Er in the snow, there is a shadow – he is 葉問 Ip Man.]

Why did all masters go to Hong Kong?

Screenwriters: After 1949, martial arts schools were closed in mainland China.  Martial arts masters were viewed as gangsters.  So they exiled to Hong Kong.  Martial arts schools even occupied a whole street there.

What is the meaning of the ending scene (showing the Buddhist temple)?

The ending scene shows the Buddhist temple where 宫若梅 Gong Er decides to avenge her father.  This is 辽宁义县奉国寺大雄殿 (Daxiong Hall of Fengguo Temple in Yi County of Liaoning Province) built in 1020.  During a war in 1948, a bomb shot through the roof of the temple and was dropped in the hands of the Buddha.  The bomb did not explode, only the right hand was damaged.  In 1961, this temple was classified as a Major Historical and Cultural Site Protected at the National Level, but it did not become a popular tourist spot, so it did not have any renovation.  The camera pans through the lights on the table, echoing one statement in the movie: “light a candle, save a breath”.  Wong Kar-Wai said, “Some day, good things will still be preserved.”

MISCELLANEOUS

Why 宫若梅 Gong Er had to vow to not marrying and not giving birth?

Screenwriters: This is a special type of vow called 獨行道, given by Eastern warriors.  It shows their high level of commitment.

Why 宫若梅 Gong Er refused Ip Man’s request of seeing her skills of 64 Hands?

The straight answer is given at 01:55:43 – showing a Chinese sentence: Gong Er followed her vow to not marrying, not giving birth, and not passing on her skills – but this is not in the official English subtitles.

[Gong Er is the opposite of Ip Man – she always looks backward, lives in the past, and naturally, does not pass on her kills. In fact, Kung Fu was very secretive, so it was generally forbidden to teach outsiders Kung Fu, this is why many types of Kung Fu were already lost, as mentioned by Gong Er. She thought there was no problem with her bringing the Gong family skills 64 Hands to the grave. Another possible reason is that the relationship between Ip Man and Gong Er started with the 64 Hands – by rejecting Ip Man’s request, this also symbolized her refusal to further develop their relationship, in order to honor her vow.]

The screenwriters said that in the original screenplay, the 64 Hands symbolized 纏綿 “lingering” between a man and a woman, and Gong Er did show Ip Man the 64 Hands.  However, Wong Kar-Wai thought there was enough spark in their conversation, and so simplified it.

Why 馬三 Ma San was able to kill his master 宫羽田 Gong Yutian?

Screenwriters: That’s because 宫羽田 Gong Yutian was not as ruthless as 馬三 Ma San. 宫羽田 Gong Yutian merely wanted to take away his martial arts by hurting his muscles, bones or organs.  On the other hand, 馬三 Ma San fought to kill 宫羽田 Gong Yutian.  In the original screenplay 馬三 Ma San is an abandoned child picked up from unmarked burial mounds, contrasting his morals with his master’s.

What do 刀 Blade and 刀鞘 Scabbard mean?

Screenwriters: 宫若梅 Gong Er is a blade hidden by 葉問 Ip Man as a scabbard.  馬三 Ma San is a blade, but his master 宫羽田 Gong Yutian as a scabbard could not hold him.  This blade cut through the scabbard, but at the end the blade itself is also broken.

Why is the military and political background of the characters virtualized in the movie?

Wong Kar-Wai: Although the movie does indeed contain politics, the wold of martial arts is relative to the government.  It has a connection to politics, but they always keep a distance.

4-Hour Cut

Wong Kar-Wai: I think this will take many years, like Ashes of Time Redux (laugh) [Redux is the 2008 version of the 1994 movie 東邪西毒].  The exact meaning of the 4-hour cut is: the film we shot can be edited into 4 hours, such that each character has a complete story.  However, this arrangement would not be the best result.

My original concept was to treat each character as a chapter in a fiction.  When the character is done in one chapter, he/she disappears from the following chapters.  Life is like this.  I thought of having 10 chapters for 10 characters in this movie, but I think the audience will not be used to it.  We do not have the ability to ask the viewers to sacrifice 4 hours to watch this movie, especially when you don’t understand it much.  When we have the opportunity to create a 4-hour movie, those who are willing to watch it please come.

The release of a 4-hour cut is only a rumor.  I was only saying the materials added up to 4 hours.  I feel that the current 130-minute cut is complete, and it says everything I wanted to say in the movie clearly.

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