REVERSE SHOT: You recently said that when a filmmaker gets you, they get the complete package. You are not only involved in the cinematography but also in the re-writing of the story as you shoot. Christopher Doyle: For better of worse, they do get the complete package. Although I’ve known Zhang Yimou for a long time, I got involved in Hero because of the producer Billy Kong. Originally I was supposed to shoot Crouching Tiger for him but I couldn’t since I was shooting In the Mood for Love and it kept going on forever. Zhang Yimou and I come from a very different culture, different filmmaking culture too. Lots of people seem to think filmmakers are similar and overlook this. Filmmakers might have similar intentions but the way they work is informed by their culture. The way the industry works in America is because Americans are like that, same in France. I’ve worked in China many times but it implies a different kind of engagement. It’s more formal. In Last Life in the Universe, because of the fact that Thai culture has a much more loose way of approaching things, it was an open collaboration. It’s another structure. This comes from the size of the films, character of people involved. For me, actually, on a very personal level I prefer working on films like Last Life in the Universe. I think you can see that, if you really look at it, you can see the person behind the film and you can see their pleasure. There’s not much else there! It’s a small story. Hero is a much more formal film, it’s a very structured film and the way it was executed is much more structured as well. As a filmmaker you have to try different areas and different places.
RS: Would you compare making Hero to Ashes of Time? Since the latter is also a martial arts film set in the desert, how did your experience in the former help you to work through the challenges of the latter?
Doyle: Yeah, I could not have made Hero without Ashes of Time. The desert really informs you. I’ve made five desert films. The desert has been one of the important learning platforms. It’s a place that has taught me a great deal about filmmaking because you can’t light the desert. You exchange, it’s temperamental, it’s like some relationships. It’s vast and beautiful and engaging. And yet there are a lot of details in the desert. It’s all there. The desert taught me to look more. To be more observant, more patient and to do less. Don’t intrude. Take what you have and make it what you need. The city of Hong Kong also taught me that. In Hong Kong the space is so limited and people move so fast and there’s certain kind of energy and all those things are reflected in Hong Kong-style filmmaking.
RS: What was the process of composing the mise-en-scène in Hero. You have these huge spaces and also this extremely complex choreography. In addition, there’s a wide spectrum of colors that define the narrative structure of the film.
Doyle: Zhang Yimou is a cinematographer; he has a certain visual energy. I’ve done many films where we have avoided red and that was a very conscious choice; up to In the Mood for Love, there’s no red in Wong Kar-wai’s films. For Chinese, red has a very special significance. It means joy. It’s the color for marriages, temples…in many ways it’s the most beautiful color…and it’s a very auspicious color, with many associations in Chinese culture. That’s why we have avoided in the past. In Hero, we wanted all these cultural associations. The point of departure is color. You have a Rashomon kind of story. And then color. The easy one was red, red as passion. We were not sure about the others and that was the journey, specifically based on locations. Sixty percent of the film is shot outdoors, and, for example, you cannot change the color of the lake. We knew the lake and the forest with the yellow leaves were very important. So we searched for the locations and from them we reworked the script, instead of imposing a color to a particular location. I think this also comes across in Last Life in the Universe. The house is very much a character in the film. When we found that house I insisted on it, because it had such a presence that I felt the film would be three times better. In Hero, we were choosing colors depending on the locations. The most difficult one was the flashback, in the Emperor’s palace, when they almost assassinate the Emperor. We basically ran out of colors and we were not going to use pink! Green was the choice, it was the only color we felt comfortable with. I knew Fuji has an interesting green so we went along with it.
[Vittorio] Storaro claims green is the color of knowledge. It’s not as simple as Storaro and other people claim. It’s not a theoretical exercise; it’s a practical one. To say the stuff that Storaro says to the kids is really misinformation. It’s dangerous, it confuses people, and makes them think that film is a theoretical exercise. As a cinematographer you’re dealing every minute with weather, people’s emotions, technical problems. The style comes from the contingencies of the film and that’s very important to realize for younger filmmmakers.
RS: Like the black-and-white shots in Fallen Angels. They were the result of a problem…
Doyle: We fucked up with the film stock. It was old. We couldn’t re-shoot…so of course it was foggy in color. We said: “maybe this can represent something so let’s pick some other pieces,” and that’s what we did. Because of a mistake, a certain structure came out of the film and you can write a PhD about it if you want. What happened was that we gave it a system, so we made the most important parts of each scene in black-and-white. But that was a solution to the problem, not an original concept. We just appropriated the mistake and made it work. It’s a more intuitive, open, or, maybe, Asian way of working.
RS: Fallen Angels was completely groundbreaking. It’s a film in which the closer you get to the image the less you see. This is obviously very different from Hero, in which everything is supposed to be pristine and harmonic…
Doyle: Hong Kong and the desert are two very different spaces. Both films are totally informed by the location where they happen. In addition, Wong Kar-wai and Zhang Yimou are two very different filmmakers in their approach to the image and storytelling. Hero, above all, is a celebration of martial arts chivalry.
RS: Is it true that Tony Leung’s apartment in Chungking Express is your actual apartment?
Doyle: I still live there… it’s actually a Japanese tourist stop. Especially after the movie came out in 1995. They would take photographs of my house all day. It’s right in the middle of Hong Kong. As a result of this, everybody knows where I live. Just ask in the street. Downstairs, there are lots of bars. They all know me because I’m always in the bar.
RS: I’d like to talk about Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake, on which you worked. Would you agree that contemporary cinema is, to a great extent, defined by an appropriation of other cinematic traditions, genres, visual styles? Wong Kar-wai once said that current filmmakers no longer make original works of art, they recycle what has been done before.
Doyle: No. I think the only time I see films is on planes. I take a lot of planes, so I do manage to see lots of films. But to me film is not the basis of my life, my creative energy comes from other things, usually music, or people, or the way in which I live. The people who decide to work with me know that. Therefore, what you mention is their job. Gus Van Sant knew that. Psycho is not a film but a conceptual artwork. I don’t think you need to see the film. It’s just a concept, a very expensive one. It cost $20 million to make and $40 million to promote. If you went to Hollywood, and tell them let’s do some performance art, they wouldn’t give you 60 million. They did in this case. My role in Psycho was not to know, not to remember the original film.
Same with martial arts films. Because of where I live (Hong Kong), the people I’ve worked with, I know the working details. In fact, I know better than Zhang Yimou the actual physical procedure to make a martial arts film. However, it’s much more his job to try to make his own film. That was a difficult thing for me to work with because Zhang didn’t know the procedure to shoot a martial arts film. Now, the West is taking over, The Matrix and all that…they are borrowing this style but they’re structuring scenes much more systematically…storyboards, all kinds of preparation.
However, Hero was shot like an old-style Hong-Kong martial arts film. To be honest, you don’t know what you are going get while shooting. The martial artists don’t know either, but they make it up as they go along and they continuously try new things. It’s choreography. Which means the communication is quite difficult and the logistics are quite complicated as well. Basically, what you need to do is to try to direct the film in a certain direction and then take what you need. You’re dealing with very special people. Martial artists come from a very proud tradition and you know, they can beat the shit out of you…
RS: So in Hero, Zhang, the choreographer, and the martial artists planned a scene and then you adapted to what they were doing…
Doyle: Zhang Yimou tried but it’s much less planned than other forms of cinema. The wind is too strong so someone cannot fly, or, on the lake, it’s very difficult to get people in the air, you need wires…it’s a very slow procedure. Sometimes, you get two or three shots in a day. It takes a lot of concentration and collaboration. Even if you have a plan, then you have actors that are tired, or we are in a very high altitude, most of film is at 3000 thousand feet, physically it’s quite difficult to do. So it’s not a Tarantino kind of exercise, it’s much more organic. Zhang’s main reason to make a martial arts film is political. If you make a genre piece, you have much more scope than if you make a film about people taking ecstasy in Beijing. It’s much easier to get things across. There’s still censorship, and script supervision in China.
RS: The ultimate message of Hero seems to defend a kind of internal imperialism. It has been widely criticized as racist. What’s at stake in this film?
Doyle: There’s a really strong reaction for people who know Chinese history, especially in some areas in China and Taiwan. It’s a little bit revisionist for some people in terms of the white-washing of this historical character. There are many films about this period, like Emperor and the Assassin, so the jury is still out. There’s a debate about what this emperor really did. He was the first emperor of China; he did unite the country. How did he do it? He was an extremely ruthless man. Zhang’s intentions and personal relationship with the politics of his country are much more complex than that. I don’t know and I don’t think I have the right to talk about it. I don’t choose films based on the script but based on the person. If it was too disgusting, I’d stay away from it.
