On the subject of a recut and remastered re-release, you would expect George Lucas to become something of a talking point, either for or against. That he made his way into my conversation with Wong Kar-Wai at the start was not surprising, but that Wong Kar-Wai talked favorably about one of his films at the end of the interview was nothing less than a bombshell. And yet the recut Star Wars was never a point of reference for our discussion of his Ashes of Time Redux. This, though, has more to do with my respect for WKW as an artist.
Instead, I approached this interview balancing my film lover side with my – what in polite society would be called – fanboyishness. For, you see, one of my favorite working directors is Wong Kar-Wai, and when I told Jeremy Smith about the interview he was nervous for the master’s health in my presence. I kept myself mostly in check, but what surprised me more than anything was that he was happy to have a conversation. He wanted some back and forth, and you’ll see at several points I can help but digress with him.
We were together to speak about the release of Ashes of Time Redux, his recut of the 1994 martial arts epic. The film was famous in Hong Kong for Wong having spent a year in post-production, so lost in it that in the middle he went and shot Chungking Express to re-energize himself. As I described it to Devin as we walked out of the screening, it’s as if Woody Allen, in 1982, made a science-fiction film with the help of ILM that was at once both a sci-fi film and a Woody Allen movie. It’s a strange marriage, and deserves to be seen on the big screen, and this version is now the only version as the Redux happened partly to save the film, which did not have its elements properly preserved. It opens on October 10 in New York and Los Angeles, and will likely play around after that.
I was trying to find out who said it first, I want to say it was Francis Ford Coppola, but I’ve also seen George Lucas credited, though I was thinking it might be Jean-Luc Godard, anyway someone said “Films aren’t released, they escape.” And with this film that seems to be the very definition of it. You edited for a year on this film which led to the 1994 version, and now you’ve got to go back with a butterfly net and spend more time with it
But in a way this film was never released in this part of the world, it just, it took a long birth, I should put it this way.
Most of the versions that came stateside, I have the Mei Ah DVD, were those approved and shipped over here from Hong Kong?
They always say Director Approved (laughs). They never have approval.
You did go back and tinker with it, it seems some of the transitions are different.
It’s more than that, I think. In a way it’s very savage, because we took quite a lot of things out of the film and replaced them with something else. It used to be five courses, but now it’s only four. It’s less dressing, but it’s the same thing. But the process is not as easy as you would think, the original version we cut in ‘94 is in a delicate balance. The story, the structure of the story is so complicated that you need a certain way to tell it, and everything is in a certain balance, but if there was a missing piece, the story collapses. So, it’s not just that we take out the part that have problems, we had to take out more, because it didn’t make sense, so we had to do a lot of work. It’s not only a few trims.
You’re known for spending a lot of time in the editing room, going back to this one, how was it? Could you get this one a little faster?
I couldn’t do too much on this film, because – actually – the restoration took two years. They had to scan all the footage and all the extra takes, and fix scratches, watermarks and sounds. So, I did what I could based on the material. There’s not a lot of options to do that. And I don’t want to change it completely, because otherwise, what’s the point? You’re better to just do another film.
In the production notes it mentioned that you were basically rescuing it.
We call this film “Saving Ashes of Time”
Was there a longer cut at some point, were there things that went missing? Do you feel that you got it all?
No. We were not able to retrieve 100% of the material, and in a way, it’s so strange, the reason why we had to look for extra material from Chinatown copies is that we noticed that the film has been released here and in different territories in different versions longer than the original, because I think at that point distributors wanted to have more action that the rest of the world, because the Chinatown audience just look for action. So we looked to see if we could get some extra material from there, but it’s not very rewarding.
Where Fallen Angles has some gangster/action elements, and 2046 has some science fiction, here you were working fully in genre. I mean, you’ve played with genre since, My Blueberry Nights was something of a road picture, but do like having that form to fall back on? Do you ever want to do something like that again?
Of course, I think I’m quite good at action. The last few years we’ve been developing a project called The Grand Master. It’s a story about the teacher of Bruce Lee, it’s a film about the fight club in Hong Kong in the 50’s. So this is something we all feel excited to do, and maybe this time we might do the film next.
(at that moment, I think my eyes dilated a little) That’s very exciting. One of great things about your movies is how you’re able to wed a piece of music, be it Cat Power or Astor Piazzolla to images. When you’re working with a period piece like Ashes of Time, was there ever a moment where you wanted to apply something you had in mind to this movie?
Do you know what the reference I gave to Frankie Chan in 94? Do you know?
I said, well, the music should be like Mark Knofpler, so it’s in a way it’s a very wild soundtrack at that point. It’s not a normal martial arts film. We had like Tangerine Dream versus Dire Straits. There was “Private Investigations.” Do you know the song “Private Investigations?”
Not off the top of my head.
If you’re recommending it, I’m going to go find it tonight.
I’m telling you, you can match the pictures, the scenes when there’s a big fight in the desert. The second one, the ambush. You can score it to “Private Investigations.”The introductions, the guitar lick. You should do that, the best, original.
Going back… It seems Criterion is about to put out Chungking Express, were you supervising that?
No. I just try and stay away from that as much as possible, because once a film is done, it’s done. It’s like if you take a picture when you’re fourteen and then you want to go back and photoshop it.
So then how involved were you with this Redux?
That’s different, because of what’s happening. The film was becoming incomplete, so I think it’s very rare and very lucky to have a chance to work on a film twice. It’s like you there’s a car, you built the car, and it’s broke so you have to dismantle the car to fix the car, by the time you put it back together you experience the same things twice. And then you have to realize why you have to build this car in this way years ago. It’s fascinating.
An interesting form of nostalgia.
