October 3, 2008
Resurrecting ‘Ashes’ and Hoping for a Better Reception
By Scarlet Cheng
Ten years ago, the Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai went to retrieve original negatives of one of his early films from a lab going bust. He was startled to find reels of that martial arts film, "Ashes of Time," made only four years earlier, already disintegrating. It was a rueful coincidence for an auteur whose work ("In the Mood for Love,""Chungking Express") often mines the terrain of the ephemeral present, the disappearing past and the longing for what might have been.
With this version of "Ashes," the director said, he hopes for a better reception than when the film was first released in 1994. Even in a territory known for seat-of-the-pants filmmaking, Wong's compulsive rewriting and reshooting on this wuxia, or martial arts, movie were thought excessive, especially since taking two years to make any movie was unheard of in Hong Kong. And the result, with its fractured narrative, blurry slow-motion action sequences and a nearly mystical voice-over, puzzled audiences.
"It's like a bottle of wine," said Wong, taking off his signature sunglasses over lunch here recently . "It needed time. Perhaps it's finally come of age." Especially since, he said, international audiences - now accustomed to more contemporary swordplay epics like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Hero" - have had their tastes elevated.
When Wong set out to make "Ashes" in the early 1990s, it was a boom time in the Hong Kong film industry, which was churning out more than 200 features a year. And he was tapping into a resurgence in wuxia pictures with this adaptation of Louis Cha's celebrated multipart novel, "The Eagle-Shooting Heroes," published in 1957-59. The novel featured two older antagonists, Ouyang Feng and Huang Yaoshi; Wong concocted a prequel that reimagined them as younger men and told how failed romance and emotional reticence sealed their fates. "I wanted to make them more human," he said.
The shoot, however, was exhausting and costly. The film had some of the biggest Hong Kong movie stars - Leslie Cheung ("Temptress Moon"), Brigitte Lin ("The East Is Red"), Tony Leung Ka-fai ("The Lover") - but they were so in demand that the schedule was constantly being juggled to accommodate their comings and goings. There was even a scare when Cheung, playing a key role, was stung on the neck by a scorpion. (He survived.) "It was the first production of my company," Jet Tone, said Wong, whose international success had yet to come. "We were still figuring out how to do things."
Those chaotic beginnings were witnessed during a visit to the set in 1992. The movie was being filmed around the clock in Yulin, a remote town on the edge of the Gobi Desert. One day the shooting in a grotto stretched into evening, and a scene with Lin, delivering lines of an intense dialogue while staring into a spinning bird cage, headed into 40-plus takes. More than a dozen crew members were crammed into the small space, made stuffier when smoke was fanned in for atmosphere. Wong was in a corner watching on a monitor. Every so often, in his measured way, he made a suggestion to Lin or called out to his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, "Is that all you can do?"
Doyle, now a longtime collaborator of Wong's, said in a recent interview that he heard that question as a constant challenge. "It should be the mantra for all people in the arts." During breaks, the actors retired to another chamber. Lin, lying in a hammock, went over her lines. Cheung was more relaxed. "I'd only do this for Wong Kar-wai," said the actor, who had starred in Wong's previous film, "Days of Being Wild.""Someday we'll look back and be proud we were in this film."
That time has arrived for Lin. "At the beginning, Wong Kar-wai did give me a script," she recalled, speaking by phone from Hong Kong, "but he told me, 'It's useless because what we shoot will be completely different.'" She acknowledged that she didn't understand the film when she first saw it. "Now, 14 years later, I do.""Each image is like a painting," she added. "The camera is his brush, and it's only when he picks up the camera that he knows what the film's about." Her thoughts are echoed by Doyle. "All our films come from the organic way in which we make them," he said. "My own approach is that you have to be responsive, especially with Wong Kar-wai, where you don't officially have a script. Day by day you are looking for the film. You're looking for the style."
Both men were familiar with wuxia film traditions, but they sought their own shooting style to suit the story. Doyle cited the blurred-motion technique later used extensively in "Chungking Express" and much emulated. As the character played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai starts going blind, Doyle said, "We made the camera as subjective as his eyes are," seeing only partly and hazily.
The trauma of making "Ashes" led to Wong's breakout film - the serendipitous "Chungking Express," set in contemporary Hong Kong and shot mostly on location. Even with last-minute rewrites and improvisations, the film was shot and edited in three months, all in the downtime during post-production for "Ashes.""Without 'Ashes of Time' there would be no 'Chungking Express,'" Wong said. "By the time we returned from the desert, what couldn't we do? We had enough confidence to launch immediately into 'Chungking Express,' a piece of cake in comparison."
That film was released before "Ashes" and charmed local audiences as well as international ones.
"Chungking" saved Wong's fledgling company and his reputation. Now he is betting that an updated cut and more sophisticated audiences will save "Ashes" from its undeserved obscurity.
Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.
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