RS: After seeing To Live and Red Sorghum, which are very critical films, it’s surprising that Hero…
Christopher Doyle: You’re saying he sold out, right? I can’t judge, but many people say that…I can’t judge. By the way, Zhang is a very rich man…I have very rich friends in China and I’m not really sure…I’ve seen the way society is evolving now…it’s going in a direction I don’t personally like…but look what they come from…look at the shit they’ve been through…At a personal level, I can reject certain aspects the way China is changing. But I don’t think I have any right to criticize them because they’ve gone through a hell I don’t truly know, I don’t have any right, or precision, to be critical. Zhang has to evolve the way he wants, that’s his choice.
RS: In Hero, calligraphy is represented as an artistic process, having an organic relationship with the individual psyche and also his abilities as martial artist. In the end, this same calligraphy is used in order to offer the unity of China, “Our Land,” as an ideal and to endorse the Emperor’s slaughtering practice.
Doyle: In Chinese it’s slightly different. The ideogram Tony Leung writes, on the one hand, means “Under Heaven”; it means there is a god. It also means “Under the Emperor.” Of course, it still has this implication that this is our place, also that it’s a gift, given to us by Heaven, it’s a unified place but it’s a gift. It’s not quite as heavy as “our land.” You have to take into account that China means “Central Country.” Chinese people have a very centralist worldview.
RS: In the trailer of Hero, the film is introduced as “Quentin Tarantino presents…”
Doyle: Oh really?
RS: According to what I’ve heard, Miramax was hesitant to release the film and Tarantino volunteered to make it happen. Though his intentions might be good, Hero is being sold to audiences as a Tarantino product with Jet Li created by the producer of Crouching Tiger.
Doyle: To me it implies that they want to trick everybody into seeing a martial arts film and make all the money in the first weekend and then they don’t give a shit. Hero is not a martial arts film as Crouching Tiger is. If you go to the film, expecting back-to-back action, you’re going be disappointed. Crouching Tiger, because of who Ang Lee is, has a more American background. This doesn’t have a user-friendly American narrative structure. It’s much more literary. I think it’s the wrong angle to promote the film.
RS: How would you compare the work of Zhang and Wong Kar-wai to that of Tarantino, who is a great appropriator, combining different film styles and traditions?
Doyle: He’s like that in person too…He never stops talking. Quentin is quite fun in a bar…. I think that, in a positive way, he references enough stuff so people go to see the other films. Tarantino promotes a certain vision of cinema that is different. However, I do think his intentions are good. Personally and most of the people I’ve worked with, we come from a different place. Whatever you’re appropriating, you’re absorbing it, it’s filtered through your unconscious and it comes back as something else. Wong and I reference multiple things, but we’re not repeating them. The opposite, we usually avoid repetition. It’s impossible not to repeat other things. Nothing is original, but it can be very personal and the angle, the intention can be very personal.
DU KE FENG (CHRISTOPHER DOYLE): What does redux literally mean? And where does the word come from?
WONG KAR WAI: The first time the word redux appeared in a film title was when Francis Ford Coppola used it for his film Apocalypse Now Redux . For Coppola the word means "reassessed" and "reconsidered." But in our case it has nothing to do with reconsideration. It's more about rescuing a film that means a lot to us. Our film could have been called Saving Ashes of Time. The laboratory where we stored all our negatives went bankrupt overnight following the Asian economic crisis in 1997. So on short notice we had to retrieve all the materials in the middle of the night before the debtor-receiver took over the laboratory the next morning. While checking the materials we salvaged, we noticed that some of the original negatives and sound tapes had deteriorated into pieces. We decided to rescue the film from a life of existing only on DVD or bootlegged Chinatown VHS. At first, we thought it was only a simple restoration. Not until a few years later did we realize that it was actually an odyssey. We spent the first few years searching for missing materials. It took us from Hong Kong to overseas distributors and to various Chinatowns across North America. By the time we collected all the materials, we realized that a 100-percent restoration of the original version was out of the question, so we trimmed out the parts that were beyond repair and replaced them with other options. From there we embarked on another five-year journey from restoration to redux. To revisit a dream that is more than 15 years old is complicated. Technology helps much of the time but not always. The hardest part is to restrain myself from looking at it with the experiences and changes that I went through in the years since; I just wanted to make sure [the film] was what it was supposed to be back then, when we were making it.
DKF: I couldn't have done Rabbit-Proof Fence [2002, with Phillip Noyce] if I hadn't learned from Ashes to listen to the rhythms of a place. I feel the organic evolution of the storytelling has as much to do with the space in which it takes place as it does the idiosyncrasies of our working style.
WKW: Unlike today, shooting in the remote desert in the western part of China was an adventure. Arranging the trips for our eight lead actors back and forth between Hong Kong and our location was in itself a nightmare.
DKF: Those were the days: Shooting one actor's side of a conversation, then shooting the other side two months later, when the actor he or she was supposed to be talking to finally arrived.
WKW: Do you still remember what happened on the last day of shooting?
DKF: Thankfully not.
WKW: I have kept in my file a picture of your naked butt. To me, it's like a metaphor of the way we worked then.
DKF: I could say I wanted to be naked for the whole shoot, or I could claim the heat was getting to me. But mostly I was apologizing (in my way) for not getting all the shots we had in our hearts and our heads. Or perhaps I just wanted to be as true (or do I mean "blue") as the desert sky.
The happenstances of our shared and separate ways have meant that WKW and I are not able to sit this interview out (i.e., meet to talk). Deadlines have always been less relevant than the one this magazine gave us, so this e-mail is our recourse. As in our approach to our films, it is as much the talking as the gesture that is the content. -DKF
WKW: It is not very often that a director is offered the chance to make a big-budget martial arts epic. I jumped at this opportunity with all my knowledge about this genre, fearing that there wouldn't be a second chance. To separate ourselves from the previous adaptations, we simply put the original novel aside and went ahead to invent our own vision. It's more than a standard martial arts film; it's Shakespeare meets Sergio Leone in Chinese.
DKF: Action is a bitch to shoot, as is football or any endeavor whose rules and conventions are unfamiliar (to me).
WKW: For me, shooting an action scene is no different from shooting a love scene. What really matters is what happens before the penetration and not after.
DKF: We tried to give each episode its particular look. This effort seems to me more evident in Ashes of Time Redux. Is it the music? Or the reworking of the structure? Or have perhaps other martial arts-based films educated our eye?
WKW: You mean Kung Fu Panda put us on the map?
DKF: Well, they say the Minister of Film (or whatever he or she is called) apologized to the Chinese people for not having made Kung Fu Panda themselves. Maybe in the States we should change the name [of our film] to Ashes of Panda.
Monday afternoon at a café in the Toronto airport, watching Roger Federer beat Andy Murray at the U.S. Open. -WKW
WKW: Dear DKF, normally you dance to my music, and now I have to match your steps. Not easy, but let's figure out the dance floor first: How long ago did we finish Ashes of Time? Fifteen years ago, or four months ago, or at some point in between?
DKF: Fifteen years ago? [The film] certainly is taking its time finding its time, and yet it feels immediate enough to be the new film it has become. Even now there are moments and images I can't stop rethinking and reworking. Perhaps that is what one does in the films that follow.
WKW: Another picture that I have kept in my file is of Leslie, taken by you, with a note. May I quote what you wrote then? "Leslie hates me when I say my habitual ‘anytime' if I'm not completely ready to shoot. He thinks I'm more up and down, emotionally, than he is. But I'm not so sure. We've made four films together now, and we intend to make many more. I've come to know the fine details of his moods and needs and how much he gets into his role." The night Leslie died we were shooting Eros  with Gong Li and Chang Chen. When the news reached our office, we thought it was an April Fools' Day joke. Soon we realized it was true and we had lost him.
DKF: We have not lost Leslie, but I didn't know that I could miss him so till I missed him so. We aren't immortal in or through our art-we live in the ways of those we touch to love. Leslie is where he needs to be.
