Recently, Martin Scorsese took a break from promoting “The Wolf of Wall Street” to help present a screening of “The Grandmaster” and to interview its director, Wong Kar-wai. To say it was a film nerd’s wet dream is a wildly staggering understatement. Wong Kar-wai has been a film school favorite since the early ’90s, revered for his unique vintage-inspired aesthetic — every single frame resembles a postcard from a more golden era. From earlier films like “Days of Being Wild” to oeuvre standout “In the Mood For Love” and his most recent, “The Grandmaster,” Wong has been hypnotizing audiences into opium- and cigarette-scented dream states for decades. Scorsese first took interest in the film last August, giving it his “Martin Scorsese Presents” approval, and is now throwing his weight behind its U.S. promotions by literally presenting the movie to a small and salivating crowd in New York City.
Side story: Harvey Weinstein was also at the screening (The Weinstein Company is the movie’s U.S. distributor) and I had the fine privilege of running past him with the “Reserved Seat” sign unknowingly taped to the back of my sweater and getting smacked in the arm by him as he was taking his jacket off. We made awkward eye contact. I apologized … for getting hit, because he’s Harvey Weinstein and that’s how the world works.
The highlight of the night — beside watching for the second time the gorgeously shot, emotionally powerful ode to real-life grandmaster Ip Man — was watching the rapport between Wong Kar-wai and Martin Scorsese. The night was undoubtedly about Wong, but how do you get Scorsese in a room with a mic and not take the opportunity to pay homage?
The two talked at length about the tradition of martial arts and the grueling, two-year-long training process that actors Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi had to go through (Leung broke his arm twice during production), with Scorsese hanging on Wong’s every word. “I’m big fan of martial arts, but I never had the chance to actually practice,” Wong explained, “so to be able to understand this world, it took me three years to travel across the country to do interviews and attend demonstrations. I interviewed more than 100 masters…. One morning I went to a small town in the center of china … to meet a master there. He’s a very important figure. I came to a small train station, outside I see this man with his students, and basically the youngest of them was 55 years old.” This bit made Scorsese throw his head back in laughter, but another anecdote later on surprised him.
When Scorsese asked him about choreographing the film’s extensive fight sequences, Wong replied, “It was a very hard process to do the action for this film. And in fact, when we were doing our choreography sequences, I always looked at your sequence in ‘Raging Bull,’ because I think it’s one of the best action scenes made in the history of cinema.” You could almost see little heart arrows fly from Wong’s sunglass-covered eyes to Scorsese’s Woody Allen lenses. A modest “Wow, really?” expression overcame Scorsese as he fumbled over his words. “I didn’t realize that,” he said. The heat was starting to become palpable.
Wong continued to talk about the action sequences and how he made them as authentic as possible. He had actual grandmasters come and train Leung and Zhang and tried to avoid stunt doubles and using special effects. “Normally when you’re shooting a scene or a setup, most of the time people are looking at the director to see if it’s OK or not, but on our set, besides me and Yuen Woo-ping (renowned fight choreographer) … all the masters from the schools are standing there, so after every take, all the actors would look not to us, but to them and ask ‘Is this OK?'” At that, Scorsese’s throaty laugh reverberated throughout the auditorium.
Scorsese had clearly done his homework because he recalled an interview he had read with Leung, in which the actor says that he had gone to Wong at one point during the production and said, “I think I’m going to die.” And Wong said, “We must go on.” The crowd went wild with laughter, trumped only by Scorsese’s own chuckling. And if it wasn’t more clear that these two film giants were about to climax in their bromance, Wong made a joke that only another filmmaker could truly appreciate: “The only thing in this film which is digital is the train, because I cannot ask Zhang Ziyi to fight in front of a running train. If it were Buster Keaton, it’d be fine.” The crowd went wild.
The climax came when Scorsese relayed one of the highest bits of praise for Wong’s films: “They’re something that can only be a film; the essence of cinema.” Immediately, wanting to divert the overwhelming flattery away from him and onto Scorsese, Wong brought up “Raging Bull” again and gave its director the spotlight for a bit. Adorable.
Toward the end, the two talked about their editing processes and the difficulties that choosing music and securing rights presents, and it’s almost as if they forgot the audience was there. It became less of an interview and more of a note-comparing session. (“I heard that you do that also; I learned it from you.”) Here’s to realizing one of my wildest dreams: a collaboration between Wong and Scorsese, perhaps the first Chinese-American integrated movie for both directors (Tony Leung and Leonardo DiCaprio on the same screen!). Just please, please don’t have Leo do any kung fu.