Wong Kar-Wai is the internationally-acclaimed director of Chungking Express, In the Mood For Love and, most recently, My Blueberry Nights. His cinema is characterized by loneliness, introspection and musings on memory and the impossibility of love. The setting is most usually 1960s or 1990s Hong Kong; despite departures for South America (Happy Together) and the future (2046) the real most apparently anomalous entry in his filmography is Ashes of Time, a martial arts film set in the timeless fantasy world of the jianghu. In fact, its protagonists share many of the same preoccupations as his contemporary characters, and the film pays no more than lip-service to the conventions of the genre. A newly restored, re-edited and rescored version, Ashes of Time Redux will be released in October and in support of its North American theatrical debut, Wong met with BeatCrave at the Beverly-Wilshire.
I understand that the process of going back to this film was initially based on a desire to restore it; I was wondering where along the line you decided actually to do more than that, with the re-edit, rescore and coloring and so forth, or whether these changes were always part of your intention.
No it was not our intention. Basically at first we just wanted to do a simple restoration because otherwise the film was only accessible on DVD or videotape and I just wanted the film to be seen on the big screen, so we had to do that. We spent a lot of time to try to find the missing materials from overseas, distributors in Chinatowns and the cinemas there, because the film was released in this country in Chinatowns ‘94. But somehow by the time we got the material we realised it was impossible to do a simple restoration, because the film could not be restored 100%. We had to make some editorial choices and to cut the film in a certain way, and also to replace some of the film with alternative takes. As a principle I didn’t want to do anything like looking at the film with the experience that we have today; I just want to keep it as what it is supposed to be. We’re very happy with what we have achieved on this point, and it should be seen in this way. I believe some films need time to reach the audience; maybe this is a better time to reach the audience than fifteen years ago. I think that people have more knowledge about this genre and also the cast.
Why does this film mean so much to you?
In effect Ashes of Time was the first film that we produced ourselves and it was after my second film, Days of Being Wild. It was at the point when we had to decide – because Days of Being Wild was not successful commercially and because it was not well-received by the traditional market for Hong Kong cinema at that time – either we had to make films that this market wanted, or we had to do it by ourselves. We had to finance our film, produce our own film in this way because this is what we really wanted to do and what we really cared about. So this is the first, the beginning. And because we wanted to make it different from other adaptations from the novels which appeared before ours, so we decided to shoot this film in China, which is also very rare. We spent almost six months in the desert, which is near Mongolia, and after this film we really thought – we knew – we could manage, that this is the way we should go. So I would say that without Ashes of Time actually there would be no Chungking Express which we shot at the same time, and there wouldn’t be films like In The Mood For Love so it’s extremely important to us because it tells us where we came from.
How shocking was it for you to realise that there was not a good copy of Ashes of Time that you could do restoration with? Did you have thoughts like “how about the rest of my films”?
Well we learnt something by this film, because the film actually, when we had to do restoration, was only four years old. So they were very shocking facts that we learnt because I believe in the early 90s the Hong Kong film industry was almost at its peak – we produced something like 300 films a year. So in a way people are focused on making more new films instead of paying attention to the materials. And just imagine – one of the reasons why we had this problem is that the film was not stored as it is supposed to be, in warehouse. They put it on the roof. So there were a lot of problems. After that we tried to collect all the materials and put them in the right place. So some people asked me “are you going to do more restorations?” and I said “no, I don’t think it is necessary”. But Ashes of Time is really a film that means a lot to use, so we had to do it.
Was there any visual or audio material when you were looking for this that you weren’t able to get hold of? Was there footage you couldn’t track down?
Yes of course. Because when you compare this version with the original version, it’s ten minutes shorter. It’s not like Apocalypse Now where it’s longer, because there’s lots of things we had to give up. But of course we had to replace them with other takes and also we had to create some shots, like the first shot of the film which is created digitally. This is a shot that I always wanted but we were not able to do it; but now it seems rather easy when you have all this technology.
So certain stuff that got cut out of this version wasn’t necessarily your choice, it was just a matter of you didn’t have access?
You have said that at the time you filmed it, you were not able to achieve the technical standards that the film needed. What did you mean by that?
