A Worthy Redux?

Film Review: Ashes of Time Redux

ImageOne 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.

ImageMuch 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. 

True Blood, Sucking the Life Out of HBO One Episode at a Time

ImageRemember 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.

HBO’s newest contribution to Sunday night is True Blood, an overly erotic vampire drama set in the Bible belt Deep South. Created by Alan Ball, the brainchild behindSix Feet Under and the scribe of American BeautyBlood had the potential to be HBO’s saving grace, the new series to present the exciting future for the network. Sadly the series, which is currently ten episodes into its twelve-episode first season, has failed to match the brilliance of HBO’s past flagships series and remains yet another dud for the struggling network.

True Blood was at one point one of the more intriguing projects in the works at HBO mainly because after the success of Six Feet Under it’s difficult to imagine Alan Ball not delivering another hit series. After Deadwood creator David Milch proved that follow-up shows (John from Cincinnati) can also bomb, the niche vampire premise started to sound more and more worrisome. Then again pitching a show about a family of funeral home owners probably sounded equally as questionable when Six Feet Under was first proposed.

The main problem plaguing True Blood, which is one-part hokey throwback to pulp vampire novels (the show is based on a semi-popular series of books), one-part modern allegory for social discrimination (a bit of a stretch), and a dash of Lostesque intrigue and cliffhangers thrown into the mix for sensationalism, is the series lacks any meaningful substance. With the exception of possibly the mysterious main vampire lead Bill (played by rather convincingly by newcomer Stephen Moyer) the main characters are either too shallow to give a damn about or are simply begging to be explored in more depth.

Anna Paquin’s starring character Sookie has a mysterious gift that sets her apart from the living and brings her closer to the undead, still the show would rather focus on her budding (and overly erotic) love affair with Bill than anything else. Her horny brother Jason, who’s butt naked more than half the time while onscreen, appears to be nothing more than a pretty face to further the shows no-hold-barred eroticism (the link between vampires and sexuality are pushed to the limit on this series). The show has given Sookie’s best friend Tara (Rutina Wesley) a bit of a side story involving her alcoholic/possessed mother but her onscreen time is distracting from the show’s main strengths.

ImageAs for the show’s aforementioned strengths Alan Ball does a pretty good job bridging the gap between classic vampire iconography and modern times. The show’s main premise is that ever since the Japanese have concocted an artificial blood cocktail (a substitute for the real thing) called True Blood, vampires are suddenly able to “come out of the closet” so to speak, thus trying to fit in a society of the living. The show is littered with fascinating little tidbits about the cultural acceptance/rejection of the vampires and there is clearly links to gay rights throughout the show as Alan Ball is himself an outspoken advocate for equal rights for homosexuals.

Another strength revolves around the myth of vampires being driven by a hunger (addiction) to human blood. True Blood gives this classic vampire mythological theme a 180 twist with vampire blood (called V on the show, a play on ecstasy) serving as a hardcore psychedelic drug for humans to dabble in enhancing just about every human sense and pleasure. In one recent episode two V fiends seek out a shut-in middle-age gay vampire to capture and drain to feed their growing addiction to the stuff. Clever, to say the least.

Then there are the snippets of a vampire rights coalition working to gain the same rights and social status as everyone else. During the show’s pilot one spokesperson even appears as a guest on HBO’s own late night political talk show, Real Time With Bill Maher.

These few moments of brilliance show that Alan Ball is close to nailing the show’s full potential as a sly social statement featuring vampires but sadly he chooses to focus the show’s attention on the routine horror elements of the series. Rather than expand on the political aspects of the story, mainly that of a minority trying to fit into society the show seems more concerned with blood, unnecessary sexuality, and shocking episode cliffhangers, about the only element keeping viewers coming back for more (that and a brilliantly edited opening credits segment set to a raucous Southern rock tune “Bad Things” by Jace Everett).

One could argue that some shows need a season or two before they really find purpose and flow. A feasible argument for network television perhaps, but HBO has always held its standards higher. Six Feet Under is notorious for being the show that was renewed for a second season immediately following its captivating and universally applauded pilot episode. Likewise The Sopranos’ first season remains one the finest single season entities of any show out there. While Blood may have the potential for a turnaround, it has already proven to be rather sub-par compared to HBO’s previous trendsetting series.

The Sopranos will inevitably go down as one of most important series in television history. The advent of shows based on multi-dimensional characters that, despite their wrong doings, manage to captivate the audience paved the way for the gamut of most popular series today. Thanks to Tony and even earlier the inmates on HBO’s forgotten masterpiece Oz it was suddenly okay to sympathize and get sucked into the lives of the bad guys.

After Sopranos fever HBO was able to launch other hit dramas that pushed the envelope on how we soak up television. Six Feet Under took the stereotypical family drama and flipped it on its ass giving us one of the most intimate and shockingly truthful looks at a modern family who, although appear to be different, are surprisingly relatable. The network even managed to launch some fairly well-received niche dramas such as the Shakespearean Western, Deadwood, the Dust Bowl era Twin Peaksesque series Carinvalé, and the underappreciated history buff’s dream show Rome.

Then there was The Wire, the socially conscious, anti-cop show that was the last truly great series on HBO and without a doubt one the finest television series of all time.

True Blood currently leads HBO’s current programming lineup and looks destined to join the ranks of the network’s past mediocrities. There is the respectable but hardly hit series about Mormonism and Polygamists (Big Love) ready to start its third season. There was the failed spiritual surfing drama (John From Cincinnati) that followed The Sopranos’ fade to black finale. Last year an overly erotic (apparently a current HBO theme) show about relationships and intimacy (Tell Me You Love Me) premiered, a new five-night a week drama about a shrink and his patients (In Treatment) and recently a slew of comedy imports from abroad–the very British Little Britain U.S.A, and the Australian Summer Heights High, both which are for acquired tastes, lacking mass appeal–began airing.

Add this to, sigh, potentially more seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which officially jumped the shark around the fourth or fifth season, the consistently funny news talk show Real Time With Bill Maher and the entertaining but fluffy Entourage and you have the fairly uninspired future lineup for HBO.

With the disappointing True Blood about to wrap its uninspired first season it’s difficult to know what’s left for HBO? Will the network every truly be able to recuperate from the loss of its respected giants? Is it time for other budding networks (Showtime, AMC and FX come to mind) to take the reigns of the only television that matters?

It will be interesting to see where HBO is headed and which shows in the future (if any) can captivate a nation as much as The Sopranos or its other landmark series did during their run. Only time will tell whether HBO remains something new and exciting or really is just TV.