When director Wong Kar-Wai was shooting 2046, critics quipped that the film wouldn’t be finished until the year of its title, such was the delay in completing its filming. In fact, many thought it would never be finished. (It was, but it took Wong five years to complete; and came so close to missing its slot in the Cannes Film Festival in 2004 that the competition’s schedule had to be rearranged, for the first time.)
Perhaps the most revered of Hong Kong’s directors, Wong’s working style is as controversial as his movies. His latest project The Grandmasters – a biopic about Ip Man, the legendary Chinese martial-arts figure who taught the form of kung fu known as Wing Chun – has taken eight years to develop and is still in production, though Wong promises it will be finished in the first half of this year.
The film features Wong’s regular collaborator Tony Leung in the lead role, along with Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen. And as tends to be the case with Wong, the project is shrouded in secrecy. So far, he has revealed little about the plot, and no one seems to have any idea of the release date.
Even the actors are at a loss. Zhang Ziyi told the Hong Kong press on Tuesday that filming is still ongoing and she has no idea when Wong will finish. “Everyone who has worked for Wong Kar-Wai knows that it’s impossible to tell when he’s going to be done,” Zhang remarked.
Many of Wong’s films portray lovelorn or lonely characters in search of affection and understanding (think In the Mood For Love and Chungking Express). Born in Shanghai, Wong moved to Hong Kong with parents when he was 5, leaving behind an older brother and sister. The circumstances of the Cultural Revolution kept him from seeing them again for more than a decade. Many say that helps explain why his films often focus on loss or emotional distance.
It remains to be seen how Wong’s film making style – slow rhythm and garish visual tone – is going to translate into an all-action film. But leading man Leung reassured the Shanghai Daily that it isn’t a problem; the film is so fast-paced that he “almost couldn’t hang in there”.
“This is a genuine kung fu movie,” Leung said at a news conference in Hong Kong last year. “There really will be many action scenes.”
The other problem Wong now faces is that the story of Ip Man has become much better known, with three similar biopics being made in recent years. Hong Kong director Wilson Yip’s Ip Man franchise was a big hit with two releases in 2008 and 2010. Similarly, Herman Yau’s The Legend Is Born — an Ip Man prequel of sorts – was also released last year.
Still, distributors were anxious to snap up the film’s North American rights. The Hollywood Reporter revealed that large distributors including the Weinstein Company, Fox Searchlight, Focus Features and Sony Pictures Classics were all interested in The Grandmasters but that Wong ended up selling last week to Annanpurna Productions, which promised to make a “significant financial commitment to the movie and its marketing”.
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