The reason is like when we had to do the new score – I think what Frankie (Chan) did for the original version is cool because it’s not that standard martial arts music; it’s more like Tangerine Dream and a bit like Mark Knopffler. The thing is that the recording was quite bad at that point so that’s why we had to find a bunch of very talented Beijing musicians. They are from a group called Silk Road which was founded by Yo-Yo Ma himself, so I asked him to do a rearrangement based on the original compositions which make up the soundtrack when you look at the film now. It’s different, because it is in better quality and it is closer to the film.
For those who are not informed about the original, how has it been changed?
Changed means there’s reference because there’s an original where there’s change, but for an audience who haven’t seen the original of this, I think they don’t have to carry this baggage with them. We have had three public screenings so far and an audience who hasn’t seen this film before doesn’t have any reference and they just think, well this is the film; it seems like they know what the film is doing and they like it a lot.
How much new footage was shot for this film and did (original cinematographer) Chris Doyle shoot it? Was he involved also in the colouring of the film?
Actually Chris has been extremely busy. We just had a conversation this morning. He is shooting a film with Neil Jordan in Ireland, so basically he has not been involved in this process, because this process is too long and Chris makes a lot of films and commercials and his life is busy. But we watched the film together in Cannes and actually he feels like, to him, this is the picture that he shot, and more he feels like this is something that we did and he is very happy about it.
What was the return to Cannes like?
In the last four years I have been in Cannes almost every year for different reasons and somehow it feels familiar because I know all the cinemas, I know the people. The reception of the film was very good, and also the screening in a way was very memorable because it happened just before the earthquake, and in fact the area affected by the earthquake is where we shot this film, very close to that area. So we dedicated the screening to these people. But on the other side, because I hadn’t seen Chris for a long time – Chris and Mike, who hadn’t seen this film for a long time because they were not involved in this process – for us it was almost like an old-school reunion. When we look at this it is more than just a film; it’s like a process – it’s more about the process, the days when we made this film.
Have you been able to show the movie to any of the principals of that time?
Yes, we went to Cannes with Tony (Leung Chiu Wai) and Carina (Lau), and Brigitte (Lin) has just watched the film because now she doesn’t want to appear in public so we arranged a private screening for me, and she is very happy.
What’s been the reception now of the film by the Hong Kong audience today?
We haven’t released this Redux version in China yet because the film was not officially released outside of China, or outside of Asia, so we will release here in the United States in October, and France will open next week, and after that we will release the film in China. But we had a special screening in the Shanghai festival for the charity off the Sichuan earthquake and the screening was very memorable because it’s a big cinema – 1028 seats – and I noticed that among the audience there were a lot of fans of Leslie Cheung so basically it was like an old-time reunion for them.
Normally your films are definitely very intimate and romantic, but Ashes of Time seems to have a scope that is much greater than most of your other films. Do you have any desire to do another epic story?
There are several projects that we’ve been developing in these last few years, that you can call epic in a sense. I think what makes you feel this especially about Ashes of Time is because most of my films are urban films; they are really happening, in a city. But Ashes of Time is a film we shot entirely in the desert. The landscape is different. The space is much much broader than just a small alley in Hong Kong.
How was that transition for you and how different was it to work out the story?
You have to remember that Ashes of Time was actually my third film so my style, or audiences’ perceptions of my films, was not that well-established at that time. And at that point we just wanted in each to try to explore a different genre. We started with As Tears Go By, which is a gangster film, and then Days of Being Wild which is a love story about the 60s, and then Ashes of Time and then Chungking Express. Each time we just tried to do something different.
Can you talk a little bit about the action scenes in Ashes of Time? You used a style that’s basically your own because it’s not coming from the traditions of martial arts films.
