Spencer Murphy, CUEAFS Founder and Managing Director, had the absolute pleasure of sitting down with Hong Kong director Herman Yau and scriptwriter Erica Li, whose film ‘Ip Man: The Final Fight’ premiered in Italy and was also one of the winners at the Udine festival.

Spencer Murphy: ‘Ip Man: The Final Fight’ had its European Premiere a few days ago here at the Udine Far East Film Festival. Were you pleased with the reception that you received at Udine for the film?

Herman Yau: Yes, of course I’m very glad, it seems that the film has been received very well here. At the very beginning I thought that it  [‘Ip Man’] was something very oriental, very Chinese. But after the screening here I found that it was also understood and recognised by Western people.

Spencer Murphy: With regards to the fact that you have done a lot of press interviews about the film – has the passion of Western viewers for Hong Kong film surprised you?

Herman Yau: The local audience in Hong Kong are very critical about Hong Kong movies and the industry, although ‘Ip Man’ is fortunate because the movie has been very well received there. I am very impressed though; the press here are so sincere and enthusiastic, you can really feel their passion for the film. Also it’s very nice that all the interviewers, everyone has seen the movie before. You wouldn’t get this in Hong Kong.

Spencer Murphy: Erica, how do you feel, are you pleased?

Erica Li:  I’m pleased and surprised by the audience here. An Italian student told me that she wants to go back to Hong Kong in the 1950s. It’s exactly how I felt when I watched ‘Cinema Paradiso’; I wanted to go back to that Italy. Obviously both of these places don’t exist anymore, but I found it to be very surprising and encouraging.

Like Herman has said, in Hong Kong they look at local movies in a local way, for example they would emphasise the main actor. However, here there is such fame even supporting actors. I’ve received philosophical questions; they asked me to analyse the personality of Ip Man’s wife, Ip Man’s girlfriend, and his two apprentices.

The Hong Kong audience is just not that interested in these aspects of the film. They even asked me which character I am! It’s very very interesting; I feel very grateful to all the non-Chinese speakers who are so in love with Hong Kong movies; I now know my responsibility of being a Hong Kong script writer.

Erica Li and Herman Yau

Spencer Murphy: The film has a real nostalgic feel and in terms of this, for yourselves does it represent a longing for the past of Hong Kong, or is it a reflection of how Hong Kong is now?

Herman Yau: Of course I don’t have a clear perception of the views of the Western audience, but in Hong Kong both audience and critics have noted the nostalgic element. In Hong Kong we’ve got this kind of films already with the same issues, action, even violence, but in the past 3-5 years ‘nostalgic’ has become a key word. The ‘nostalgic’ has become a stage of mind too. It is so significant because it’s a reaction, a response to the fast-paced development in Hong Kong, to the changes of the cityscape.

The word nostalgic is important for the preservation of our heritage, which is also a hot issue, so to say, in Hong Kong. The emergence of ‘Ip Man- the Final Fight’ is in line with the state of mind of the people. We have put lots of different elements into the movie, but what is being the most discussed by audiences is the nostalgic one.

Spencer Murphy: Thinking about nostalgia, you mentioned all these pre-1997 Hong Kong films such as the ‘Once Upon a Time in China’ for example and the other ‘Ip Man’ films which are also looking back, trying to find a sense of identity. Why are film makers focusing on Ip Man in particular?

Herman Yau: I think the focus on Ip Man is mainly business-orientated. The very first Ip Man movie was a failure in the marketing sense. We also have Wong Kar Wai’s ‘The Grandmaster’. I didn’t have a chance to make ‘Ip Man- The Legend Is Born’, but the response to it in the box office wasn’t very good.

Erica Li: From an audience point of view, everybody is looking for heroes, and sequences such as Batman and Superman in the Western world, and Wong Fei-hung, which has been made into more than a hundred episodes, prove that. I think that Ip Man is the new hero of the century.

Erica Li and Herman Yau

Spencer Murphy: What is interesting about your approach both in terms of the script and the direction of the film is that even though he is portrayed as a hero, we can still see Ip Man’s weaknesses. He is older in ‘The Final Fight’ and this is made obvious rather than portraying him as an indestructible superhero. Was that a very conscious decision to make him more human?

Erica Li: Yes, I wanted to portray something between a hero and an anti-hero because before he is a legend, he is a human. This is exactly what we wanted to show – the untold story of Ip Man.

Herman Yau: Personally, in my past experiences, I think that there are no heroes in the world. Heroism is just a coincidence in a particular era. On the other hand, the emergence of the anti-hero is kind of a detachment. Referring to my film career for example, film stars are a product of imagination, but they are still ordinary people who have to eat and to sleep. If I choose to make a film, I’d rather have some diversity which allows me to add an aspect to this so-called ‘hero’, which makes him more genuine, more human, but still a hero – a human hero with a closer relationship with the audience which is both conscious and unconscious.

Spencer Murphy: I think it was a postmodern writer who said “A myth is a series of misunderstandings gathered around a great name”. The opening fight scene in Ip Man really brings that out. Is this a kind of criticism of these historical figures?

Erica Li: Exactly! After the first Ip Man nobody was talking about Ip Man. At that stage of his life he was a hungry old man who could barely move, but now he is a hero which is sort of an irony to the movie.

Herman Yau: I think this particular scene is quite dialectical where the so-called real things deviate from the reality. When a story about a man is being retold it’s just another representation, so it depends how it’s interpreted.

Spencer Murphy: Many critics make some very favourable comparisons with the other Ip Man film – ‘The Grandmaster’ in terms of ‘The Final Fight’, because they are in the totally opposite ends of the spectrum. Many say that the Wong Kar Wai film is a very lavish and boring approach to Ip Man. Knowing that Wong Kar Wai was also making an Ip Man film, did that have any effect on the producers or even on yourselves?

Herman Yau: No, because the so-called Wong Kar Wai films and Herman Yau films are so different. Before the release of ‘The Grandmaster’ and before the release of ‘Ip Man: The Final Fight’, the producers weren’t thinking that these two directors are making the same films on the same subject. What we have done is two very different styles.

Some people say that in a more general sense Wong Kar Wai’s film is more artistically done and mine is more commercial. I personally just worked on my project without thinking of comparing it to Wong Kar Wai’s one.

Erica Li: To me it’s the same as listening to the same song but performed by Susan Boyle and Madonna. From the first second you know they will be different because you are what you feel. Different people have different characters and charisma. Therefore, we were never concerned whether it is very similar or too different.

Interview by Spencer Murphy

Transcript by Eva Spirova

Photography by Andreea Dascalu