For his role in The Last of the Mohicans, actor Daniel Day-Lewis taught himself to build a canoe, shoot a flintlock and trap and skin animals. For the opening scene of My Left Foot – a movie about Christy Brown, an artist with cerebral palsy – the actor learned how to put a record on a turntable using his toes, and also insisted on remaining in a wheelchair between takes. And more recently, to play the lead role in the latest Steven Spielberg film Lincoln, Day-Lewis half-convinced himself that he was the iconic nineteenth century president, refusing to drop his accent at any time on set.
Although Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai doesn’t go to quite such extremes, he too is famously fussy about his work ethic. To prepare for director Wong Kar-Wai’s martial arts drama The Grandmasters, in which Leung plays the kung-fu legend Ip Man, he took intensive martial arts training lesson for months, including hours practising with a wooden dummy that’s unique to the Wing Chun practice, which Ip taught.
Leung worked so hard he even fractured his left forearm in the process.
“Once I’m committed to a role, I will go very deep into it, even when I’m not at work,” he says. “I’ll keep on studying the script, maybe 40 or 50 times. I might call a scriptwriter at three in the morning to say I’ve thought of something new,” Leung told TIME magazine.
Well, that’s when there is a script. For The Grandmasters, Leung reunited with Wong for their seventh collaboration. But Wong, who is often compared to Jean-Luc Godard, has a way of working that is notorious among actors for limiting their access to information about plots and characters. Famously, formal scripts are often lacking too. Scenes are usually written on set as the director finds inspiration from one scene to the next.
The style can unnerve some of Wong’s thespian colleagues. Maggie Cheung, who worked with Wong in In The Mood For Love, has openly admitted that she is uncomfortable with Wong’s unstructured approach and Zhang Ziyi, who starred in 2046 and The Grandmasters, has also complained about him not adhering to production deadlines.
But Leung didn’t see it as a problem: “I have worked with people on his movies and they are very frightened, very nervous at first, and they come up and ask me what the heck is going on. And I always tell them with Wong, you don’t ask, you just feel,” Leung told TIME. “He works in reverse to everyone else. That’s why he takes so long and that’s why we don’t need to know [the script].”
“A lot of people say shooting his films is very time-consuming. But I don’t mind that. I like to act. So isn’t it better if filming takes longer?”
The first time Leung worked with Wong was in Days of Being Wild (1991), in which he had a five minute cameo role. Three years later, Leung got substantially more screen time in Ashes in Time, Wong’s first foray into the martial arts genre. The two teamed up again in Chungking Express (1994), Happy Together (1997), In the Mood for Love (2000) – which won Leung the best actor award at Cannes – and 2046 (2004), a film so delayed that many quipped it wouldn’t be finished until the title year.
But even for a director who has been known for his relaxed attitude to deadlines, The Grandmasters took an exceptionally long time to finish. In fact, Wong first announce he was making a biopic about Ip Man in 2002. However, Wong’s version has taken so long to complete that rival filmmakers have had time to release their own Ip Man movies ahead of his (see WiC62).
The Grandmasters will be screened in China shortly after Christmas, from January 8. Still, that’s something of a moving target – just weeks ago it was scheduled to premiere on December 18, but was delayed. His publicist explained this was to “give the director enough time to release his energy”.
Indeed, even though the latest Ip Man biopic is only a month away from screening, it appears that no one really knows quite what the final product is going to be. Just two weeks ago Apple Daily reported that Wong was still frantically filming scenes for the final cut.
The good news for Leung is that he can finally take up other projects now The Grandmasters is done. Since filming started, Leung had cut down his workload dramatically, featuring in just one film over the last four years, largely because The Grandmasters was both so time-consuming and so far behind schedule.
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