Judge Ben Saylor doesn't need special wine to be forgetful.
"My Blueberry Nights is not Wong Kar-wai's worst film to date (that distinction belongs to the inscrutable Ashes of Time), but it's certainly nothing less than a comedown after the consecutive triumphs of 2000's In the Mood for Love, 2004's 2046, and the short film Wong made as part of the Eros anthology, 'The Hand.'"—from Judge Ben Saylor's review of My Blueberry Nights
"The flag is still. The wind is calm. It is the heart of man that is in
Ashes of Time was first released in 1994. The film, adapted from the Louis Cha novel The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, was writer-director Wong Kar-wai's first (and as of 2009 only) foray into martial arts cinema. The film took a great deal of time to shoot, so much in fact that its director took a break during production to write and direct Chungking Express.
Several years later, Wong set about re-assembling a new cut of Ashes of Time, necessitating the acquisition of bits of the film from all over the world. The resulting work, Ashes of Time Redux, reveals itself to be a treasure for fans of the filmmaker.
Facts of the Case
Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung, Happy Together) lives a solitary existence in the desert, making a living of sorts as a middleman for those who wish to hire a contract killer. Among his visitors are Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka Fai), who totes a jug of wine he claims will take away the drinker's memory; a swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Hero) whose eyesight is failing; and Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung, Days of Being Wild), a hot-blooded warrior who takes on a slew of bandits single-handedly.
My first experience with Ashes of Time was with a DVD that transcended mere badness from a technical standpoint to the degree that it probably would have been shamed by a VHS taped from TV. It looked and sounded that bad, and the subtitles were horrible to boot. Still, even with these not insignificant deficiencies, I watched the movie from start to finish and, unsurprisingly, was able to make neither heads nor tails of it, prompting my jab at the film in my review of My Blueberry Nights.
Having seen Ashes of Time Redux, however, I must confess that I was too harsh on Wong Kar-wai's earlier version of the film, influenced as I was by the awful viewing experience provided by that DVD. While Ashes of Time Redux is technically considered a separate film from the 1994 cut, I nonetheless have no choice but to revise my earlier remarks: Ashes of Time, at least in its redux form, is far superior to My Blueberry Nights.
On the supplements included with this disc, Wong explains that among the changes he brought to the redux version are title cards that break up the film by seasons. The film begins with spring and moves through the year until it reaches spring once more. Each season focuses on a specific character(s), the constant being Leslie Cheung's Ouyang Feng. By examining the film by these breakdowns, I found it easier to keep the plotlines straight, although I know I will need a few more viewings for everything to shake itself out; namely, the segment involving Ouyang Feng's friend Huang Yaoshi and the woman who comes to the former to see about killing the latter. The woman in question is played by Brigitte Lin (Chungking Express), who in fact plays two characters, Murong Yin and Murong Yang.
The film is on surer narrative footing during Tony Leung Chiu Wai's segment, along with the scenes focusing on Ouyang Feng near the end of the film. In the case of the former, the actor plays a swordsman (mild spoiler) who wants to see his wife one more time before he goes blind. (end spoiler) This portion ends with a showdown between the swordsman and a horde of bandits. The film's martial arts are choreographed by Sammo Hung, and his work, combined with Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle's efforts behind the camera and William Chang and Patrick Tam's editing, creates a fevered, frenzied cascade of images that elevate what could have been a typical fight sequence into something that takes full advantage of the power of cinema.
The scenes with Ouyang Feng, on the other hand, are more akin to Wong's more overtly romantic films, as the swordsman is haunted by the loss of the woman he loved to his brother. Maggie Cheung (Clean) plays the woman, known only as "brother's wife," and she makes a lasting impression in mere minutes of screentime.
In an overall sense, while the setting and genre of Ashes of Time Redux might make it seem like an anomaly in Wong Kar-wai's filmography, the movie still retains Wong's romantic sensibility as well as his visual prowess. Characters who are preoccupied with the passage of time and/or haunted by their past are also not uncommon in the filmmaker's best work, which is another reason why Ashes of Time Redux doesn't feel at all out of place in Wong's canon.
Even with a film as challenging as Ashes of Time Redux, plenty of strong acting abounds, particularly in the case of Leslie Cheung's performance as Ouyang Feng. This redux release is a fine tribute to the actor, who died in 2003. His jaded and lonely swordsman provides a critical anchor for the film. With a lesser actor in the role, the film would have been much harder to bring off. Lin and Maggie Cheung are both terrific, as are both Tony Leungs.
Sony's DVD of Ashes of Time Redux is certainly an improvement over the DVD I watched of the original cut, although I'm a little disappointed that the image quality isn't stronger. Grain is an issue for much of the film, and colors and visual detail don't always seem as strong as they should be, which I would attribute to the fact that the film was cobbled together from multiple sources. Sound is generally better, and it helps that a new soundtrack was recorded.
For extras, there is a making-of featurette that runs about 14 minutes and has interviews with Wong, Doyle, Tony Leung Chiu Wai and several others. While this is more interesting than most featurettes of its kind, the superior bonus here is a 41-minute Q&A with Wong and Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman. This session contains a wealth of interesting information for fans of the filmmaker and is well worth watching. The film's trailer and a collection of previews round out the disc.
Ashes of Time Redux is not necessarily an easy film to like, and when push comes to shove, I still prefer the (relatively) more straightforward Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, and 2046. But Ashes of Time Redux should not be dismissed out of hand, for despite the less-than-spectacular image quality and overall elliptical nature of the film, this work contains images as striking as have ever been captured by Wong Kar-wai, along with the director's ever-present and deeply felt romantic sensibility. Simply put, Ashes of Times Redux is a Wong Kar-wai film in the best sense of that label, and is required viewing for his fans.
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