Il y a plus d’une dizaine d’années que le projet The Grandmaster traînait dans vos tiroirs… En 1996, je flânais dans une gare de Buenos Aires où nous tournions Happy Together, et j’ai aperçu le visage de Bruce Lee en couverture d’un magazine. J’avais toujours adoré ses films, mais j’ai été stupéfait par la persistance de son aura, si loin de chez nous, plus de vingt ans après sa mort. J’ai alors compris ce qui le rendait si hors du commun. Son physique, son attitude en rupture avec les autres acteurs de films de kung-fu avant lui qui étaient avant tout des combattants machos, plutôt plus âgés, alors que lui était séduisant, plein d’assurance, charismatique, et parlait anglais. Ensuite, il fut le premier à avoir apporté par sa présence une forme de modernité à cette figure du héros martial chinois. Eduqué en Occident, sa grande intelligence a été de ne pas suivre les règles, mais de les analyser pour mieux s’inventer les siennes propres. Il était capable mieux que quiconque de communiquer l’idée la plus complexe des arts martiaux de la manière la plus simple. Moi qui avais jusqu’alors surtout filmé des femmes, je me suis dit que je voulais faire un film sur la beauté d’un tel homme chinois.
Sauf que The Grandmaster n’évoque pas Bruce Lee. Comment le projet a-t-il ainsi dérivé ? Bruce Lee se référait sans cesse dans ses écrits et ses propos à Ip Man, son maître en arts martiaux, et je m’y suis intéressé. Sa vie est un reflet passionnant d’un pan de l’histoire chinoise au XXe siècle. Il est né sous la monarchie, a traversé le temps de la république, vécu la guerre sino-japonaise et a fini dans la colonie britannique qu’était Hongkong. C’est aussi ce que je voulais raconter, à travers lui. Surtout, deux ans plus tard, alors que je recherchais l’angle personnel à adopter, je suis tombé sur un documentaire et j’ai été frappé par une séquence extrêmement émouvante. On y voyait Ip Man vieillard, s’enregistrant trois jours avant sa mort en train d’effectuer une démonstration de wing chun. A la fin, il marque un temps d’arrêt, et la caméra est trop loin pour que l’on sache s’il a oublié le mouvement suivant ou s’il est simplement trop faible pour poursuivre. C’était bouleversant. Le document en question est légendaire : de son vivant, nombreux sont ceux, y compris Bruce Lee, qui lui ont offert beaucoup d’argent pour qu’il leur enseigne cette démonstration, et il a toujours refusé, préférant prodiguer son savoir à ses étudiants plutôt qu’à une seule personne dans un échange marchand. Et c’est là que j’ai su quel film je voulais faire : une histoire d’héritage, de générosité et de noblesse, qui ait à voir avec l’énergie de cet homme à porter cette flamme.
Entre-temps, vous avez réalisé trois autres films. Pourquoi a-t-il fallu si longtemps à celui-ci pour se faire ? Le projet nécessitait une préparation et des moyens de production importants. Il a fallu attendre que la croissance du marché du cinéma chinois ait suffisamment progressé pour qu’il devienne possible de réaliser un tel film à cette échelle économique. Ensuite, ce n’était pas évident d’exiger de stars comme Zhang Ziyi et Tony Leung qu’elles consacrent un an à s’entraîner, puis deux ans au tournage. Il fallait attendre le bon moment.
Une fois de plus vous avez commencé à tourner sans scénario arrêté ? En effet. On a démarré très simplement, avec la biographie d’Ip Man pour trame. C’est une histoire d’héritage, de verticalité et d’horizontalité, d’un grand maître du Sud et d’un autre du Nord qui se trouve être une femme (un personnage fictif, car à cette époque les femmes n’avaient pas de place dans les arts martiaux). Je ne sais pas pour les autres cinéastes, mais pour moi ces quelques informations que je vous donne sont suffisantes pour constituer le commencement d’un film. L’idée originelle était de tourner d’abord la scène d’ouverture avec Tony Leung, mais il se trouve qu’il s’est cassé le bras dès le premier jour. En attendant qu’il se rétablisse, on a dû déplacer la production au Nord et commencer par s’attacher au personnage féminin. Cela a apporté une autre dimension à cette part du film, plus longue et détaillée.
Quels autres accidents ont pu ainsi façonner le cheminement du film ? Ma manière de faire a peu à voir avec l’idée de cheminement, justement, parce que je tiens à garder toujours le récit aussi flexible que possible. Une des raisons pour lesquelles je ne veux pas partir d’un soi-disant «scénario complet» est que je ne veux pas d’un destin tout tracé, je ne veux pas que les choses se fassent scène par scène, selon une trame écrite alors que je ne peux rien anticiper des nombreux accidents qui vont survenir, bons ou mauvais. Je prends les choses comme elles viennent. Nous savions où le film devait s’achever : quand Tony Leung s’installe à Hongkong, où il crée son école et finira ses jours. Comment y arriver ? Il fallait laisser la route se tracer d’elle-même. Ma méthode est très organique.
Vos collaborateurs disent que le sens de vos scènes naît de leur tournage même… Tout est affaire de hasard, rien n’est destiné à l’avance. Comme l’accident de Tony qui nous a poussés à aller au Nord en pleine saison froide, travailler jour et nuit sans dormir sur les décors afin de pouvoir tourner au plus vite, puis filmer des combats sur des semaines, par -20°C. Plus tard, il a fallu y retourner dans la chaleur étouffante de l’été pour compléter ces scènes hivernales, et les acteurs ont ainsi dû tourner en manteaux de fourrure alors qu’il faisait plus de 40°C. Malgré tout, ce tournage fut une expérience très détendue. Le «lâcher prise» est une des valeurs des arts martiaux, et il fallait s’y accorder pour faire un tel film. C’est ce que j’en ai appris : oublier la technique, partir sans structure, se laisser porter par le cours des scènes.
Il paraît que The Grandmaster restera comme le dernier film tourné en pellicule Fuji. Et, justement, il n’y est question que de nostalgie, de mondes et d’époques perdues… Il y avait une certaine dimension métaphorique, presque poétique, à ce que nous tournions ainsi en pellicule, ce qui est devenu rare : on nous en envoyait des stocks régulièrement, jusqu’à ce que l’on reçoive un message de Fuji, un mois avant que nous arrêtions de tourner, nous annonçant que leur dernier envoi de pellicule serait bel et bien le dernier, que la production s’arrêtait, que c’était la fin. Je l’ai pris comme un indice, un signe que le film devait s’arrêter là. J’ai gardé la dernière boîte, en souvenir. Et cela résonnait au fond avec cette idée que l’esprit, la dimension philosophique des arts martiaux se perd au fil des temps, et qu’un jour cela ne devient rien de plus qu’une page d’histoire. Tous vos films, même ceux qui se déroulent dans une époque passée, n’ont cessé de porter un regard plus ou moins déguisé sur la vibration du Hongkong présent. In the Mood for Love parlait de la colonisation, 2046 d’un certain état de paralysie. Ici, il est question de l’invasion japonaise, faut-il y voir un écho au Hongkong redevenu chinois ? Ce n’est pas ça, il ne s’agit pas d’invasion : on n’envahit pas sa propre famille. Les Hongkongais ont peur de la Chine, mais je crois qu’ils ont tort. En revanche, il est question dans le film de la rivalité entre les grands maîtres du Nord et du Sud, et leurs philosophies respectives. Et j’y vois une métaphore des pôles Nord et Sud de la Chine moderne. Au premier plan, il est question de l’histoire chinoise, mais quand vous regardez le film vous comprenez comment s’est construit le Hongkong contemporain, par l’afflux d’immigrants au gré des secousses historiques sur le continent, qui ont considérablement influencé la population locale. Ce sont les guerres et les changements politiques en Chine qui ont amené le sang neuf, la finance et d’innombrables ressources à Hongkong. A travers la métaphore de l’école fondée par Ip Man, le film montre aussi une culture sur laquelle Hongkong a pris racine et qui s’est perdue. Ce que je veux dire avec ce film, c’est : «Voilà d’où nous venons, voilà qui nous étions autrefois.»
Vos derniers films tournent de plus en plus autour de l’époque de votre enfance, quand vous arrivez à Hongkong avec votre mère à l’âge de 5 ans alors que votre père reste coincé à Shanghai par la Révolution culturelle… Je ne dirais pas que je tourne autour, mais que c’est peut-être plutôt quelque chose qui me manque aujourd’hui. Une certaine élégance, un certain caractère de cette époque, qui manquent à notre temps. J’ai beaucoup filmé le présent, et en attendant qu’il m’inspire à nouveau je préfère revisiter cette expérience et la partager avec le public.
N.B. Sur The Grandmaster, vous avez travaillé avec Xu Haofeng, dont le film The Sword identity était présenté à Deauville l’an dernier. Pouvez-vous nous parler de votre collaboration et de ce qu’il a apporté au film ? W.K.W. Qu’avez-vous pensé de son film ?
