Will Wong Kar-Wai Finally Break Through at the Box Office with "The Grandmasters?"

The Grandmasters

Believe it or not, none of Wong Kar-Wai’s films were ever hits in Hong Kong, even though they starred some of Hong Kong’s biggest box office draws - Andy Lau, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Leslie Cheung, and Maggie Cheung. His biggest hit was his debut film “As Tears Go By” (Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung, Jacky Cheung), which grossed HK $11.5M ($1.5M US) in 1988, according to Wikipedia. (Yes, I’m quoting Wikipedia, but it’s also what I remembered when I was looking at box office charts from Hong Kong back then.) Even in Hong Kong, that’s just a so-so figure. And back then China’s film market hasn’t matured yet.

If his films didn’t make much at the box office, why do they tend to attract an ensemble cast? It’s all for the critical acclaim and international exposure. Wong Kar-Wai’s films tend to rack up awards both locally and internationally. He’s a name brand in the international film festival circuit and to film fans around the world. I remember reading in an interview, in which Leung, one of Wong’s most frequent collaborators, said Wong’s films give him international exposure, even if they don’t do much for his salary.

In the “The Grandmasters,” Leung plays Ip Man, the martial artist who trained Bruce Lee when he was a teenager. Because Leung isn’t a martial artist, Wong beefed up the film's Kung Fu credentials by hiring Yuen Woo-Ping to choreograph the action and pairing Leung up with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Zhang Ziyi. Also in the cast are mixed martial arts fighter Cung Le (“Bodyguards and Assassins”) and Bruce Leung, arguably the most popular and respected Bruce Lee clone during the Bruceploitation days. With a more commercial subject and a budget of $25M (pretty huge in Chinese terms), I’m sure Wong’s investors are more interested in monetary returns than accolades -- although it’d be nice to have both.

At first, I thought with the success of Wilson Yip’s “Ip Man,” which starred Donnie Yen and had Sammo Hung choreographing the hand-to-hand combat, that Wong would go the other route -- instead of a mostly fictional vehicle made purely to entertain the action crowd, he would make a more genuine film based on the actual life of the Wing Chun master.

Take a glimpse at the trailer, and you can pretty much throw that out the window. The production is so overly slick and stylized, it makes Yip’s version look authentic. “The Grandmasters” looks grander, bigger, and even more over-the-top. This isn’t necessarily better, but we shall see. In development for a decade and in production for nearly three years (Tony Leung cranked out two other films during breaks from this production), this looks like a genre film made to put lots of people in seats and buy popcorn.

And I think it will, because of China’s booming film market, where Leung has become one of the top box office draws. Each of his last four films, including “Red Cliff” and “The Great Magician,” grossed in the $30M range.

“The Grandmasters” will open next week on January 8th in China. Good thing because had it opened during the December holidays as it was originally scheduled, “Lost in Thailand” and “Chinese Zodiac” would have crushed it. Just ask the makers of “The Guillotines” and “The Last Tycoon” (Chow Yun Fat, Sammo Hung), both of which did disappointing business going against the dynamic duo.

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