‘Ashes Of Time Redux’: Sumptuous All Over Again
Written by: Mark Jenkins
Published in: National Public Radio (NPR) on October 09, 2008
Blades flash and arteries spurt, yet the restructured version of Wong Kar-wai’s gorgeous Ashes of Time can hardly be called an action movie.
In fact, the Hong Kong cult director’s only martial-arts flick is actually about memory and longing — much like such sword-free Wong films as In the Mood for Love.
Made in 1994, the original Ashes bewildered swordfight fans worldwide, and it received only a limited U.S. release. Ashes of Time Redux features a new score, adds and subtracts scenes, and enlists computer-generated-image technology not available in 1994. The new cut is only 10 minutes shorter, but feels significantly brisker.
Despite the more linear structure and the faster pace, the movie remains episodic and atmospheric; like most Wong films, Ashes is a mood piece that emphasizes sumptuous images and elusive feelings over characterization and narrative.
The story, if it can be called that, is loosely derived from The Eagle Shooting Heroes, a Chinese adventure novel that has inspired numerous cinematic adaptations. Assassin Ouyang Feng (the late Leslie Cheung) lives on the edge of the Gobi desert, where he’s visited annually by Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-fai).
Also traveling to Feng’s hideout are brother-and-sister twins (both played by Brigitte Lin) with a serious love-hate relationship; a swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) who insists on facing scores of bandits even though he’s almost blind; and a fledgling brawler (Jacky Cheung) who fights to avenge a young woman’s murdered brother — a task Feng rejected because the woman couldn’t pay his fee.
At some sort of distance, meanwhile, is the woman who propelled Feng into exile, played by Wong’s longtime muse, Maggie Cheung. Glimpsed entirely in flashback, and often in slinky slo-mo or sensuous close-up, this unnamed woman is the reason that Feng just might drink the magic wine that banishes memories forever. (“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could go back into the past?” Feng’s lost love asks, a line that could fit into any of Wong’s films.)
Ashes was filmed by one of the director’s frequent collaborators, the brilliantly inventive cinematographer Christopher Doyle. He and Wong turn from their customary urban palette to heightened natural colors: Desert sands range from bright yellow to hot orange, and an oasis pond swirls in vivid blue and green. The evocation of desert sun and heat suggests Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns, which the director has acknowledged as an influence, but there’s a psychedelic flourish that’s distinctively Wong’s.
Even after the success of such intensively art-directed martial-arts movies as Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Ashes of Time Redux is probably too idiosyncratic — and antiheroic — for action buffs.
The movie is captivating, however, as a dream-like evocation of melancholy and loss. It’s almost ironic: Wong went to great lengths to shoot in China’s western deserts, yet the film he produced there turns out to be an emotional twin to the ones he’s made in his own backyard. (Recommended).