About six years ago, upon my second viewing of the original, 1994 cut of Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time, I tapped out a review. It’s about time for a redux:
auteur Wong Kar-Wai’s films feel like they’ve been captured quickly, in the heat of the moment. His aesthetic relies on fragmented and smeared images that seem more like a recollection experience than a recreation of the event itself. Perhaps, that’s why so many of his films strike such a ruminative and melancholy chord. The disappointments of life accumulate for them until they reach a point where disappointment becomes expected. Even when the disaffected narrators of his stories work toward a happy ending, it feels tentative at best. Hong Kong
In Ashes of Time, which is Wong’s try at the wu-xia genre, he brings his distinctive, displacing style and worldview to a genre that normally would work best with the most workmanlike direction imaginable. The result is an interiorized art film that just happens to feature characters who are martial arts experts. Instead of giving us intricately staged fight choreography that stuns us with its verisimilitude and variety, Wong chops up the action sequences to the point that they seem more like instinctual impressions of what’s going on. Rarely do we have an understanding of who’s fighting whom, and in most of the swordplay scenes, a blurry uncertainty unfolds over the action, roughly approximating the primal adrenaline rush that the combatants must feel.
The fight scenes aren’t the main attraction here, however. Certainly the cast, which reads like a mid-90’s who’s who of HK cinema (Tony Leung, Brigitte Lin, Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, etc…), is one of Ashes’ big selling points. Even the presence of the most charismatic of these actors feels secondary to Wong’s overpowering vision, however. In telling a triptych of tales featuring an agent whose clients are swordsmen, the director weaves an overwhelming mood of romantic longing and emotional alienation. The plot isn’t terribly complex, but the adjustment to Wong’s style, which employs frequent flashbacks, a great deal of voiceover narration, scenes that are shorter than usual, and muted delivery from most of the actors, takes a while to adjust to. A second viewing, which allows the viewer to watch with the expectation of this style, enhances the experience greatly.
One must pay close attention to follow each of the film’s myriad plot twists, but the attentive, or perseverant, viewer is rewarded with an unexpected amount of emotional impact by the time Maggie Cheung’s closing soliloquy rolls around. Even those that can’t quite follow the plot of Ashes of Time should enjoy the fleeting pleasure that Wong’s gorgeous images and frenetic editing provide, if they aren’t expecting a slam-bang action epic.
It’s tough for me to improve upon those impressions in describing this mildly recut version, and that’s largely because this is much the same film that its predecessor was. Trying to pinpoint the changes between the old movie and the new leaves me, like one of Wong’s protagonists, uncertain where my imagination has supplanted my memory. There are some fleeting shots that I didn’t remember seeing before, some new digital image manipulation, and some changes to the music, but by and large this is the same rapturous, overwhelming experience that has become an unclassifiable cult classic. It still sits just as uncomfortably alone, somewhere outside of both its creator’s oeuvre and its firmly established genre of choice.
Few were able to see Ashes of Time on the big screen in its initial run, which makes Ashes of Time Redux something of an event. Certainly now, after the director has made his pet themes so obvious in his subsequent work, it has become an easier film to parse. Now one can marvel at the way that Wong’s wu-xia, with its avant-garde cinematic technique and its purposefully inscrutable flood of events, washes over its audience, and worry less about what it all means. As a mood piece, it is purposely distancing, but always intoxicating. Viewing it on the big screen, with a blaring soundtrack, only amplifies the director’s singular achievement.