N.B. J’ai trouvé ça surprenant, différent, un film d’arts martiaux étrange, avec des éléments spirituels et très drôles également… un film atypique. W.K.W. Il est lui-même une personnalité atypique. Il est aujourd’hui enseignant en école de cinéma et pratiquait assidument les arts martiaux dans sa jeunesse. Un jour, pour tester sa technique, il a sauté du troisième étage de l’académie de cinéma de Beijing et n’en est pas port. Il a été retenu par un arbre mais s’est blessé et s’est retrouvé arrêté pendant deux ans. Pendant ce temps, il a beaucoup médité et j’ai voulu le rencontrer après avoir lu son livre. Je trouve que son approche des arts martiaux est très intéressante, j’ai donc voulu qu’il devienne consultant sur The Grandmaster. Mais je lui ai ensuite demandé de co-écrire le script pour apporter un angle très original. Il est un initié des arts martiaux, et appartient à une école spécifique, il a donc apporté différentes approches de la philosophie des arts martiaux. Le film lui doit son aspect rituel.
N.G. Depuis quelques années à Hong Kong, les combats sont plus réalistes et brutaux, tandis que dans votre film ils sont plus poétiques, comme une danse. Pourquoi revenir à cette vision et ce style ? W.K.W. En fait, les combats sont traités de différentes façons dans le film, avec comme dénominateur commun de rester le plus fidèle possible au style de combat. Cela signifie que les combats devaient être authentiques, fidèles aux compétences, et qu’il ne devait pas y avoir d’éléments un peu fous ou allant contre la loi de la pesanteur. Je crois que pour beaucoup de films de kunf fu, il s’agit avant tout de violence, tandis que d’une certaine façon, un maître en arts martiaux n’a besoin que d’un seul coup, tellement rapide qu’il est invisible. Il n’est jamais question de frapper pendant 5 minutes. Mais faire un film dans lequel un combat se limite à un seul coup est inenvisageable. Pour moi, il s’agit donc d’analyser ce mouvement, car chaque coup aussi mortel nait de la coordination entre le corps, le mouvement et la vitesse. Prolonger cet instant, ce coup, est mon travail et cela s’avère très difficile comme approche. C’est nouveau pour moi. D’autre part, il y a dans ce film plusieurs grosses scènes de combat, chacune répondant à une raison différente. Pour la première, Ip Man est autour de la quarantaine, aristocrate, et ne vit pas grâce aux arts martiaux. Il s’agit pour lui d’un amusement. Le premier combat est presque une fête, la rue est son terrain de jeu, quelque chose qui lui permet de montrer ses compétences. Il y a une autre scène entre lui et le personnage interprété par Zhang Ziyi, dans un bordel. Il s’agit plus d’une danse entre deux maîtres qui se sont imposés cette règle de ne rien casser. Le dernier combat est une vengeance à la gare, et il n’est que question de vie et de mort. Donc chaque combat hérite d’une approche différente.
V.L. Avez-vous vu beaucoup de films d’arts martiaux, pour préparer The Grandmaster. W.K.W. Non je ne les ai pas vus pour préparer le film. Mais quand nous étions enfants, nous étions abreuvés par ce genre. Donc j’ai vu ces films à différentes époques de ma vie. Des films de la Shaw Brothers ou même d’avant, ensuite Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Tsui Hark…
C.I.W. A Hong Kong, le film a reçu un excellent accueil critique et public. Êtes-vous satisfait du résultat et comment voyez-vous ce genre de film à Hong Kong ? W.K.W. Je suis à la fois heureux et surpris, car le public réagit vraiment au film. C’est un genre qui est revisité et je vois le jeune public intéressé pour revisiter certains aspects de la culture des arts martiaux. Car The Grandmaster ne parle pas seulement d’artistes martiaux, c’est un film sur les origines de Hong Kong. Des années 30 aux années 50, il y a eu tellement d’immigrants fuyant la guerre en Chine. C’est donc un film sur les fondations de Hong Kong, de nouvelles personnes, du sang neuf qui ont créé le Hong Kong d’aujourd’hui.
M.S. La philosophie dans le film pousse à réfléchir aux différents courants de pensée derrière chaque école. Est-ce quelque chose que vous vouliez explorer pour peut-être pousser le public de Hong Kong à y penser également ? W.K.W. Il est très difficile de faire un film de kung fu, il y en a eu tellement et qui se limitent à gagner ou perdre, qui est le meilleur combattant, à des histoires de revanche. Il était temps d’écrire une nouvelle page, et de faire un film non seulement sur les techniques, mais d’où elles viennent, quelle est la philosophie derrière chacune d’elle. Et je pense que ce qui différencie The Grandmaster des autres est qu’il aborde un aspect assez inédit : la notion d’héritage. C’est quelque chose que l’ancienne génération souhaite offrir à la nouvelle, et c’est un message fort du film.
C.F. Comment avez-vous travaillé les personnages avec les acteurs ? Et était-ce difficile de les convaincre de s’entrainer pendant si longtemps ? W.K.W. Vous imaginez à quel point ces gens sont occupés donc oui, c’est difficile. Le fait est que vous ne pouvez pas leur dire qu’il faudra 3 ans pour faire le film. Mais c’est un véritable engagement de la part de Tony et Ziyi qui ont cru en ce projet, et ne l’ont pas lâché durant toute la production. Tony s’est cassé le bras deux fois pendant le tournage, et il n’a jamais abandonné. Il continuait à insister pour tourner lui-même les scènes d’action.
C.F. Etiez-vous confiant à propos de leur niveau technique, avant de commencer le tournage ? Car ils ont atteint un niveau professionnel. W.K.W. Ils n’avaient pas le choix, sinon je les aurais poussés à poursuivre l’entrainement. En regardant le making of vous verrez à travers quelles douleurs ils sont passés, donc je suis certain qu’ils ont travaillé très dur.
M.S. Avec toute cette série de films, plus un autre arrivant prochainement, d’où vient cette fascination pour Ip Man ? Quel est son héritage à Hong Kong ? W.K.W. Quand vous vous penchez sur la vie d’Ip Man, vous vous rendez compte qu’il est la réflexion de l’histoire récente de la république. Né sous une monarchie, il a vu l’apparition de la république, puis la guerre civile, la guerre sino-japonaise, pour finir dans une colonie britannique. Beaucoup de ces films se focalisent sur le personnage, sa technique, ses beaux combats, et aucun film pour voir Ip Man selon ce point de vue. Pourquoi il est devenu un maître ? Quelles épreuves a-t-il traversé ? Si vous comprenez d’où il vient, vous comprendrez sa grandeur. Il est né dans une ville conservatrice et le wing chun était réservée à une élite. Chaque génération en comptait que 16 élèves, apprendre cette technique était très cher. Ip Man est celui qui transforma cet art pour le rendre populaire et ne plus le réserver aux plus aisés.
N.B. A propos de la scène de la gare, la considériez-vous comme une scène-clé dès le départ ou pris-t-elle de l’importance au fur et à mesure ? W.K.W. Au début du tournage, le plan était de commencer par la scène de Tony sous la pluie. On sait tous qu’il est un grand acteur, mais on ne sait pas à quel point il sait se battre. Le public se pose nécessairement la question et ne peut qu’être curieux de voir comment il va jouer un maître en arts martiaux. Donc nous avons commencé par cette scène et il s’est cassé la main pendant les répétitions, dès le premier jour. Nous devions donc changer nos plans car il était impossible de tourner cette séquence. Au départ nous avions prévu de tourner en Mandchourie deux mois plus tard, quand il ne faisait pas si froid. Nous sommes donc allés au Nord plus tôt que prévu pour tourner la séquence de la gare pendant deux mois à -25°C.
N.G. Combien de scènes coupées avez-vous avec Chang Chen, dont le personnage essentiel est assez peu présent à l’écran ? Et que représente-t-il ? La mafia ? W.K.W. Pas la mafia non. Dans le film, il y a une scène où le père parle à sa fille, et on comprend que la force et la technique ne sont pas si importantes face au temps. Certains personnages sont dans la lumière et d’autres restent dans l’ombre. Le film est avant tout une question d’héritage. la première partie du film est à propos d’un vieux maître qui doit se retirer, cherche ses successeurs, ce qui ouvre plusieurs possibilités. Son successeur naturel échoue car il est trop agressif, sa fille ne peut pas lui succéder malgré son talent car l’époque n’a pas de place pour les femmes, et il reste Ip Man et La Lame (Chang Chen). Ces deux commencent plus ou moins de la même manière, vont à Hong Kong à la même période, ouvrent une école, et pourtant le premier finit grand maître quand l’autre devient barbier. Ce que j’aime dans ce personnage est qu’il est une sorte de miroir. Il a suivi le même chemin pour arriver à un autre résultat. The Grandmaster n’est pas un film sur une personne mais sur un état d’esprit, sujet aux variations.
