Film review: Ashes of Time Redux

Ashes of Time
Jet Tone Production, Block 2 Pictures, Scholar Films Company

STARRING Brigitte Lin, Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Jacky Cheung, Bai Li, Carina Lau, Charlie Yeung
WRITTEN BY Wong Kar-wai, Louis Cha
PRODUCED BY Tsai Sung-lin, Jeffrey Lau, Jacky Pang Yee Wah, Wong Kar-wai

SHOT BY Christopher Doyle, Kwan Pung-Leung
EDITED BY Kai Kit-Wai, Patrick Tam, William Chang
MUSIC BY Frankie Chan, Roel A. García

Screened on 2008-09-04

You don’t often encounter films with the breadth of Ashes of Time Redux, films which function as enhanced narratives that aspire to the level of fables or myths.  1994’s original Ashes of Time was the first film put out by Wong Kar Wai’s newly christened Jet Tone Productions, and it was during a two month break in Ashes’ production that Wong and his ideal cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, shot the lark that became Chungking Express – and without intending to disparage his subsequent works, I suggest that 1994 is the best year of Wong’s career.

In China there is an esoteric genre called Jianghu that has steadily seeped into international regard and popularity, Jianghu films being, basically, ancient fantasy martial arts stories – perhaps you’d recognize Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero as the most accessible of these to American audiences.  Ashes’ story comes from Louis Cha’s Jianghu novel, The Eagle-Shooting Heroes.  Starting with two 70 year old legendary characters and working backwards, Wong presents Ashes as a series of vignettes which detail the meaty middle years of these two characters before time would remember them in its own way.  Main character Leslie Cheung plays the future Lord of the West, now in his mid-30’s, utterly jaded and withering away in the desert, hiring out wandering warriors to others in need of a little force (he’s kind of a ‘producer’).  Four notable passersby make up the tales of Ashes: old loner friend and future Lord of the East (Tony Leung Ka Fai), a heartbroken brother/sister [sic] who almost stabs herself in the back,  Yin/Yang (Brigitte Lin), the soon-to-be eponymous blind samurai (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), and a rash, indefatigable young warrior (Jacky Cheung) whose exuberance touches even the jaded man.  Said jaded man confines himself to watching time pass around him, trapped in his memories of the love that was lost (Maggie Cheung) because of pride.  Ever the romantic, Wong’s characters see little of the world beyond their own hearts.

Ashes of Time Redux restores the original film print to the highest quality that was possible from the original – which, while not perfect, is very, very pretty.  The original 2nd rate synth score was rearranged and recorded, and a few scenes were shot and added, including digital titles.  7 minutes have been shaved from the length of the original due to lost footage – despite that, Redux feels perfectly concise.  As Wong favors it, the film’s action is generally filmed at a low shutter speed, creating frenetic blurs of fury and superhuman combat that, frankly, are almost impossible to follow.  Clearly that isn’t the point – the “idea of violence” is meant to be transferred to the audience.  Ashes of Time was an adaptation and a reinvention; Ashes does to the Jianghu genre what Wong’s touch does to most products – sensualizes and melodramaticizes.  I found Ashes to be possibly his best work because of the scope involved in the telling of the story… but that’s just because the minutiae alone are not enough to sustain my interest – ironically, Wong’s contribution to film is inarguably his singular brand of ‘minutiae sight.’

But ‘minutiae sight’ is a process, a formula, not a story.  Perhaps this is why Wong’s films get old once you know what to expect.  Incidentally, Ashes is narrative unlike most films you’d see, and regarding your understanding of the product, it really helps to know the sort of film you’re getting into before it starts.  It’s a very singular flavor that most Americans are not prepared for.  Prep by viewing the trailer, at the least.

Wong’s technique of filmmaking is highly instinctual; he feels his way through a situation, a script, a story.  In that sense, Wong was at his freshest when he was young and enterprising.  International acclaim and the luxury of time have relaxed him – inevitably – and the questions that drove him into the business, the strong questions, have been dealt with.  Now Wong must adapt and evolve his technique and the nature of his stories if he is to continue improving as a filmmaker.  Regarding his current aesthetic, he peaked in 1994 and has expounded on and formalized that technique ever since.  My Blueberry Nights proved that this technique is growing stale.  The Lady From Shanghai (no relation to the original) will be next.

written by David Ashley

Film’s site
My interview participation with Wong Kar-Wai