Wong Kar Wai on ‘Ashes of Time Redux’ and the Joys of Working With a Drunk, Naked Cinematographer

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Sloane Tanen's Feathers (2008). Photo: Getty Images

Sporting his trademark silver-rimmed sunglasses (even indoors) and a staccato laugh that pops out when a particular reminiscence strikes him as amusing, director Wong Kar Wai exudes a quiet warmth somewhat at odds with the emotional coolness often explored in his films. He made his English-language debut with 2007's My Blueberry Nights and follows it up this year with a commercial rerelease of a redux version of his abstruse 1994 samurai epic, Ashes of Time, the film that first helped earn him a reputation for long shooting schedules. Never officially released outside of Asia before this, the ruminative, desert-set movie, which features a new score and swapped-out takes, hits theaters this Friday. Wong sat down with Vulture to talk about his technique.

So how did this revisitation come about?
At first we just wanted to do a simple restoration, because otherwise the film would only exist on DVD and I wanted it to be seen on the big screen. We spent a lot of time trying to track down the materials from distributors overseas, including some black markets in Chinatown. Then we learned something shocking: The lab didn't store the original print of the film as they were supposed to — they actually put it on the roof! At which point we realized that it was impossible to do a simple restoration, since some of the materials were too badly off. So we had to cut the film in a certain way and also insert some alternative takes. When you compare this version to the original version, it's ten minutes shorter; it's not like Apocalypse Now.

Many of the action scenes in Ashes of Time are almost impressionistic. What informed that choice?
To shoot action in the traditional sense means a fast pace, and it has to be precise to pick up the stunts. But I think of action as a dance. It's a riddle, it should have emotion in it. And Sammo Hung came back to China to work with me. He's more than an action choreographer — he's a very good director himself, he understands the process. And also he's a very good cook. [Laughs] Every Friday, his was the party of the night.

So it wasn’t as angsty on set as the film might suggest?
Even though it was very hot, hard, and frustrating to shoot the film, I must say it was like a wild party for us. We basically took over these small outpost towns, and I still have a photo of Chris Doyle on the last day of shooting where he's basically fully naked, with the camera on his shoulders. We had a party where he got drunk, and he felt so guilty at the end because we had to burn the main set down, and he was too drunk to handle the camera. So after the last shot he took off his clothes and jumped into the fire, filming everything. Even though that footage is useless, when I think of the movie, I think of that picture, which I kept. I didn't want to give to anyone. [Laughs] It's a metaphor of the way we were then, which was really wild.

The Chinese calendar plays an important role in the film's structure.
The original novel, The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, is a four-volume epic with hundreds of characters. It's very complicated to follow that structure in a 90-minute film, so we used the seasons because it's a cycle and about repetitions. We want to see the changes of these people, emotionally and physically. In the novel most of the characters are 70 years old; they're at the end of their lives. In a way, we know the ending already and have to invent a story backwards. So in that sense it's a bit fatalistic. It's not like the standard martial-arts film; it's more like Shakespeare meets Sergio Leone, but in Chinese.

The film also asserts the notion that memory is the root of all of man's problems.
[Smiles] Maybe we put it in a cynical way, because of course memories are the best rewards that you can get from your life. Because one's memories aren't what actually happened — they're very subjective. You can always make it much better, right?

Everyone is the hero of their own story.
Exactly.

You're known for shooting quite a bit of footage. Do you typically radically reinvent and reshape the movie in production?
Yes, but without the shooting, you can't do much, so for me the goal of shooting is to give yourself as many options as possible within the time, schedule, and the money, or all these conditions. In a way, the chemistry mostly happens in postproduction because you have all the elements in place. It's like cooking, and this is really the time that you can cook. Before is only the preparation.