Back in 1994, Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai took a stab at creating a new wave wuxia film, a classic martial arts chivalry pic reimagined as abstract art. Wong had just come off a career-defining run of As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild and Chungking Express (which was actually written, cast, shot and released during a break in Ashes’ lengthy editing process). Nonetheless, Ashes of Time ended up a mostly misunderstood and largely ignored curiosity piece. Wong went on to helm more successful films like Fallen Angels, Happy Together and In the Mood for Love. But something about Ashes of Time stuck with the filmmaker. Now, 15 years after its initial release, Wong has returned to contemplate his noble failure with Ashes of Time Redux.
Though re-edited and slightly trimmed (93 minutes from an already economical 97 minutes), Ashes of Time Redux isn’t a notably different film than it was in 1994. Still, it bears a second (or in most viewers’ cases, a first) look.
Jacky Cheung, Leslie Cheung and Maggie Cheung (no relation) team up with both Tony Leungs (of the Chiu Wai and Ka Fai variety), making this an all-star Hong Kong cast. (The lovely Brigitte Lin shows up as well.) Add cinematography by Christopher Doyle, fight choreography by Sammo Hung and a musical score courtesy of Yo-Yo Ma and his magic cello, and you’ve got a film that screams quality.
The story, such as it is, is a radical condensation of Louis Cha’s celebrated novel The Eagle Shooting Heroes. Leslie Cheung plays a brokenhearted martial artist who retreats to a desolate desert and works as a contract killer. Instead of carrying out the dirty deeds himself, however, he hires a series of wandering swordsmen—each of whom seems to have his own brokenhearted story to tell. Cyclical, poetic and filled with flashbacks, the film is far more concerned with visual impact than narrative coherence. Few will walk out of Ashes of Time Redux with a complete understanding of the characters and their connections. Those who will appreciate this film the most are the ones who can surrender their ordered minds to this gauzy, abstract slideshow of melancholy men, flashing swords and beautiful Asian women.
Ashes of Time Redux has got images for days—gorgeous, neon-hued compositions like Matisse on a Chinese vacation. The entire film is bathed in a golden yellow light. The settings are starkly beautiful—almost surreal in their stoic arrangement. The film’s fight sequences (brief though they are) are handled in a herky-jerky style of slo-mo that eliminates every few frames and renders the action slightly out-of-phase with everyday reality. It’s an old technique in martial arts films meant to hint at otherworldly power that is too fast for normal human eyes to register.
But Ashes of Time (in either Redux or original flavor) isn’t really about action. It’s about love. I think, anyway. The men in this film all kill for love or to forget about love or to avenge a lost love. Or something like that. The overall effect is a bittersweet oil-painted swirl of romance, regret and macho action. As a martial arts fantasy, it may not make much logical sense. As a curious, unshakably vivid piece of film art, though, it’ll slap you around.
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