One of the most highly anticipated films to premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival was Ashes of Time Redux, a forgotten Chinese swordplay epic from the great Wong Kar-Wai or Kar Wai Wong (so as not to offend those privy to the correct Chinese system of naming the filmmaker will simply be referred to as Wai in this piece). For fans of this international filmmaking giant the release of this fairly unseen early picture, restored and granted a big screen re-release, was reason enough to seek out the film. Unfortunately the film presents a bit of a dilemma for viewers and those familiar with Wai’s other works due in large part to an inconsistent storyline.
A film “redux” is really nothing more than a fancy word for Director’s Cut. The literal translation means “to return to,” and in the case of Wai, to return to an early film that supposedly the director was never fully happy with upon its initial release.Ashes of Time is an important film, but not necessarily a great film and its recent redux may be nothing more than a wishful attempt to resurrect a doomed film. It excels in style and visual appeal but lacks when it comes to its almost incoherent plot. Is it a love story? Is it a tale of revenge? Is it a failed mix of both?
Released in 1994, Ashes was Wai’s first truly epic film. It was also released six years prior to Ang Lee’s international sensation Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the film that truly brought Chinese wuxia style filmmaking–a highly choreographed mix of martial arts and melodrama that has since become its own subgenre in Hollywood–to a global stage. It’s hard to say if Ashes had any influence on Ang Lee’s masterpiece (one could argue that both filmmakers were bringing a longstanding Chinese cinematic tradition, dating back to the dawn of celluloid, to the modern playing field with their respective films) but both films clearly set out to accomplish the same feat: pay homage to Chinese folklore and martial arts, while also telling a compelling love triangle drama. Unfortunately Ashes main flaw is its desire to appease all these goals when it should have just been a flashy swordplay film.
As Wai proved later on with his series of masterful existential dramas, the filmmaker is more apt to melodrama and human emotion than action. This is not to say that Ashes does not feature some stunning fight scenes (one involving a female sword master practicing against her own reflection on a pond stands out as one of the film’s finer moments), which it does, however, when the film attempts to deal with the human psyche Wai unfortunately loses the viewer. To make up for this though, Wai succeeds with painting a truly visually stunning backdrop for his actors to inhabit with the vast Chinese mountains and deserts never looking so beautiful and at times surreal.
Herein lies the dilemma with Ashes of Time and really, any of Wai’s earlier works. His unique color palette and use of natural light has the ability to wisp you away from caring about the plot holes or nonsensical dialogue. When the film’s final credits begin to role, however, the absence of central meaning or storyline returns to the subconscious.
Wai’s films are an experience for the eyes and Ashes is no exception making the cleaned up and digitally restored Redux version that much more appealing on the big screen.
Much of Wai’s visual appeal can be attributed to his long-time Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle who remains one of the most respected in his field–a sought after individual who besides helming the camera for the majority of Wai’s films has also worked with the likes of Gus Van Sant, the great Philip Noyce, M. Night Shyamalan, and Zhang Yimou’s wuxia masterpiece Hero (his work on DJ Shadow’s video for the song “Six Days” is also worth noting). The lush exterior shots are heavily saturated with the sand of the desert dunes appearing as the purist yellow one could imagine and the interior shots mixed with well-choreographed shadow play.
The film also features a number of well-established players in modern Chinese and Hong Kong cinema including the great Tony Leung Chiu Wai as a blind swordsman (his scenes are some of the film’s best possibly paying homage to early Japanese Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman cinematic lore). Also present is the great Maggie Cheung who would later shine in Wai’s In the Mood For Love and its unofficial sequel 2046. Cheung’s performance in Ashes as a past lover living in the desert is worthy of mention despite being hindered by the choppy plot.
Ashes of Time Redux is supposedly a slightly shorter version of the original film, a bit rare for director’s cuts that typically add rather than subtract from the films (see Apocalypse Now Redux, Terrence Malick’s recent Director’s Cut of The New World, and Cinema Paradiso: The New Version). The original film has long been hard to find on DVD with many versions being horribly transferred copies from substandard video releases. The original film stock was also supposedly in dire need of restoration, which might also have been the reason for the redux.
Wong Kar-Wai is an important contemporary filmmaker and no matter how his earlier works compare to his more masterful current repertoire, they are still key chapters in his career as a filmmaker. Dogged down by a rather confusing storyline the ideal way to view Ashes of Time is as if you were looking into a kaleidoscope. You may not understand exactly what you’re seeing but the result is dazzling to the eyes. For those interested in this style the film’s to seek out are 1994s Chungking Express (ironically filmed as a way to get away from the tedious task of editing Ashes and released before in the same year), his masterpiece In the Mood For Love, and 2046. For die-hard fans of Wai Ashes is essential viewing and its Redux is best viewed on the big screen.
“Ashes of Time” is currently receiving a limited theatrical release. It is playing nightly at Chicago’s Music Box Theater through Thanksgiving. It will eventually be treated to a DVD release, ideally featuring both versions of the film for comparison.
Remember the slogan, “It’s not TV, It’s HBO?” Well up until this past spring this marketing ploy actually rang true. HBO has long been the trendsetter of original series that break all boundaries and push audiences’ perception of what television is and should be. Unfortunately thanks to the culminations of the network’s most beloved quartet of series–Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, and most recently The Wire–and the premiere of some less than desirable new original series the Crown Royal of premium cable programming is in threat of losing its edge over the best of the rest.