TIME: I'm confused. This film was originally called Beijing Summer and it seems to have been going on for about one year. What is it now?
Wong Kar-wai: It's a long story. We wanted to make a movie in Beijing two years ago and actually did shoot some scenes there Then we submitted the script to the censors in China. Actually it was more like a first draft. The authorities said some points would have to be adjusted.
TIME: What didn't they like?
Kar-wai: For a start, they didn't like the title.
TIME: What was wrong with Beijing Summer?
Kar-wai: They didn't say. We asked them to suggest something better, but they didn't. Secondly, they told us we couldn't shoot scenes in any part of Tiananmen Square.
TIME: How much was going to be shot in Tiananmen?
Kar-wai: That was the problem--lots. The film revolved around Tiananmen Square. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung were meant to play lovers living in Hong Kong, but working in Beijing and always trying to meet each other in Tiananmen Square. I told the censors that I didn't see how the subject matter could be offensive. But they still didn't like it, so I just thought to myself, well, if we can't make it there, we'll do it elsewhere. Now it's just a story about food and love.
Kar-wai: People don't always understand the notion of eating. They do it every day--it's common, like breathing. And while eating, you have different emotions. You eat out of frustration, or out of joy, and have lots of different motivations.
TIME: Maggie and Tony must get extremely emotional about working with you?
Kar-wai: I think they simply give up sometimes. I keep them waiting so long and it's tough. For instance, Maggie lives in Paris, has a husband, has a life, and she has packed her luggage so many times to come over here, only for me to say "sorry" each time.
TIME: I hope she gives you a very hard time for that?
Kar-wai: Not really, no. Both her and Tony know the way I work, that's why I use them.
TIME: What is it about Maggie Cheung? Why do you keep using her?
Kar-wai: She has very modern qualities. If you make a film of her in Paris or Shanghai, it's convincing. She's very flexible, very contemporary. She can be a very good slapstick actress, too.
TIME: Why does making a movie get so problematic for you?
Kar-wai: The reason it takes me so long to make a film, the reason it gets so difficult, is that I'm trying to think of every film as the last one I will ever make, so it can be the best it can possibly be. I don't want to have regrets or excuses, or think, 'I can do better next time.' The way you feel about a film changes as you make it, and that means I'm often changing the story during the shooting. At film festivals I put on my sunglasses and go to sleep because I don't want to see my films again.
TIME: I'm struck by the fact you're always dealing with individuals There's no sense of society or family in what you've done. No one has any foundations.
Kar-wai: The truth is, we make a film in a very minimal way because of low budgets, and our style has been dictated by that. When I look at Fallen Angels, I realize it is not a film that is truly about Hong Kong. It's more like my Hong Kong fantasy. I want Hong Kong to be quiet, with less people.
TIME: How would a big budget affect your moviemaking technique?
Kar-wai: I'll tell you when it ever happens.
TIME: Is there still a film you really want to make?
Kar-wai: I've always wanted to make a film about Shanghai. I was born there. And I have an image of Shanghai, which is quite different from other directors, I think. The story of Shanghai should happen in back alleys.
TIME: You just can't stay away from rats can you?
Kar-wai: It's boring if you shoot a film in Paris with the Eiffel Tower, or always using Madison Avenue to represent New York.
TIME: Has your view of Hong Kong changed since the handover, or has Hong Kong changed in some way?
Kar-wai: After the handover people in Hong Kong got more and more conservative. They're very conscious about change--they don't like change--and they compare everything with the good old days. I think they somehow view change as a bad thing when it doesn't have to be.
TIME: Is your name well-known in the mainland?
Kar-wai: Only one of my films was legally released in China. It was called Ashes of Time, a co-production between the Beijing Film Studio and our own. So some people know me.
TIME: Did they like Ashes?
Kar-wai: Well, they expected a martial arts film. But I think they expected Saving Private Ryan and what they got was Thin Red Line. Of course, film critics preferred Thin Red Line, but not the audience. My idea was to put together all the martial arts influences from the '60s until now, a little bit of everything. I think it was my only chance to make a martial arts film that was my own. The A-Z of kung fu film in Hong Kong.
TIME: Talk to us about Shanghai?
Kar-wai: I came to Hong Kong when I was five. If I hadn't, I would have been a ballet dancer.
TIME: Would you have liked that.
Kar-wai: No, I hate tights. I have very good memories of Shanghai though, especially the sounds. We lived near the French Quarter and my mother would take me to her mother's place and pick me up at the end of the day. We had to walk along a small alley where the Shanghai Philharmonic used to rehearse. I guess that's where I got my 'alley' theme from.
TIME: You're always cited as a huge influence on moviemakers. Who do you admire?
Kar-wai: I think for a guy to make a film, it has to be passionate. So it would have to be Martin Scorsese. He always has surprises, and he's very committed to it all.
TIME: Have you copied his technique?
Kar-wai: He's too expensive to copy. He makes expensive films. We are not going to build a casino.
TIME: How do you feel about John Woo, Chow Yun-fat, Jet Li being in the U.S.?
Kar-wai: I haven't seen Jet Li. But to me it's quite embarrassing. You meet an old friend and he speaks English to you, and its strange. Chow Yun-fat speaking English like a New Yorker is not the Chow Yun-fat I know. If I didn't know him, I'd be more objective. But I always think that his character should speak Cantonese.
TIME: Have you ever wanted to act?
Kar-wai: No, I prefer to watch, rather than being watched.
TIME: What would you have been if not a director?
Kar-wai: A cook, maybe, or a bartender.
TIME: Will you have a lot of extras in this movie?
Kar-wai: Yes, lots. Why, would you like a role?
TIME: Yes, you'll have to talk to my manager, but I think I'm available.
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