V.L. À la fin du film, vous utilisez une musique d’Ennio Morricone. Est-ce un hommage à Il était une fois en Amérique ? W.K.W. Nous avons plusieurs fois appelé ce film « Il était une fois le kung fu ». A la fin du film, nous avons utilisé un morceau d’Ennio Morricone qui constitue un hommage à Sergio Leone et son compositeur. Mais en même temps, je voulais souligner quelque chose. Aujourd’hui, très peu d’artistes font des films épiques comme lui en faisait. Épique ne veut pas dire grand, cela signifie qu’il s’agit d’un film dans lequel vous avez envie de passer du temps, un film à travers lequel vous vivez. Quand vous regardez certains films de Sergio Leone, vous ressentez cela.
C.I.W. Il existe plusieurs versions du film, dont une chinoise et une internationale. Laquelle préférez-vous et pourquoi ces deux montages ? W.K.W. C’est le même film. 99% du film est identique. La seule différence est que j’ai raccourci la fin de la version internationale. la raison est simple, dans la version chinoise il y a des éléments qui ne peuvent être compris que par le public local. Par exemple, lorsque Ip Man dit le nom de la société pour laquelle travaillait son père, le public chinois comprend de suite qu’il s’agit d’une société d’import/export, chose impossible pour le public occidental. Nous avons donc fait des coupes et modifié la voix off, quelques ajustements pour rendre le film totalement accessible au public occidental. Concernant la fin, le montage chinois est plus ouvert et porté sur la spiritualité, tandis qu’ici la fin est plus précise.
M.S. Concernant la bonne réception du film par le jeune public, en quoi le public a changé au cours du temps ? Et voulez-vous toujours autant être un réalisateur hongkongais ? W.K.W. Mais je suis un réalisateur hongkongais ! Et j’en suis extrêmement fier. A l’image de la scène du biscuit dans le film, il n’est pas question de jeunes, de vieux, de Nord ou de Sud, le monde est bien plus vaste que ça. Aujourd’hui le jeune public de Hong Kong se montre très réactif aux films qui abordent l’identité de la ville. Ils ont vu beaucoup de films chinois ou co-produits par la Chine, et ils veulent voir un cinéma qui représente Hong Kong et son identité.
M.S. C’est intéressant d’un point de vue politique. W.K.W. C’est bien plus vaste que la politique. Hong Kong est comme un gigantesque centre commercial. Par exemple ici à Deauville, vous pouvez connaitre les magasins, comme la ville dans laquelle j’ai grandi. Les magasins peuvent être remplis de souvenirs, à l’inverse de Hong Kong où ce genre d’endroit n’existe plus. On dirait que toute la ville appartient à LVMH ou une autre grande marque. Vous vivez dans un grand centre commercial, donc vous avez besoin de retrouver votre identité et votre histoire.
N.G. On ne voit plus beaucoup Yuen Woo-ping faire l’acteur ces derniers temps. Comment l’avez-vous convaincu d’apparaitre dans The Grandmaster ? W.K.W. Je l’ai forcé, je l’ai séduit. Yuen Woo-ping est quelqu’un de très timide. Il est un immense chorégraphe et sa présence sur le plateau fait de lui une sorte de parrain face à ses collaborateurs, mais dans la vraie vie il est très timide. J’ai réussi à le convaincre de faire cette apparition en lui disant qu’il n’y aurait que deux plans, que tout irait bien. Il était si nerveux…
C.I.W. Il se dit que The Grandmaster ne ressemble pas au style Wong Kar-wai. Que répondez-vous à ça ? W.K.W. Personne ne fait de films pour le style. Le « style Wong Kar-wai », dans un sens oui, car je suis le réalisateur. Mais cette notion m’échappe tout de même. La façon de bouger ma caméra peut-être, qui quand elle est copiée rappelle mon style… je ne sais pas.
N.G. Peut-être que votre « style » est tout simplement de revisiter des genres très codés. Avez-vous en tête un autre genre que vous souhaitez aborder ? W.K.W. En ce moment ? Pas du tout. Je veux juste me reposer un peu.
N.B. Vous avez travaillé avec un nouveau DP, Philippe Le Sourd, comment l’avez-vous choisi ? W.K.W. Qu’en pensez-vous ?
N.B. Je n’en ai aucune idée… W.K.W. Vous avez vu le film ? Vous avez aimé la photographie ? C’est la raison. En fait je travaille avec Philippe depuis longtemps, notamment sur un spot publicitaire. Il est très exigeant concernant les films sur lesquels il travaille car il est très attaché à sa famille et n’aime pas passer des mois loin d’eux. J’ai également dû le séduire pour travailler sur ce film. Il est fasciné par les arts martiaux, je lui ai donc dit de venir tourner un film de kung fu en Chine, que ça prendrait 6 mois… et nous avons passé deux noëls ensemble.
N.G. Pour revenir sur les combats, comment avez-vous travaillé avec Yuen Woo-ping ? Qui tenait la caméra ? Etait-il simple chorégraphe ou action director ? W.K.W. Nous étions tous les deux sur le plateau. Normalement, il est seul chorégraphe mais sur ce tournage c’était différent, avec divers consultants. Donc nous étions en permanence en pleine discussion, lui, moi et les autres. Il fallait en permanence trouver un équilibre car les chorégraphies devaient être fidèles au style de combat, mais en même temps excitantes et évocatrices pour le public. Il fallait éviter trop d’abstraction.
C.I.W. Avez-vous des regrets sur ce film ? W.K.W. Un film c’est comme la vie, et une vie sans regrets n’est pas drôle. Bien sur que j’ai des regrets. Si j’avais eu 3 ans de plus pour faire le film, cela aurait été parfait par exemple. Un de mes regrets est qu’à la fin du tournage, pour lequel nous avons utilisé de la pellicule, nous avons reçu un message de Fuji nous annonçant que la dernière livraison reçue serait définitivement la dernière, car la production de cette pellicule s’arrêtait alors. C’était comme un signal pour me dire qu’il fallait arrêter le tournage. J’ai d’ailleurs gardé une de ces dernières boîtes de film, car je suis un peu triste que nous devions dire adieu à la pellicule et à ces magnifiques caméras Panavision au profit de nouvelles caméras numériques…
Étaient présents à cette rencontre : Cyrille Falisse du Passeur Critique, Nicolas Bardot de FilmdeCulte, Victor Lopez d’Eastasia, Matthew Scott du South China Morning Post et Chung In Wong d’Esquire. Propos recueillis lors du Festival du Cinéma Asiatique de Deauville en mars 2013. Trouvés ici.
Han Ong In the winter of 1994, the Rosemary Theater here in Chinatown did a retrospective of your work and I had the good luck of seeing all your films in chronological order. It was a great accident to see them all together. If you could look back at your body of work and pin down a “Wong Kar-wai signature,” even as far back as As Tears Go By, you already had the blurry, step-frame scenes of violence.
Wong Kar-wai As Tears Go By was my first film, and at that time John Woo had just made A Better Tomorrow and everybody in Hong Kong was making gangster films. I thought, “What else can I do?” So I made Days of Being Wild and borrowed its form from MTV.
HO When you say an MTV “form,” do you mean the quick cuts? WKW Yeah, it’s more fragmented. Most of the filmmaking in Hong Kong, even now, is very lyrical, very smooth, and always very traditional. Of course MTV has become something very formulaic, but in the late eighties, when it was first shown in Hong Kong, we were all really impressed with the energy and the fragmented structure. It seemed like we should go in this direction. About the step-printing process, in effect it’s an answer to John Woo’s use of slow motion. We did it in reverse and shot with a faster speed, which turned out to be something like step-printing.
HO Days of Being Wild has been described as a Chinese Rebel Without a Cause — have you heard this before? WKW No.
HO It was a shorthand description a critic and friend used. It wasn’t meant to be definitive, but suggestive. WKW The fact is that when Western films are shown in Hong Kong they have a Chinese title. The Chinese title of Rebel Without a Cause was Days of Being Wild.
HO So it was wrong of him to extrapolate from that that this was a Chinese version of Rebel Without a Cause. WKW Yes. In fact that’s also the case in Happy Together. When Antonioni’s Blow Up was shown in Hong Kong the Chinese title was not exactly “happy together,” but “the first gleam of the spring light.” (laughter)
HO But when you appropriated the title Days of Being Wild — was there meant to be a slight reference? There are some surface similarities: it’s about good-looking young men… WKW Rebel Without a Cause in Chinese becomes “our faith,” which is a term that was used very typically in the sixties about kids like James Dean, or kids who imitated James Dean. They came from rich families, had nothing to do, they weren’t happy with their lives and were trying to be different. It was a typical ’60s symptom.