Exactly. (pause) How can we do something digitally for this internet medium?
In terms of cinema?
I don’t know, we’ll get there. Everything right now seems to be bite sized pieces. I don’t know. (pause) With this as an act of restoration and preservation, what about your other films, As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild, are they safe?
I wouldn’t say I’m saving it. My feeling after all this, this job, is that finally this film is in a fixed form. When you used to have to do the developing of film, you had to put it in certain chemicals, and you could see the image coming out, but you had to fix it, otherwise it would become overexposed or too dark. I think Ashes of Time as a film, needed the time to be in this fixed form. Now, this is the film, finally. In Chinese we call this the ultimate version, because maybe this is the best version to be seen by audiences.
But with your older films, are the negatives safe?
No, no. Because there won’t be – like – regional versions any more, because I won’t be able to restore them. They will only exist as the DVD or VHS that still exist today. But I’m sure that will be gone very soon. So what we have to do right now is the final look of this film. That will be the only existing format.
So you see your films as existing on DVD now more than ever screening theatrically? How do you feel about people watching stuff at home instead of theater?
It’s not the best condition. One of the reasons why we wanted to do this Redux was so the audience could be able to watch this film on the big screen. But you know, it’s not the habit of people today to spend a couple hours getting to the cinema to watch a film and go back home. It’s too time consuming. People now are more lazy. They have so much stuff to do, so there’s nothing you can do. I don’t understand. There’s the computer and at home on DVD or TV.
There’s a revival house here in Los Angeles, The New Beverly, I spend quite a bit of time there.
Obviously, as you well know, there’s something about the communal experience. That’s always…
Yes, it’s very different.
I don’t know, I think people will always want to go to the cinema, they’ll always want to go out. A lot of people are attracted to convenience, but there’s something to going to the theater that I don’t think will ever be replaced, that group thing. Or if it goes away I will be very very sad.
Right, but the thing is there are so many things you can watch today on the internet today, it’s not only film, there’s youtube, that occupy a lot of time.
Yeah, it’s very distracting, but – and I’m something of a cineaste as well – there are films I have been waiting years and years to see, Sam Fuller’s White Dog, films that were never released in America… Let me put it this way, there’s people who go see two foreign films a year, and say “okay, I’m good” and there’s other people who say “I’ve just seen Ashes of Time, so now I’ve got to see Fallen Angels, and Chungking Express” it’s just a small percentage of people who get excited.
And also the thing is, they don’t know what they are missing. With the big screen at home, they feel like “I’ve seen the movie” but that’s not the case. When you look at it in that format it’s something else. The best way is to go to the cinema to watch it, it’s what it’s supposed to be.
Yes. Exactly. A friend of mine was telling me about being at Cannes for 2046, and there was a huge drama if the print was going to show up on time, and there was like, a race from the airport, it seems a Cannes has been a deadline for you on a couple of occasions. Do you like working against that timeline, or would you rather have another couple of extra months?
No, every time I said “I don’t want to repeat that” but somehow it’s like your nature to work against it. So last time, after 2046, we decided to be the first film to be shown at the festival, and still we rushed for that.
Is editing your favorite part of the process?
No, it’s about letting go. It’s like, you just want to make sure that this is the best you can do before you let go, because once you let go you never look back. Because the film, once it’s in the theaters it’s not yours any more. There’s nothing you can do about it, so you just want to see your daughters to get married, that she looks as good as possible as she walks down that alley.
Do you like to go back, have you ever gone back?
I haven’t watched 2046 again, because I know the film very well, and I’ve watched it hundreds of times, to the point that I should stay away from it for a long time.
So then what is your favorite part of the filmmaking process?
I don’t think there’s a job like a director. We can travel in time. We can make a film about now, we can make a film about 500 years ago, and in normal life you can’t play around with time, you can make one minute forever, you can make ten years just like a (snaps), right? That’s the best part of being in this business because you enjoy this, I can say “well, I’m in control of certain things which is beyond control in normal life.”
Creating fiction is as close as we come to being God.
Yes. But you won’t actually see these things, but when you are in this business you have make things make believe.
So, what artists do you draw from? Who would you say are your biggest influences?
I can’t single out one person, but if I have to say, I would say my mom, because she was the one who introduced me to this world of cinema.
Is there a film you go back to?
From time to time, yes, but now I enjoy watching films when I least expect it, I believe I’ve seen a lot of films, but somehow… You watch certain films because of recommendations, so you have certain expectations, but I enjoy watching films by accident. It’s great when you say “I wasn’t going to watch this film,” but now somehow, it works for you. It’s the most satisfying experience. It’s like, two days, I watched this black and white film on TCM, it was amazing I had never heard of it.
Do you remember the name of it?
It’s a film with Ginger Rogers, but not a very well known one.
Do you feel like you need to make time watch movies, to spend time with movies?
I think it’s nourishing. Every once in a while you get overwhelmed with mediocrity, but something will be in there that’s just…
Yes, that’s why I watch movies. But I still remember… A few years, I was in Los Angeles at this point, it was the opening of Star Wars. The first Star Wars from the new series. I went to the cinema with my friend who was a big fan. And I had never seen anything like this in the Chinese cinema. It’s like a bunch of people, the parents, you know are big fans of the first series, and then the kids. And when the music starts, and the Lucasfilm logo, it’s like a party. They scream and clap, and you can’t hear the film after the first ten minute, they just have to lose it, and it’s a party.
With that we were told to wrap it up, and I asked him to sign my poster of Happy Together. He obliged, and I told him that I had a French girlfriend who told me about this movie, and that I fell in love with her and the movie. He asked “Are you still together?” I said “Of course not.” And we both chuckled.
Ashes of Time Redux opens Friday.