It's been an unusual year for Wong Kar-Wai fans. First, there was My Blueberry Nights, a film that caused quite a stir at Cannes, most of which was not positive. The highly edited version of Nights that ended up stateside feels like the least essential film in the WKW filmography to this massive fan of the visually stunning director. (If you haven't seen In the Mood For Love and 2046, get thee to a DVD store or Netflix queue immediately.) But Blueberry was just the warm-up. Criterion announced that they're beginning their foray into the world of Blu-Ray this month with the excellent Chungking Express, and WKW is releasing in theaters a completely redone version of his 1994 wuxia film, Ashes of Time, a movie that took up so much of the director's life that he actually shot Chungking during an editing break. He was never completely satisfied with the final version, a film that has barely been seen stateside. With nearly every element of the film re-edited, Ashes of Time is being re-introduced to an audience who may be completely unfamiliar with this unusual, award-winning action film. What's perhaps most interesting about Ashes of Time Redux is that my feelings about the film are almost entirely unchanged. There are performances and visual flourishes that make it worth seeing, but the slightly cluttered narrative and too philosophical tone keeps it from being one of WKW's best.
"The root of a man's problems is memory." Where to start when recapping Ashes of Time Redux? I'm not sure that I can. Technically, the film is a wuxia, a historical genre of martial arts films, but it's the least linear that you'll probably ever see. It's based on Louis Cha's The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, but it practically jettisons that book's entire plot, focusing instead on just the characters and fight scenes. Sammo Hung choreographed the latter, but they're clearly not the focus of WKW's vision. He's more interested in people lost and alone. Leslie Cheung (A Better Tomorrow, Farewell My Concubine) feels practically like a ghost brought back to life after his tragic suicide in 2003 as Ouyang Feng, a fallen swordsman and loner in what looks like an oasis in the middle of a vast desert. The story circles around Feng, as he hires bounty hunters like the Blind Swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung) to arrange hits in the middle of nowhere. WKW is much more interested in emotion and philosophy than actual storytelling. Great actors including Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai also star.
Even though I'll openly admit that I have been able to barely follow Ashes of Time in either format, Redux or not, there's something mesmerizing about the filmmaking on display. There's a thematic confidence in Ashes of Time that WKW would hone in his masterpieces, Chungking, In the Mood for Love, and 2046. Wong's regular cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, films the vast desert wasteland of Ashes of Time in a way that makes it impossible to turn away or tune out of the philosophical story. You may not be able to follow what the hell is going on in Ashes of Time, but I think that's the point. He wants you to get lost in the emotion and the imagery. Even drastically altered as it has been in Ashes of Time Redux, the strengths and weaknesses of the film are the same. Yo-Yo Ma's new score and the digital remastering help, but it's still just an appetizer compared to the complete meals that WKW would provide in the decade to follow. It's a nice warm-up for what was to come.
Rating: THREE BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: November 14th, 2008
Starring: Leslie Cheung, Jacky Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Tony Leung Ka Fai, and Brigitte Lin
Director: Wong Kar-Wai
Writer: Wong Kar-Wai