HO So the title was a means of getting at that time period. Another trademark of yours is the slow-mo tracking shot: of the palm trees swaying with that beautiful soundtrack in Days of Being Wild. I remember a guitar strumming as Leslie Cheung was walking into the shop where the soda girl worked. It’s very romantic. It’s lush in the way that perhaps young American filmmakers are afraid to be because it’s part of the legacy of the fifties’ studio films. Young American filmmakers’ response to that is to be hip and cynical. They don’t want to be seen as corny and syrupy. But you, on the other hand, do it, and you keep doing it, and do it with such faith in its power and with such love. In other words, you’re not winking. WKW I make films mostly by instinct, and I tried to make the stories in Days of Being Wild in different styles: sometimes as in Hollywood B-movies where there’s a long take and it’s very melodramatic; and sometimes I just wanted to make it like a Bergman film with lots of close-ups. I had fun in Days of Being Wild. I really enjoyed it, although it was painful to make because we had so many problems and in the end it wasn’t a big commercial success. The producer didn’t make the sequel because he thought it was too risky. After my first film, As Tears Go By, everybody expected another very commercial film with the six hottest young idols in Hong Kong.
HO Who were also in Days of Being Wild? WKW Right. And the image of the palm trees, like the waterfall in Happy Together — all these shots remind me of nature. People should be very humble towards the natural world. Fassbinder said, he tries to show change by showing something which never changes. In this case, the waterfall never changes, the people keep changing.
HO So it’s a contrast between the constant changing vicissitudes of life as manifested in the characters, and nature, which simply exists. After Days of Being Wild you were working on Ashes of Time, which actually took two years to complete. It’s been said that during that time you were frustrated and started working on Chungking Express as a way to clear your mind. Paradoxically, Chungking took a very short time between its conception and completion. Was Ashes of Time a project initiated by you or was it something your producers recommended—maybe after the commercial disappointment of Days of Being Wild it was something they felt would be easier for you—to have another commercial hit with a commercial genre. WKW Of course that was the thinking of the producers. After Days of Being Wild it took me a while to find a producer who was willing to finance my film.
HO How long did that take? WKW About a year. I had an idea to make a film about two women: the Evil East and the Malicious West. I borrowed these two characters from a novel by Louis Chua, The Eagle Shooting Hero, which is very popular. The producers suggested, “Instead of making a film about the two women, why not make the novel into a film?” I thought it would be fun. I’ve always wanted to make a costume drama.
HO When was this novel written? WKW Around 1950. It is the most popular book, second only to The Little Red Book by Chairman Mao. Everybody knows about this novel, and when we were students we were crazy about it. But to make it into a film… after rereading it, I didn’t think I liked it that much. The two characters I had originally wanted to develop, the Evil East and the Malicious West, were still the only characters who interested me. And in the novel they are already seventy-something. I thought instead of making a film about these two old women, I’d begin to think of their younger days. So rather than rewriting the novel, I invented prologues to it. It took almost two years to finish this project.
HO For what reasons? WKW We had ten of the most famous movie stars in Asia, and their schedules were impossible, and we were shooting in Hong Kong and in northern China, which is a desert. I was also the co-producer of the film, which was so painful. I had to think really carefully about every decision I made because it costs a lot of money and time. It’s not fun to make a film like this. After we completed the film and had finished the post-production, it was April already and we knew the film was going to compete in the Venice Film Festival at the end of September. That meant we had four months without anything to do, and I thought, I should have a holiday. So I made a film. HO Your way of having a holiday is making another film? WKW Yes, I thought I should do something to make myself feel comfortable about making films again. So I made Chungking Express, which I made like a student film. After Ashes of Time I decided that if I wanted to be a director, I had to know exactly what my space was in the market. If I was going to make big expensive films, that meant I had to face mass audiences. And not all of my material is for mass audiences.
HO That’s a key realization. WKW You try to cope with the mass audience, but in fact you are not doing something for them—I would be fighting with myself. I thought, I don’t have to make big films, I can make small films that I can be happy with. I can find my own audience. So I made Chungking Express with a very low budget, and we made the film very quickly, only six weeks from the idea to the edit.
HO Was the script written in process, or was it written before the production began? WKW As a writer, I always have some short stories in my mind which have not yet developed into a script, and I just picked out three and said, “Okay, let’s start shooting.” I wrote in the daytime and we shot at night. We were shooting in chronological order.
HO So you wrote the movie as you went along, you didn’t hodgepodge it, or skip around and decide later in the editing room that this was the order? You already knew? WKW I didn’t know what would happen tomorrow, but I knew what had happened today. After I finished a day of shooting, then I knew what would happen next. We were going step by step, and because I had so much fun making the first part, I made the film too long. So I skipped the third story.
HO The third story became Fallen Angels. Of all your films my favorite is Chungking Express. What stays in my mind is its romantic quality, the protagonist’s voice-over in the beginning of the film: When he bumps into Brigitte Lin in the marketplace and says, “I was this close to the woman I would fall in love with 24 hours later.” Physical proximity is going to translate into an emotional proximity. The lushness of that romanticism, without being corny, was like a very good pop song. WKW But for me it is very Chinese. In Chinese there is a term which is very difficult to translate into English, it is something like “chances.” It means: Why am I sitting here having this interview with you instead of somebody else? Why should we meet here? This is about chances, and I think all my films are about chances.
HO What I was referring to was the highly romantic nature—not just that it’s coincidence, meeting and not meeting which is part of living in a large city—but the treatment, which to me was very atypical of most of the Hong Kong movies which treat romance in a giggly way. I cringe watching them. But somehow in your film I felt myself opening up. It wasn’t embarrassing, in fact, far from it, it was a great pop song with a refrain that stayed in your mind. Whereas Chungking was sunshiny and suffused with bright, lovely daytime colors, Fallen Angels is more about neon, and night time, and grunge. It’s also the difference between the ingenue of Fay Wang and the eyeshadow-wearing German chanteuse aura of Michelle Reis, who plays the booking agent. WKW You’re right, because to me Chungking Express and Fallen Angels are one film that should be three hours long. I always think these two films should be seen together as a double bill. In fact, people asked me during an interview for Chungking Express: “You’ve made these two stories which have no relationship at all to each other, how can you connect them?” And I said, “The main characters of Chungking Express are not Fay Wang or Takashi Kaneshiro, but the city itself, the night and day of Hong Kong. Chungking Express and Fallen Angels together are the bright and dark of Hong Kong.” I see the films as inter-reversible, the character of Fay Wang could be the character of Takashi in Fallen Angels; Brigitte Lin in Chungking could be Leon Lai in Fallen Angels. All of their characters are inter-reversible. Also, in Chungking we were shooting from a very long distance with long lenses, but the characters seem close to us.
HO Would that account for the freshness and intimacy with which the actors interacted with each other? WKW Yes. And in Fallen Angels the characters were shot with an extremely wide angle. The camera is very close to the actors, but they seem far away. The purpose of the cameras in both films is that they are just like civilian cameras.
HO Like surveillance. WKW Yes, they are always there watching people’s behavior. In fact, they are the other main characters in the film. The purpose is the same, but we’re using different approaches: Chungking is so far but so close; Fallen Angels is so close but so far.
HO That’s very enlightening, because for me Chungking seemed much more expansive, more airy. And what I got from it was joy. I felt so transported watching it, even though I had to get used to your sense of timing. These languorous moments fill out the body of the film and are interspersed with sudden ventings or bursts of violence, people chasing each other on the street, and that great montage of Brigitte Lin organizing the dope smuggling with the Indian family. They’re great bursts and then you see these longeurs where nothing much happens and your sense of time gets distended—particularly in the latter half of the film when it’s primarily about Fay Wang developing a huge crush on Tony Leung. It makes sense now that you say you were shooting the actors from far away. There’s a nice feeling of not being intruded upon; but in Fallen Angels I get cramped. WKW As I said, the main character in these two films is the city, the Midnight Express fast food shop, because if that shop could talk… It’s always there but the people keep changing.
HO I don’t know if I buy that. I say this not out of any disrespect, but it underestimates the vibrancy, the charisma of specific actors. The idea may be the abstract concept of this inanimate object being passed into and out of by different characters, but what you end up responding to are the lives you see embodied by those characters. WKW Of course, people are more affected by actors or acting. But as a filmmaker, I need some logic. And this was my logic in making these two films, and how I connected these stories and these films together. People say my films don’t have any plot or storyline, but in my logic there is a storyline.
