BERLIN — The 63rd Berlin Film Festival opened Thursday with an elegant bang — of fists, feet and questions. Kicking off the 11 days of cinematic offerings was jury president Wong Kar Wai’s epic martial arts drama, “The Grandmaster” — a graceful telling of the history of Ip Man, the mentor of Bruce Lee.
First, though, came the morning’s presentation of the jury to the international press in a conference full of polite but pointed queries and answers. Iranian-born, U.S.-based artist and director Shirin Neshat was queried on Iranian policies and gender politics, while actor-producer Tim Robbins got a grilling on American gun culture. Greek producer-director Athina Rachel Tsangari got tough on her home country and its slashed public financial support for cultural endeavors, while conceding that rough times made for better films. (Fellow jurors cinematographer Ellen Kuras, Danish director Susanne Bier and German director Andreas Dresen escaped largely unscathed.)
The same could not be said of the many foes of Ip Man, a master of Wing Chun martial arts. Beginning in 1936, the story starts amid a challenge, with Tony Leung as Ip Man taking on an army of baddies in a dramatic downpour — naturally, he comes out swinging in the rain.
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As the representative of the Southern style of martial arts, he meets his match in Gong Er, played by Zhang Ziyi, the daughter of the outgoing Northern master. The two have a duel-turned-duet that leaves both tantalized. But then they must go their separate ways and fight their own personal battles amid turbulent times as Japan occupies China. In the end, both are exiled to Hong Kong. Along the way, Gong Er must take on former ally Ma San (Zhang Jin) to avenge her father’s murder and survive a run-in with a mysterious assassin, the Razor (Chang Chen).
Based on an original story by Wong, the storyline uses the major fighting characters to embody four schools of Kung Fu — Wing Chun (Ip Man), Bagua (Gong Er), Xingyi (Ma San) and Baji (the Razor). The actors committed to several years of rigorous training for their roles. In Berlin, director of photography Philippe Le Sourd and Zhang explained that it took 20 months of shooting over three years, but they’d do it all over again for Wong.
The Weinstein Co. announced Thursday that it will distribute the film in the U.S. and several other countries; American rights were acquired from Annapurna Pictures, owned by Megan Ellison, a credited producer on “The Grandmaster.”
“The Grandmaster” is said to be Wong’s most commercial film. It opened strong in China in January, making more than $50 million at the box office and is the director’s highest-grossing film. After multiple edits, "The Grandmaster" in its current version is screening at 120 minutes, though a four-hour version of the film is said to exist.
At the press conference for the film, the 56-year-old Wong said he’d had the idea the film since 1999, after seeing a Super 8 film of Ip Man taken three days before his death in 1972. In the clip, the 79-year-old is in his pajamas, in his living room with cats and grandchildren watching as he demonstrates his art. For a moment, with his back to the camera, he stops. “It’s a very agonizing moment,” said Wong.