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.
In the pantheon of international cinema Wong Kar Wai (or Kar Wong Wai if you’re hip with the traditional Chinese pronunciation) is a household name. His notoriety in the United States may not be on the same plane but thanks to a new film things might change.
My Blueberry Nights is currently in the midst of a fairly mediocre national release playing mainly in select art house theaters and garnering so-so reviews from critics. At first glance Nights is the new film starring America sweetheart jazz singer Norah Jones. Starbucks musical idol aside, My Blueberry Nights is an exciting release since it marks Wong Kar Wai’s first feature length foray into the English language.
Besides being a fairly decent film, if not a little flawed when it comes to the script, Nights serves as a big step for the Hong Kong director. The leap from native to foreign tongue for any director is a difficult one. Some of the greatest international filmmakers have attempted this feat–some succeeding, while others simply went back to what they know best. Nights is by no means Wai’s best film but in terms of visual style and its unique take on the romance genre it is a respectable premiere effort to tackle the American movie going audience.
Wong Kar Wai is probably best known for his unique use of color, mood and a fascination with stories tackling the complications of romance. His most well known work, 2000s In the Mood For Love is a beautiful period piece, among other things, that deals with the theme of rejection, lust and restraint unlike anything else out there. It’s the film that truly propelled him from indie international darling to global master.
In the Mood For Love is also the middle piece of an unofficial trilogy of films in his repertoire starting with his sophomore effort, Days of Living Wild and ending with 2046. The three films are not connected in terms of plot but rather through certain characters and above all themes. The most common of these themes, rejection, is the driving pulse of almost all of Wai’s films serving as an unofficial trademark for the filmmaker along side a knack for cinematographic beauty.
Wai’s 1994 film Chungking Express was hardly seen outside of Hong Kong and China upon its release but was resurrected by Quentin Tarantino in the mid nineties as a title in his short-lived overlooked film distribution company, Rolling Thunder Pictures. Besides being a beautiful film in itself Expressshowcases another of Wai’s most common cinematic traits, the use of interconnecting stories revolving around the proletariats of society–shop owners, beat police officers, café employees, prostitutes, and others on the brink of society. If there is one film that serves as the perfect introduction into Wai’s canon it’s Chungking Express.
While My Blueberry Nights is set on U.S. soil rather than Hong Kong or Southeast Asia, with an English language script in lieu of Cantonese dialogue, it is without a doubt a Wong Kar Wai film. His trademark themes are still present. His love of cinematography and knack for eye candy colors is evident and his usual choice of Asian movie stars–Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Valerie Chow–is replaced by the likes of Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz and of course Norah Jones.
The casting of Jones as the lead is a curious one but ends up an overall success. The musician’s trademark lulling piano music plays in the background throughout the film reminding viewers that hey, not only can I still sing but I can also act! Overall though she carries the film quite well and despite some cliché romantic movie moments (the upside down kiss featured on the poster being one of them) My Blueberry Nights is a fairly sweet love story despite its predictability.
Rather than go through the plot, which is as much a road flick as it is a romantic film, it should be noted that the theme of dealing with rejection and moving on with one’s life is the primary catalyst for the film. Wai’s use of common folk is also a big factor of Nights with the majority of the characters set in either rundown coffee shops or rundown bars. If there is one fault to take away from Nights it’s that the casting of pretty boy Jude Law and the beautiful Jones as down on their luck coffee shop employees seems to be a bit of the stretch. Then again, Wong Kar Wai has always been drawn to beautiful actors.
The two characters that work the best in the film are David Strathairn, as an empathetic alcoholic, and Rachel Weisz as his wild but in the end emotionally conflicted ex-wife. Their scenes manage to steal the show away from Jones and their storyline is one of the more fascinating that Wai’s weaves in the film.
Still nitpicking aside My Blueberry Nights is a beautiful film to experience visually and serves as a nice little intro into Wong Kar Wai’s work for American audiences. If it prompts even a handful of moviegoers to check out the director’s other films than if anything else it is a success. In terms of future English language projects for Wai only time will tell.
Fellow Chinese filmmaker Ang Lee made the cinematic trip from international filmmaking to Hollywood and back with great ease and success and perhaps Wai aspires to head down the same route. My Blueberry Nights is not a perfect film but when it comes to romantic dramas, it is ten times better than anything starring Patrick Dempsey or the recycled Meg Ryan style of fluffy filmmaking. See My Blueberry Nights but then dive into Wai’s past films to see how it’s done in the Far East.