The 63rd Berlin film festival opened Thursday with a gala screening of Chinese director Wong Kar Wai’s martial arts epic about the mentor of kung fu superstar Bruce Lee.
Wong, who is also leading the Berlin’s jury this year, is using the event as a launch pad for the worldwide release of “The Grandmaster”, which has opened in China to rave reviews and a box office bonanza.
The film, whose original two-hours-plus length has been chopped slightly for the world market, stars Hong Kong heart-throb Tony Leung, who became an international star in Wong’s 2000 hit “In the Mood for Love”, and Beijing-born star Zhang Ziyi (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”).
Wong “has added a new and exciting facet to his body of work, and created an artful, visually powerful genre film,” festival director Dieter Kosslick said.
The film spans several decades of Chinese history to tell the story of legendary martial artist Yip Man, who went on to train Lee, and features dazzling battle scenes between rival fighters.
Wong, 54, told reporters in Beijing last month he was confident the movie, which is screening out of competition at the 11-day Berlin Festival, had global appeal.
“There is no such thing as a Western or Eastern audience… The elements of cinema are the same worldwide, although their expression is different,” he said.
The film follows Leung as the Grandmaster through some of China’s most tumultuous recent history including the Japanese invasion in the 1930s.
It spent nearly a decade in gestation, amid rumors of extensive re-shooting and injured actors.
Wong made his international breakthrough in 1994 with “Chungking Express” and was the first Chinese director to sit on the jury at Cannes.
He will head the panel handing out the Berlin’s Golden and Silver Bear top prizes among 19 contenders on February 16.
The first major European film festival of the year and traditionally its most politically minded, the Berlin this year is showcasing pictures about the human impact of the West’s economic crisis, two decades of upheaval in eastern Europe as well as a fresh releases from US independent directors.
Matt Damon teams up with US director Gus Van Sant for the first time since their 1997 Oscar winner “Good Will Hunting” in “Promised Land”, as a fracking firm executive pressuring cash-strapped farmers to sell their property.
Steven Soderbergh will enter the running with “Side Effects”, billed as his last movie before he heads into semi-retirement, featuring Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones as psychiatrists handing out drugs to stressed-out Americans.
The grandes dames of French cinema Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert and Juliette Binoche will all be unveiling new work.
And Poland’s Malgoska Szumowska, one of three women vying for the Golden Bear, will tackle the tale of a gay Roman Catholic priest with the keenly awaited “In the Name of”.
Iran’s Jafar Panahi, a director who has scooped up international prizes for socially critical movies that are banned at home, will present “Closed Curtain” about two fugitives hiding from the police.
Oscar-winning Bosnian film-maker Danis Tanovic (“No Man’s Land”) returns with “An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker”, exposing the wretched conditions in a poor and isolated Roma community.
Last year the Golden Bear went to Italian veterans Paolo and Vittorio Taviani for the docudrama “Caesar Must Die” about prison inmates staging Shakespeare.
With more than 400 films due to screen at the festival, much of the buzz is expected to come from beyond the race for the key prizes.
“Dark Blood”, the last film with River Phoenix, the US rising star who died of a drug overdose at 23 two decades ago, will show out of competition, as will Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s final chapter in their slow-burn romantic trilogy, “Before Midnight” by Richard Linklater.