'The Grandmaster': Ziyi Zhang on her intense kung fu training schedule

August 21, 2013   |   Written by Laura Hertzfeld

Ziyi Zhang is no stranger to serious kung fu moves, after her starring roles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and 2004’s House of Flying Daggers. But training with kung fu master and choreographer Yuen Wo Ping for the upcoming film The Grandmaster? That was a whole other story, she tells EW.

“It was very intensive because [director] Wong Kar-wei didn’t want us to pretend we know a little bit about kung fu — he really wanted us to be the master,” she tells EW about the six-month-long training process. “For this reason, we had to train many hours a day from 4 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon. I had three different kung fu masters to train me. It was like boot camp.”

One scene in particular was very challenging to film. Shot in freezing cold temperatures in northern China, the train-fight scene below took nearly three months to film, Zhang says. Producer Harvey Weinstein is calling the scene “the best fight scene in cinema since the ‘Crazy 88s scene’ in Kill Bill” — which was also choreographed by Ping.

“This fight will be a classic,” Zhang says. “It took three months to shoot because it was extremely intricate; we had to pay great attention to every detail. This all was made more difficult by the harsh cold weather. I couldn’t feel my hands and feet doing the scene.”

But, Zhang says, it was worth it. She first worked with Ping on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and is in talks to team up with him again for the sequel. “On one hand he’s a killer kung fu master, and on the other he’s this really kind, gentle, caring person,” she says of the director/choreographer.

The Grandmaster also carried special meaning for Zhang as a celebration of girl power. Her character, Gong Er, challenges kung fu master Ip Man to regain her family’s honor, and their relationship becomes a central theme of the film. “The reaction from the female audience [so far] is that they praise this film and feel strong, identified.”