The Ashes of Time Redux interview

My review of the film

The Ashes of Time Redux interview

230pm: I arrive at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills and announce myself at the front desk.They’ve seen Wong wandering around, but curiously have no notations for any sort of press event.I’m nervous.The ever-ticking clock scuttles a few precious minutes and Helpful Woman tells me that Wong is in the restaurant talking with a few people, but that she doesn’t quite know in what capacity he is there.So I wander in that direction with wooden steps; a one-on-one I was not expecting, let alone am I prepared for.As I near the restaurant a fellow who looks vaguely familiar spots me and continues eyeing me strangely.Finally he inquires why I’m here, I tell him, and he wanders off to determine which interviews I’ll be taking part in.Aggrieved, I pace for a few moments outside the entrance to the dining area.As I wait, Wong exits the restaurant and passes me – quite taller than I expected, and donning the sunglasses that I’ve never seen him not wearing.Helpful Man then exits and informs me that I should be at the Regent Beverly Wilshire for the round-table interviews, despite my press email noting, that’s right, Four Seasons Hotel, 3pm.So I heave a sigh of relief and drive five minutes southwest to another pleasant, opulent hotel in Beverly Hills.There the press day cattle have assembled and sip their free drinks.I, fellow underdog, sit and confine myself to merely worrying about the questions I’ve prepared.

“They told me Wong probably won’t be here for another 45 minutes.”

This comment is not unexpected.I speak to an intelligent former Londoner named Tom who drops a few somewhat familiar names for me that I jot down in my ignorance: Derek Jarman and Jacques Rivette.I’ll check them out.Tom loves living in Los Angeles.Why does everybody here love Los Angeles?

A word on Wong: now 52 years old, Wong Kar Wai was raised in Hong Kong and has been steadily gaining much love from arthouse filmgoers since invigorating 90’s cinema with the now iconic Chungking Express.Incidentally, Chungking was filmed in three weeks during the breaks between the filming of Ashes of Time, and primarily because Wong simply needed “another script to fulfill his contract for a second feature” (thanks, IMDB).Due to the power and singularity of Ashes alongside Chugking, 1994 may be viewed as the best year of Wong’s career – that’s certainly what I posit.2000 saw the heralded and formal In the Mood for Love and 2006 saw his equally acclaimed 2046 (Mood’s pseudo-sequel).What does Wong do that makes him stand out?I watched almost all of his films in the week preceding this interview, so I can now speak of it: he sensualizes the image and enlarges the minutiae of life.Every one of his films utilizes scenes with a lowered shutter speed to break up the narrative, and in Ashes of Time this is specifically relegated to action – instead of creating a contrived and overly-choreographed, now typical martial arts sequence, we are given a series of images that could’ve only been caught out of the corner of one’s eye, glimpsed in the adrenaline of battle; the ‘idea’ of violent action or, as Wong later describes, a rhythm or dance.Wong’s films are very moody, very emotional.And in his recent venture to American moodiness, My Blueberry Nights, he was perhaps too filled with ruminations and nostalgia.

Ashes of Time is completely unlike his other films, not the least important reason being that its landscape is an ancient desert as opposed to Wong’s usual modern city.It is a Jianghu film; other notable recent Jianghus include Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, so that’s the sort of film we’re talking about – ancient Chinese fantasy martial-arts. No American release was ever given to Ashes and any copy that wound up in local video stores in ruefully inadequate.Wong restored, reassembled, added new sparse new footage and re-arranged music and gave Ashes the glorious revival it deserves.

Back to reality. Tom has proffered me a rolled cigarette outside the Reg Bev Wil; I stared down the gauntlet of Rodeo Drive and Wong, making another cameo appearance, popped up near us and smoked his own cigarettes.45 minutes from Free Drinks, I and the others are ushered to the round-table.Wong strolls in and says “OK who’s first?”The group, having waited for some time, is quite sedate and nobody chimes in.Wong arranges our recorders in front of him – very nice of him, though it might’ve been an act of impatience – and smiles while we prepare to speak.From my position I am able to see the eyes under his shades.

Tom chimes in.Wong: “So you’re the first one!”Wong describes that initially only a simple restoration had been intended for Ashes of Time based on the desire to give the film the wide theatrical release that had been intended (Wong is clearly quite a bit more popular now than in 1994), and to make use of the current international popularity of the Jinaghu genre and the stars involved – Tony Leung, for instance, of Infernal Affairs and many of Wong’s most popular films.This process proved difficult since numerous versions of film existed in poor DVD releases, so Wong and his cohorts went on a scavenger hunt across China to find original prints.Another interviewer poses a question and Wong smilingly jabs “You again?”Fella must’ve been in a previous interview.

213: “During the restoration process, was there any visual or audio material that you weren’t able to get ahold of?”

Wong: “Yeah, of course.When you compare [Redux] to the original version it’s ten minutes shorter.It’s not like Apocalypse Now, which is longer.There were a lot things we had to give up, but of course we had to replace it with other things.Also, we had to create some shots.The first shot of the film actually is created digitally.This is a shot which I always loved… now it seems rather easy, when you have all this technology.”

