Luxe Redux

Wong Kar Wai revisits his own 'Ashes of Time'

The original 1994 version of Ashes of Time is probably the least well known of Hong Kong master Wong Kar Wai’s nine feature films. There are numerous reasons for this: its batshit, inscrutable narrative; its lack of a proper theatrical release in the U.S.; and the need for a definitive DVD release being at the top of the list.

That should change with the release of Ashes of Time Redux, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year and opens for a brief run at the Mariemont Theatre this week. While Wong’s restored version does little to clear up its elliptical narrative — the film is inspired by a popular martial-arts novel that centers on a pair of desolation-ridden mercenaries — its rapturous, color-saturated images more than make up for any cognitive dissonance.

Shunned by mainstream Asian audiences because of its disregard for martial-arts conventions, Ashes of Time instead uses its gorgeous, star-studded cast (Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau, Brigitte Lin and both Tony Leungs) to explore Wong’s pet themes of memory and romantic longing, while at the same time taking his now obvious formal gifts to new heights.

CityBeat discussed the film’s restoration with Wong at the Toronto Film Festival in September. And, yes, he wore his trademark aviator sunglasses while sitting on a couch at the Sutton Place Hotel.

CityBeat: Why did you want to revisit Ashes of Time?
Wong Kar Wai: Well, there’s a practical reason: The studio declared bankruptcy and we didn’t have the original print. We had to retrieve the photo materials from other sources, and we noticed that a lot of stuff is not in very good shape. Some of the sounds and images were missing, so we decided to restore the film. We had to look for prints from overseas distributors and go to Chinatown theaters to find some of the stuff. When we had all these things together we realized it’s not going to be a simple restoration. We had to work out solutions. But you also have to stop yourself from going to far. I didn’t want to look at it the way I would do it now; I just wanted it to look the way is supposed to look (originally).

CB: Why did you decide to make it a prequel instead a straight adaptation of the book?
WKW: You have to understand that this novel is very popular (in China). It’s the second-best seller behind Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book. This novel has been made into different film versions in the 1950s and ’60s, so you don’t have much space (to make it your own). And I’m always surprised and curious by these two characters. They are the two best characters in the novel, but they are already 70 years old. So I tried to imagine what made them into these characters. What happened to them in their younger days? In that case we had a different angle to look at the story. Do you see?

CB: Yes. It allows you much more creative freedom. The action sequences are quite different than a typical martial-arts film. Why did you use this abstract, expressionistic style?
WKW: It was very controversial (in Asia) when it came out in ’94. Chris (Doyle), my DP (director of photography), he always says, “Action is a bitch.” Because when you are shooting standard martial arts movies you have these action choreographers who want to be precise with all these techniques. But I just wanted to do something different. Even though it’s action, it’s still about emotions. I shot it that way because I just wanted to convey different feelings. I used a lot of slow motion because I wanted to show the heaviness.

CB: There are several sequences in which characters’ faces are shot in close-up accompanied by this very loud soundtrack with insects buzzing. Sergio Leone’s films immediately come to mind. Was that something you were thinking about at the time?
WKW: Yes, of course. The thing that I learned about Sergio Leone is that he is not only making a western or fantasy; he is doing something very practical. Chinese martial-arts films, in a way, are purely fantasy. The characters in a martial-arts film are not concerned about how to make their living or how to do their laundry. So I just borrowed something from Sergio Leone and started the film with Leslie (Cheung’s character) making a living by selling ideas to people — that they might want to have someone killed.

CB: You shot the film in the Gobi Desert where there was no electricity or modern conveniences. How did that type of setting impact the production?
WKW: To shoot this film in China in 1992 was an adventure. It wasn’t as colonized as it is today, and that place is so remote. It gave everything a different feeling, because the previous versions of this book were made in studios. The real locations gave the audience a different sense of aesthetics about a martial-arts film.

CB: I read that this was the only film you’ve done where you knew the ending before you started shooting. Why do you like to start filming without a set script?
WKW: Well, you know the starting point, but you’re curious how it ends. You have to decide where to end and why. But in this film, you know how the characters will end up so you have to create this fatalistic atmosphere throughout.

CB: It’s curious that you stopped production for a period on this and made Chungking Express (which recently received a nice Criterion DVD release) in between. How did that impact both films?
WKW: Ashes of Time was the first film I produced myself. Shooting in China at that point with 10 major cast members was very tough. The traveling alone was a mess, so you spend most of your time dealing with things like that as a director. At the end of shooting I realized that it’s totally exhausting and somehow you feel like you just want to do something very simple.
When we got back to Hong Kong we thought, “We have this much time before we can finish the post-production on Ashes of Time, should we do something else?” So I said, “Why don’t we just make a film in an area which I know? We don’t have to worry about transportation. We don’t have to create costumes or a set. We just shoot on location.” I wanted to revisit that spontaneous way of working.

CB: But you had only a certain amount of time to finish it, right?
WKW: We only had, like, six weeks and a certain amount of money. On Ashes we had more than 100 people working in the desert. Every shot was a big setup. But when we came back to shoot Chungking Express our team was like, “Let’s go.” I grew up in that area of Hong Kong, so I knew all of those places by heart. And we even shot in Chris Doyle’s apartment.

CB: Wow, that’s a nice tidbit.
WKW: Yes (laughs). It was easy and hard for him at the same time.

Opens Dec. 19. Check out Mariemont show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.