HO The constant being the place, and then the idea of ships passing through the night. WKW Yes.
HO Let’s talk a bit about Fallen Angels. My response to Fallen Angels, as I said, is set up by the idea of night and day, or light and dark. I lived in Los Angeles for ten years, and I moved to New York three years ago. With that move, my tastes in film and music and everything changed considerably. I would probably love Fallen Angels if I still lived in L.A., but now that I live in New York, where joy is in such short quantity—where you ride the subway and people’s faces are so downcast, living billboards of discontent—it seems that Fallen Angels is a redundant reminder of that. When I was living in L.A., I wanted unhappiness. To balance my diet. That’s why I used to love Fassbinder, he seemed to have a predetermined goal to be unpleasant. Now I respond more to Chungking’s sunshine than I do to the grunge of Fallen Angels. WKW I asked you before if you like sweet things.
HO I do, I love ice cream. And it’s a recent thing, I never used to have a sweet tooth. WKW Mmm-hmm.
HO So, that’s my spiel about light and dark. WKW Yes, the light side and the dark side, this is one of the reasons that I made Fallen Angels. It’s fair to show both sides of a coin.
HO What I responded to in Fallen Angels were the groovy parts: The scenes where Leon Lai plays the hitman and he’s walking to his assignments with the Massive Attack soundtrack. WKW I wanted to use Massive Attack’s music, but it was too expensive, so I asked my composer in Hong Kong to do something like Massive Attack.
HO Well it’s very successful. It’s an iconic, cool moment. People might criticize it as being synthetic or… WKW I like the term synthetic. In fact, his part is synthetic. It is my impression of Leon Lai, who is a very professional actor—so professional that he works everything according to the arrangement of his manager. So I thought I should put his character in this form. If he’s going to kill somebody, he must behave like a killer. Everything is image. And his character is incapable of communicating, of contact with real people. Even with his schoolmate…
HO Who he bumps into on the bus. WKW Yes, but he’s embarrassed. He’s so good at killing, but he’s kind of lost in that moment. He doesn’t know how to react, because the manager didn’t arrange this meeting. It took him by surprise. And he hates surprise.
HO But in the end, the irony is that he is surprised because his life has ended in an assignment. WKW Or maybe he’s predicted something like that. If you are a killer, you have to predict that somehow you will end up being killed. It’s an arrangement. The whole thing is about arrangement: A very obedient guy who works according to schedule and doesn’t want surprises.
HO The other thing I responded to was the slapstick humor, the female character going from floor to floor and screaming out, trying to prevent the wedding between her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend. Again, it’s both the humor and the coolness that refers back, for me, to Chungking. A new element in Fallen Angels is the introduction of a longing for family. In Chungking, the characters seem so self-contained, so young, so much of the present. They didn’t suggest a past where families were involved. They were loners. WKW I don’t agree with that.
HO You don’t? WKW In Days of Being Wild the main character is going back to the Philippines to find his family. And in As Tears Go By, the gangster character goes back to visit his family before he goes to kill somebody.
HO I stand corrected. WKW But the father figure is new, because in As Tears Go By and Days of Being Wild, it’s the mother figure. Takashi’s father in the film, in fact, is the manager of the place where we were shooting, the Chungking Mansion guesthouse. I met him when I made Chungking Express, and he’s a very decent, very quiet man. He took care of us. And I was very curious about this guy, because he could not speak Cantonese, he speaks Taiwanese dialect. I thought, why is he working as a night manager in a guesthouse in Hong Kong? There must be a story behind it.
HO We still haven’t really talked about Happy Together. You won the Best Director award for it at Cannes. That’s a big deal. WKW No no no. In fact, it makes no difference, it’s just something you can put on an ad.
HO Happy Together moved me very much—God, I hate reading words like that, “moved me very much.” But I’ve heard Christopher Doyle, your collaborator and cinematographer, describe it as your most linear, straightforward work. WKW Yes, I told him this film should be very straightforward, because after Chungking and Fallen Angels, people expected fragmented films. And there are so many young filmmakers doing things like that now in Asia. We had to move on. There’s no point staying there forever. And also, the topic of this film—in the last three or four years there’ve been some films about gay relationships made in Hong Kong and Asia, and somehow the characters were either treated too delicately, or as a joke. Sometimes it was too aggressive, like a character saying: I’m gay and you’re straight so you don’t like me and I don’t like you. I don’t like this kind of attitude. So I thought if we’re going to make a film about two men, I wanted it to be as straightforward as possible. Just treat it as two people, that’s it.
HO Why Buenos Aires? WKW I didn’t want to make a film about Hong Kong in 1997. After we made the film, we knew that it was not about Buenos Aires, but was somehow more related to Hong Kong. So instead of calling it “Buenos Aires Affair,” which was its working title and would have been very exotic but misleading, we called it Happy Together. Maybe you think that is kind of cynical. . .
HO No. I didn’t respond to it as cynical at all; to me it was what they could have been but weren’t. By the end, the film achieves a great melancholy power. It’s also about the pop world of love, ships passing in the night, and the wonderfully lush moments, this time transposed to a different country and a homosexual context. WKW To me, Happy Together applies not only to the relationship between two persons, but also the relationship between one person and his past. If people are at peace with themselves and their past, this is the start of being able to be happy with somebody else. HO And that somebody else could possibly be Chang, the third character who gets introduced? WKW Yes.
HO I responded strongly to Chang. When he entered the scene a little after halfway through the movie, the spirits of the film seemed to lift, in the same that Fay Wang was. . . WKW Fresh air.
HO Yes, it’s a break from the masochistic affair between these two guys. (pause) At what point in your life did you decide you were going to be a director? WKW The only hobby I had as a child was watching movies. Somehow I think I enjoy being involved in this business. I started as a scriptwriter and one day one of the producers asked me, “Do you want to make a film?” And I became a director.
HO Just like that he asked you? Did he see something in you or was it mere convenience? WKW There were two reasons: I had been working for him for two years and he knew me well; and it was right after A Better Tomorrow, and the situation in the Hong Kong film industry had become very prosperous. That year we produced two hundred films.
HO What year was that? WKW 1988. So they needed more directors and more young faces, and I got the chance.
HO Who are the directors that you like? WKW The list changes from day to day, but I don’t think it’s fair to mention them.
HO You’re not going to mention any names? WKW No names.
HO Are you sure? We can preface this by saying, this is by no means an exhaustive list; it’s not meant to be definitive; it’s not meant to crowd out anybody who you forget, conveniently or inconveniently, at the present moment. (laughter) WKW No names.
Liza Bear How was the story of In the Mood for Love constructed? I heard this was a very long shoot because of the way you work, in blocks. Wong Kar-wai Yes. Well, at first we called this film, Story about Food, and there were three stories in it. In fact, In the Mood for Love is only one of the three original stories. It’s about two people who meet each other because they’re neighbors, and they’re always buying noodles. So in the film we had noodles, the staircase, the restaurant and the house. And I realized that this story of the three was the only reason I wanted to make the project, so I expanded it. First I had to build the apartment, because I think the film is like chamber music—all the scenes should take place in the apartment. And so we spent a lot of time defining this apartment, and then we built it. But later on I changed my mind and thought, well, we should go outside and see something else. In Hong Kong now, it’s difficult to find streets or locations that are the same as the old Hong Kong. So we moved to Bangkok, and we shot all the street, taxi and Singapore scenes at the end of the film there.
LB So were you changing the story during production? WKW Yes, it’s like we started in a McDonalds for a quick lunch, but then it became a big feast.
LB Did you shoot on a sound stage? WKW We shot in old abandoned buildings where nobody lives anymore. The hotel in the film is a military hospital in Hong Kong. Now it’s gone.
LB How would you compare the making of In the Mood for Love with your previous films? WKW At the beginning I thought this would be an easy film because it is only about two people. At the end I realized it’s much more difficult than my previous films, which have ten or five or four characters. You had to put more details in it. Originally the story took place from 1962 to 1972, and in the editing room I decided the film should stop in 1966, which is the film you see now.
LB What made you set the story in Hong Kong in the early ’60s? WKW Well, I always wanted to make a film about this period, because it is very special in the history of Hong Kong. Right after 1949 a lot of people came from China to live in Hong Kong, and they still had their traditions and their dreams about their lives in China. And so, like the Chinese communities in the film, there are people from Shanghai who had their own language, and they had no contact with the local Cantonese. They had their own cinema, their own music, and their own rituals. So they were actually building Shanghai in Hong Kong. I’m from that background, and I wanted to recreate that world. At that time we had neighbors, we knew who were living next door to us, on the other side of the wall. And there was a lot of gossip and it was fun.