First of all Chris Doyle didn’t have any experience with action – he only knew that after Ashes of Time, how to shoot action in a traditional sense, meaning it has to be fast-paced and it has to be precise to pick up the stunts and actions. But where we wanted to make a difference was to have the action sequences almost like a dance, it’s not really about the stunts; it’s an expression, it’s a rhythm, and it should have emotion in it. And we wanted to make each of the action scenes a bit different: for the blind swordsman, really he’s very tired and we shot with a lot of slow motion and his sword which were very fast becomes slower and slower because it’s too heavy for him. And for the others, like with Jackie Cheung who’s the guy who came from the countryside, he’s fresh, so we shot it with a different method: we used the step-printing to make it like it’s very fast, you know; we want to tell you he’s speedy, he’s very fast. I think that after Ashes of Time people shot action more or less with a certain influence from the film, because people began to realise that action is not really about looking at stunts clearly; it’s really about your imagination. Sometimes you will see more without seeing exactly what has happened.
Sammo Hung was part of the choreography – can you speak a little bit about the experience of working with him?
I am a big fan of Sammo Hung because he is very established and I consider Sammo as one of the best action directors ever in Hong Kong cinema. He had moved to Canada to make some TV series for the States and I called him up and said, I want to work with you on this film; I want you to be my action choreographer, and he agreed and he came back to China to work with me in the desert. But I would say that Sammo is more than just a choreographer because he is a very good director himself – he understands the process. And also he is a very good cook. So every Friday night his dinner was the party of the night.
What was the menu?
Mainly meat, you know. Everyone in the cast would say that if you were not invited to Sammo’s breakfast that means he’s mad at you. You won’t have a good time the rest of the day.
What was that creative partnership like on set, because of course he comes from such an illustrious background of certainly visceral action films and then you’re shooting in a way that’s much more impressionistic. What came first – this is the way we are going to shoot it and then is the way he was going to choreograph it?
No, our collaboration actually was based on mutual respect because I think he’s a very good director and very experienced action choreographer. I wouldn’t go into detail with him because what’s the point? What he needed to know was like “what do you want to say? What do you want from this scene?” So I would explain to him that, well, for this scene we want to see this guy – for the blind swordsman actually there’s two tricks: it’s like the light is fading out; he has to rush. And he’s very tired, so I left the rest of it. And for the other action scenes I was like, well we need to see the speed. For Brigitte Lin she’s almost like a legendary character, so it can be a bit more fantasy than realism.
Can you talk about the importance of the Chinese calendar, the solar and lunar times and the importance of that as a parallel?
The original novel, Eagle Shooting Heroes, is actually a four-volume epic. There’s hundreds of characters in it, and it’s very complicated to follow that structure in a film, so I thought that I needed to restructure the film in a certain sense. Actually the film used the Chinese almanac as the motif because it’s not telling you the time, it’s telling you the season; it’s a cycle, it’s repetitious. We want to see the changes in these people – emotionally, physically – through that sort of transition because there’s always a spring after winter.
Can you talk a bit about your writing process?
Normally – I started as a writer so I have to write my script – I have a starting point and I have to figure out how the story ends because that’s the most difficult part. But in this film because it was based on a novel – in the novel most of the characters are like 70 years old; they are very old; they are at the end of their life – we wanted to make it different from the other versions so we just created their younger days. So in a way we knew the ending already and we had to invent a story backwards. Sometimes people will say that the film has a sense of the fatalistic and I say it’s true, because we know how they end up and we are just doing all these manipulations to make them go just into that path.
Had you imagined any further episodes in their lives on their way to being 70 years old, if you had further ideas as to what was going to happen to these characters in between the end of this film and the beginning of the novel?
The thing is these two characters, basically they are the most notorious characters in the novel. They are so-called villains. But I always thought, well no-one wants to be a bad guy in the first place, so how do they end up like this? And I also know from the writer, Louis Cha – he’s the writer (of Eagle Shooting Heroes) and he likes dramas a lot, and he told me the creation of these two characters was influenced by Shakespeare, because he liked all the Shakespeare plays. He just wanted to make these two characters tragic in a sense. So this was my guideline. And in a way, it’s not like it’s very often for film-makers to have a chance to do big martial arts epics, so I jumped at this opportunity with all the knowledge I know about this genre – not only martial arts but also spaghetti westerns from Sergio Leone, all the Japanese samurai films. So in a way in the end it’s not like a standard martial arts film; it’s more like Shakespeare vs Sergio Leone but in Chinese.