“So the things that were cut were not intentional, it was just a matter of not having access to the footage?”

“Yeah, exactly.”

I sate myself with this rather oblique answer.Wong is asked what is different about the Redux cut of Ashes.He sets a trend for misinterpreting questions and answers that ‘those who haven’t seen the original film don’t have to carry ‘this baggage’ into the new cut,’ meaning that the film will be fresh for unfamiliar audiences.Sigh.

We are surprised to hear that Christopher Doyle, Wong’s longtime cinematographer, was not involved with the restoration process, this being quite long and involved, and Doyle currently shooting a film with Neil Jordan in Ireland.Doyle was present when the film was screened at Cannes, and allegedly Doyle feels that Redux is the same film he had personally shot.Tony Leung (Blind Swordman) and Carina Lau (Peach Blossom) had joined Wong to promote the film in Cannes, though star Brigitte Lin (Yin/Yang), apparently now avoiding all pubic appearances, was able to view the film in an arranged private screening.She is very happy with it (and gives an enjoyable performance as Yin/Yang).

An interviewer inquires about the relevance of the Chinese Lunar Calendar that is oft referenced in the film, used for benchmarks and setting seasonal tones during the film’s four primary vignettes.Wong answers that ‘it is used to denote the passage of time and show how the characters change.’Mmm.

Wong speaks of how the original Ashes of Time was the first film to come from his newly christened company, Jet Tone Productions, created so autonomy could be maintained.His previous film, Days of Being Wild, had not been well-received or financially successful in China, so Wong was faced with a decision: make commercially marketable films or break from the machine altogether.Once Ashes was complete Wong immediately knew that he had made the right decision.That’s what we want to hear!

Me again!

213: “Normally your films are very intimate, romantic, but Ashes of Time has a scope that is much greater than most of your other films.Do you have any desire to do another “epic” story?”

Wong: “There are definitely projects we’ve been developing that you can call epic, in a sense.I think what makes you feel special about Ashes of Time is that… most of my films are urban films, they happen in the city.Ashes of Time is a film that is shot entirely in the desert, the landscape is different.The space is much, much broader.So it’s different.”

I had really wanted a more provocative answer than that, but I keep my damn trap shut.

Wong and Doyle intended to have shot the action in the film considerably differently than had ever been done before.Wong distilled the scene of action to a ‘rhythm, a dance.’Not about the stunts, merely an ‘expression.’And, of course, emotion was a motivating force; fury, despair, and thoughtless adrenaline.“You can do more without seeing what is happening.”Wong was pleased to work with Sammo Hung (action choreographer and film director), who Wong notes is ‘the best action director ever in Hong Kong cinema.’Hung had returned from Canada, where he was working on an American television series (I was not able to find this series on IMBD), to work on Wong’s Ashes.The collaboration was based on mutual respect, Hung a seasoned film director himself, and the partnership was very efficient and pleasurable.

Tom gets some good material when he inquires as to whether or not Wong had imagined any further stories dealing with the characters in the film.Wong references the author Louis Cha, who penned The Eagle Shooting Heroes from which Ashes had been based.The characters in this story were 70 year old men of fantastic infamy in China.Wong was faced with the unique and new prospect of creating his story backwards, detailing the young years of future legends.Cha, he notes, wanted to impart a sense of Shakespearean tragedy to his old characters.Wong was happy to have the opportunity to a true martial arts epic (despite his dodging my previous question to that effect!), though admits he wanted Ashes to resemble the Sergio Leone westerns.“It’s like Shakespeare versus Sergio Leone… in Chinese.”

213: “In the press notes you mention that during the original filming you were not able to achieve the technical standards that the film required.What did you mean by that?”

Wong: “When we had to do the new score… I think what [Frankie Chan] did in the original version is cool.It’s not that standard martial arts music, it’s more Tangerine Dream, and a bit like modern opera.The recording was quite bad at that point so that’s why we had to find Wu Tong, and some very talented Beijing musicians.They’re from a group called Figaro which was founded by Yo-Yo Ma (featured cello solos) and himself.I asked him to do the arrangement based on the original compositions.It’s different… the soundtrack now is much better quality and closer to the film.”

We are lastly imparted Wong’s memories of his times at Cannes, he having been there every year for the past four years, for one reason or another.Incidentally, Ashes had been filmed relatively close to Cannes, particularly close to the location of a recent earthquake.Wong thereby dedicated Redux’s screening to the victims of that earthquake and carried some memorable emotions with him from said trip.The meeting of he and Christopher Doyle, as well as the original cast and actors, he claimed, was like a high school reunion.

At this point the mediator steps in, “Sorry to break this up, but we actually have to do another interview.”Wong turns, “Really?”He chuckles, thanks us, and we unceremoniously disperse.

conducted and transcribed by David Ashley