LB What did your parents do? WKW My father worked in a nightclub as a manager. Before that he was a sailor. And my mother was a housewife. My sisters and brothers stayed in China, so I was the only kid with them at that time. It was a special period for me, too. But actually, In the Mood for Love was the most difficult film of my career, and not only because it took almost two years to make. During the production we had the Asian economic crisis. We had to stop the production, because the film’s investors all had problems. We had to find new investors. Also, at the end of the film, during the editing we realized we could go on editing this film forever because we fell in love with it. And so we decided to enter it in Cannes, because that meant a deadline, and it was about time to say good-bye, and that’s it.
LB When did you decide to enter it? WKW Just before Cannes printed the catalog. I always wanted to call this film Secrets, something about secrets, but Cannes said no, there’s so many titles about secrets already. So we were listening to the music of Bryan Ferry, a song called “I’m in the Mood for Love,” and I said, “Why not call the film In the Mood for Love?” Actually, the mood of the film is what drives these two people together.
LB To some people the emotions you displayed on screen may seem strangely Latin—a yearning that never really gets consummated physically. Does that come from your previous experience working in South America? WKW No, no. I like Latin American literature a lot, and I always think Latin Americans and Italians are very close to the Chinese, especially the women—the jealousy, the passions and the family values. And the Latin music in the film, actually, was very popular in Hong Kong because the music scene at that time was mainly from the Philippines and all the nightclubs had Filipino musicians, so they got Spanish influences there. Latin American music was very popular in the restaurants at that time, that’s why I put it in the film. And I especially like Nat King Cole because he’s my mother’s favorite singer.
LB Your other films have a more freewheeling style. This obviously is quite the opposite. WKW We’re going to get a sunburn.
LB What was it like trying something new? WKW Actually, it makes you more anxious when you’re not so lazy as before. We get used to certain types of style, and people say this is our label or trademark. And whenever we go to a new location, we see things as before; we know the camera should be here and there, and that becomes very boring. When you try to do something else, you have to see things afresh, in a different perspective. And for In the Mood for Love my cameraman, Chris Doyle, was away during the film, because he had to shoot another film, so we had to use another cameraman, Mark Li Ping-bin. I could not be as lazy as usual, because in the past I could rely on Chris for lighting, framing, technical aspects like that. But this time I had to control all those things myself. But by engaging in this process I discovered I could control more of the film, and the style of the film could be more attached to the content.
LB Can you tell us more about the cinematography and specifically the use of colors, which seem very saturated? WKW We always put something in front of the camera because we wanted to create the feeling that the audience was one of the neighbors and was always observing or watching these two people. And the color is so vivid because everything from memory is vivid—it’s beautiful because it’s very close to your mind.
LB Everybody has been admiring the look of the image. There’s an incredible correlation between the wall texture, the costumes, and the upholstery fabric. How did you work with the art director? WKW I must say I’m very happy because I have a very good art director. William Chang Suk-ping has worked with me since my first film, and basically we are from the same background, so he knows everything by heart. We seldom discuss anything about the film, because the way we work together is very organic. He’s not serving me, he’s trying to create his own idea and capture all the details in the film, and he’s also the editor of the film, so sometimes he cuts things he doesn’t like. All the clothes in the film are tailor-made, and it’s a painstakingly long process. And because the film was made over a two-year period, when Maggie [Cheung] gained weight, or became slimmer, we had to change the fitting of her clothes. And as for the hair, Maggie had to spend six hours everyday before shooting.
LB How did you develop Maggie’s look? It’s very iconic. WKW Because that look was very popular. All the women looked like that in the early sixties.
LB Tiny little sleeves, very tight fitting. WKW There were very minor changes during all those years. In ’62 you have sleeves, in ’66 you don’t have sleeves, the dress length got a little shorter. We didn’t have to do research because our mothers dressed like this.
LB It looks like you chose to describe the passing of time, days or hours, through the changes of costume. Tony Leung’s character is basically wearing a similar costume, but Maggie’s character changes constantly. WKW We had 20 to 25 dresses for Maggie for the whole film, but the time period of the film was very long. Originally the film covered from 1962 to 1972, and the clothes were repeating themselves. But when we cut the film short, the costume changes became like a fashion show. And my purpose at first was to make the film very repetitious—we repeat the theme music all the time, we repeat the angle of a shot all the time, always the clock, always the corridor, always the staircase, because I wanted to show that nothing changes except the emotions of these two people. So we tried to show the changes only through them. But because we cut the film short, the repetition is not so obvious in Maggie’s clothes.
LB In a way it’s quite natural for a woman to change her clothes. WKW Yeah, and she’s a working lady.
LB But also a person who’s attracted to someone tries to make herself appealing, so she’s very conscious of what she’s wearing. WKW That’s why there are comments from the neighbors: why is she dressed like this to buy noodles?
LB We never see this pair’s husband and wife. Were their characters much more developed in the longer version of the film? WKW Well, actually the film is not about having affairs, and I thought it would be more interesting for Maggie and Tony Leung’s characters to play the leads, because they are the victims of that relationship between their spouses, and then later on they move beyond this affair. So I didn’t think we should meet the other husband and wife. We’re not saying who’s right, who’s wrong, it’s about a process—how people treated secrets.
LB What’s the role of suspicion in the film? How much of the thrill comes from the neighbors’ suspicion? WKW I think these two characters are drawn together by this suspicious gossip and they bond. They have a secret they don’t want other people to know. They have each other to share it with, because they cannot share it with anyone else, because they want to be decent, they want to be respectable. They can talk to each other and that draws them together. And because there are so many things about the secret that are unknown, there’s a lot of imagination on their side too.
LB Maggie Cheung said she had difficulty with her character because it was too perfect. Is that how you remember your mother? WKW Of course my mother is perfect. When my father worked as a sailor he didn’t come home very often, so most of the time I was with my mother. She was the one who took me to the cinema and to music concerts, so to me she’s always perfect. But she’s not very much like Maggie. Maggie’s character represents a modern woman at that time, because she’s a working woman and she has her own space. My mother was more like a housewife, very traditional.
LB For several years now in Europe and in the United States we’ve witnessed the great success of Asian cinema. From your perspective do you see it as the rebirth of Asian cinema, or is it just that Western countries are now discovering a film industry that has always been producing a lot of interesting films? WKW Well, we all need stories and what happens in our daily lives changes our stories. You can see the Italian cinema and also the French New Wave in the ’60s was the first generation after the Second World War. So that gave them a new perspective. And for the last two years Asian cinema, even Korean and Taiwanese cinema, have become very, very strong because they have their problems and they have new stories in their lives, which gives their films energy. So they are not repeating the same old stories. And the young filmmakers there, their thinking is more global, they are not very local, so their films are more accessible to Western audiences.
LB And that’s a recent change. WKW Yes.
LB You are a model now for young filmmakers. When they ask, what do you say to them about filmmaking? WKW You have to be very patient. You have to wait. That’s my advice.
LB Can you tell us about 2046, your next project? WKW Well, we were supposed to finish In the Mood for Love in August last year, but because of various problems we had to stop production, and we started shooting 2046 at the same time. 2046 is about a promise, because in 1997, the Chinese government promised Hong Kong 50 years and change. So I thought, well, I should make a film about promises. So it is a futuristic film, but it’s not a science fiction film. There are three stories in the film, and each one is adapted from a Western opera — Madame Butterfly, Carmen and Tannhauser. The cast will be Faye Wong from Chungking Express, Carina Lau and Chang Chen, and also Tony Leung, and we have a Japanese actress named Takuya Kimura. We are shooting in Bangkok and for the third story we’ll shoot in Korea.
LB Can you get financing from Europe or the U.S. now? WKW Years ago we sold films to traditional markets. Now we can get the financing not only from Asia but also outside Asia.
LB Could you, at this stage, be financed exclusively by the West? WKW I think it’s not so easy as you might expect, because normally if you want to work with European distributors or you need joint ventures, they want to have scripts, but I don’t have scripts, so that’s a problem. So you have to find someone who understands you well and has confidence in you; otherwise it’s very, very difficult.
LB At the Cannes press conference, you said that in the ’60s, everybody made their living in Hong Kong by writing. WKW Yes. I am very interested in these writers because nobody treated them as serious writers. They wrote everyday for the newspaper, a lot of articles about food, about horseracing, about women, about football, about novels; they wrote for a living. Even now the people in Hong Kong are all educated people from China. Because of the war they came to Hong Kong, and they have nothing to do there. The only thing they know how to do is write.