Ashes of Time Redux

Fortissimo Films/Sony Pictures Classics

Fortissimo Films/Sony Pictures Classics

Wong Kar-Wai first made Ashes of Time in 1994, and this film was meant to be an epic, defining work. But because of forces outside the filmmaker’s control, his vision was compromised. It was his other 1994 release, Chungking Express—made largely as an afterthought in comparison to the scope of Ashes of Time—that catapulted Wong Kar-Wai into worldwide renown as recognized auteur. Ashes of Time Redux is the end result of years-long retooling with the utilities available from the original film, and while the filmmaker is largely mute about the specific changes between this cut and the original, Ashes of Time Redux is an orgy of color and sound, a mood piece of astonishing beauty, a veritable orchestra of the seventh art’s many potentialities. Ashes of Time Redux is being marketed as Wong Kar-Wai’s forgotten masterpiece, and justifiably so.

Set in ancient China, the film follows Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), a hitman secluded in the desert who is approached, in the episodes that construct the film, by wanderers and swordsmen. Each of these characters has a story involving heartbreak and unrequited love, not unlike stories of the unloved that make up most of Wong Kar-Wai’s work—this one just incorporates martial arts along the way. The aforementioned episodes are structured by the changing of the seasons—spring, summer, autumn, winter, and spring again—which inform the film’s characteristically eastern interpretation of time as cyclical rather than forward-moving, an inevitable cycle that forgets the dead and does no favors for the heartbroken. It is not until the final episode that the story focuses on Ouyang Feng himself, and the love he has lost that inspired his desert seclusion (a section which features a small role by Maggie Cheung). The episode involving the blind swordsman is one of the most memorable, in part because it contains the welcome presence of Tony Leung.

As a filmmaker better known for introspective, character-driven drama (if ‘drama’ is even the right word), Wong’s approach to handling the adrenaline-pulsing martial-arts scenes still feels wholly unique despite the existence of numerous other ‘visionary’ Chinese filmmakers who have delved into historical action/adventure since Ashes of Time’s original release (i.e., Zhang Yimou, Kaige Chen).

In interest of full disclosure, while I’m an admirer of Wong Kar-Wai’s work, I’ve never seen the original Ashes of Time, but the experience of seeing this spectacular film in pristine sound and visual quality tells me that the Redux version is the version always meant to be seen. What’s perhaps most striking about the film (and, from what I’ve been told, made far better compared to its original cut) is the saturated use of color, and Christopher Doyle’s cinematography is never in short supply of inventive beauty.

The sound design and soundtrack accompanying these lush visuals contain an astounding array of music characteristic of Wong Kar-Wai’s multifaceted taste. And despite that virtually none of the music sounds contemporaneous to the setting, it all works, for the quasi-historical setting matters not when embedded in Wong Kar-Wai’s very particular world. He uses close-ups of the characters often, thus enmeshing us almost claustrophobically into his unique vision. From this reviewer who knows very little about Chinese history, the only signifier that defined Ashes of Time’s setting as ancient China seemed to be the attire, leaving the rest of the world that makes up the film defined solely by the filmmaker.

The result is sometimes, quite seriously, transcendent. It’s the only film I’ve seen at the New York Film Festival thus far that has allowed me to immerse myself so much in what’s going on onscreen and forget I’m watching a movie. Wong Kar-Wai knows cinema well, and has a great affection for it, so he fills to the brim every moment of Ashes of Time Redux with lustrous sound, color, and performance, the combination constantly threatening to spill over, but retaining enough restraint and depth so not read as solely an exercise in style.

© 2008 Landon Palmer. All rights reserved.

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