NEW YORK—There is no record of Ip Man’s life before he went to Hong Kong.
At first Tony Leung, the actor who plays Ip Man in the 2013 film “The Grandmaster,” thought his character’s story would remain a mystery, that is, until he came across a photo that seemed to explain how Ip Man became the grand kung fu master who would teach Bruce Lee.
“There was something in his eyes and his faint smile that said he was a man who had vast wisdom, and that he had worked hard for it,” Leung said during an interview in Manhattan on Aug 13.
Although Ip Man is known as one of Southern China’s most accomplished martial artists, he lived a difficult life in Hong Kong.
Ip Man had fought with the Chinese Nationalist Party and left for Hong Kong in 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party took power.
In Hong Kong, Ip Man did not have enough long-term students to earn a steady income. Leung learned from one of Ip Man’s former students that the grandmaster slept without a comforter during winter.
“I knew that this was the life that he lived when that photo was taken…I wondered how Ip Man could still have such dignity,” he said. “He was an extraordinary man. I really wanted to understand how he became the man that he was.”
“I thought, perhaps he was a very optimistic man. But it must not have been just that,” Leung said. “It must have been something spiritual he found in kung fu that taught him how to deal with life.”
The film’s director Wong Kar Wai required his lead actors to learn kung fu for three years before they started shooting. Co-star Chang Chen even won a national kung fu tournament as a result of training for the movie.
Leung trained with one of Ip Man’s direct disciples. Through extensive research and excruciating training, he learned that martial arts was not merely a perfection of techniques, and that Ip Man did not become great because of his physical ability.
“After practicing three months you can master basic techniques, but not the spiritual aspect of it. It’s one of those things that takes a lifetime to acquire,” Leung said.
Although the original script was written in 2001, Wong spent years knocking on more than 100 kung fu masters’ doors across China in an attempt to grasp the depth of martial arts.
Historically, kung fu is heavily influenced by Taoist and Buddhist philosophies.
“Real kung fu is actually a training for your mind,” Leung said. “It’s very spiritual, I was very interested in that aspect of it.”
Although no records exist of Ip Man’s earlier life, Leung said he knew Ip Man’s achievements came from the spiritual depth he gained from practicing kung fu.
“Kung Fu is not merely a fighting technique or something that promotes health. It’s a philosophy and spiritual inspiration that can be applied in life,” he said. “And that was how Ip Man was able to deal with the hardships in his life.”
Leung said he believes a part of the reason Bruce Lee was such a significant figure in martial arts was his different way of looking at kung fu, much of which was inspired by Ip Man.
“At first, I didn’t understand why Wang Kar Wai wanted me to merge Bruce Lee’s character with Ip Man’s,” Leung said.
“Ip Man’s greatness didn’t lie in his physical ability; he was great because of his particular way of of thinking of and understanding of kung fu,” he said. “Later, I learned that Bruce Lee was deeply influenced by Ip Man.”
About the Film
In contrast with other Ip Man films, “The Grandmaster” has little gore; instead, it focuses on the haunting beauty of kung fu fight scenes, which are allegories for the philosophy of martial arts and its connection to life.
The movie is set in the 1930s. It tells the story of kung fu masters challenging each other for the title of Grandmaster as the previous one retires.
The film concentrates on the end of an era in Chinese martial arts history as the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out.
The fight scenes in “The Grandmaster” were choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, who was the mastermind behind the kung fu scenes in The Matrix.
“The Grandmaster” debuted in Taiwan on Jan. 10. The film will be released on Aug. 23 in Los Angeles and New York, and on Aug. 30 nationwide.
“I feel that this is not only a film about kung fu … It also encompasses the culture of Chinese kung fu, that time period’s traditions, as well as its beauty,” Leung said.
“These are things that we had lost for a long time. We hope that Westerners can come in touch with our traditional culture [through this film],” he said.
Ben Hedges contributed to this report.