Ashes of Time Redux: Wong Kar-Wai's Motives for Restoration

Wong Kar-Wai's Statement

Cannes Film Fest 2008–In the winter of 1992, someone suggested that I make a film adaptation of Louis Cha's famous martial-arts novel The Eagle-Shooting Heroes. I re-read all four volumes of it and finally decided not to do an adaptation but instead to develop a new story about the early years of two of its main characters, Dongxie (Lord of the East) and Xidu (Lord of the West). In the book, both of them appear only in old age. I chose these two because they have exactly opposite personalities; you could think of one as the antithesis of the other.

Martial-arts fiction has a long history in Chinese literature. It has generally been most popular in times of turmoil, such as during the civil war at the turn of the 20th century, or during the Sino-Japanese War, or in Hong Kong during the 1950s. This could be because the world in which the stories are set, the jianghu, is imaginary, and its a world in which values exist only in their absolute forms. It's also a world in which the only law is the law of the sword. And the stories are about heroes. I tried to depart a little from the traditional martial-arts genre. Instead of treating these characters as heroes, I wanted to see them as ordinary people at the stage before they became heroes.


There's also one significant difference between “Ashes of Time” and my other films. I generally start with the beginning of a story or with certain characters, and then gradually work out where the story is going and where it's going to end as the shoot goes on. In this case, though, I knew where these characters were going to end up and there was nothing I could do to change it. This imbued both me and the film with a sense of fatalism. Now that the film is finished and I try to reflect on the whole experience of making it, I find myself remembering some lines from the Buddhist canon and I've decided to use them to preface the film: “The flag is still. The wind is calm. It's the heart of man that is in turmoil!”

Over the years, I've come to realize that there are several different versions of “Ashes of Time” in circulation, some approved by me, some not, as well as the fact that the film was never released in much of the world including the U.S. To rectify this situation, we decided to revisit this project and to create the definitive version.

As we launched into the work, we discovered that the original negatives and sound materials were in danger: the laboratory in Hong Kong where they were stored was suddenly shut down, without warning. We retrieved as much as we could, but the negatives were in pieces. As if we were searching for a long-lost family, we began looking for duplicate materials from various distributors and even the storage vaults of overseas Chinatown cinemas. As this went on, we came to realize that there are hundreds of prints locked up in Chinatown warehouses in those cities which used to show Hong Kong movies. Looking through all this material felt like uncovering the saga of the ups and downs of Hong Kong cinema in the last few decades. And this history, of course, included “Ashes of Time.”

First Production

We founded Jet Tone Films in 1992, and “Ashes of Time” was our first production. I always regretted that the way we had to make “Ashes of Time” back then didn't allow us to achieve the technical standards the film needed. Now, 15 years later, I want to put this right.