This classic ultra-stylized and (in the words of the NYFF blurb) "insanely gorgeous" 1994 martial arts or 'wuxia' film based on the Louis Cha novel 'The Eagle-Shooting Horses' needs no introduction to film fans now, though before Tarantino's release of 'Chungking Exrpess' Americans had to go to Chinatown theaters or rent pirated videotapes to see it; I saw it in Chinatown in a double bill with 'As Tears Go By' (1988). A cinematic icon today, Wong Kar-wai didn't get international recognition till 1997 at Cannes (for 'Happy Together'), and the majority of US art-house viewers didn't notice him till 'In the Mood for Love' (2000). Now ironically since the huge blowout and exhaustion of Wong's epic '2046' (2004), a summing-up of his 60's nostalgia themes and characters, he seems to have reached a point of exhaustion, and his English-language romance 'Blueberry Nights' (2007) was a critical failure. Re-editing 'Ashes of Time' looks like another example of treading water, but it's still great to have it; many have still not seen it, and any films as visually magnificent as Wong's are best seen in theaters. It's also fortunate that all his films can be seen on decent DVD's now with readable subtitles for English speakers, instead of the weird earlier Hong Kong prints with flickering titles in Chinese and peculiar English that disappeared before you could read them. 'Ashes of Time Redux' has the best English subtitles yet both visually and linguistically.
According to Wong, 'Ashes of Time' negatives weren't in very good shape, and a search of various versions led him to a huge warehouse somewhere near San Francisco's Chinatown that contained the entire history of Hong Kong movies. He and his team put together various versions, adding a bit to what we already know, digitally cleaning up the images and "enhancing" some of the color and doing things with the sound, adding a new score and "re-arrangement" by Wu Tong including cello solos by Yo Yo Ma.
Experts will have to comb over all this to explain the differences. The cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who was present at the press screening of the film at the NYFF, doesn't like the enhancing of the color and neither do I. A lot of yellows and oranges are heightened, greenish-turquoise touches are set in, and many of the desert sand landscapes seem to have lost their surface detail. This seems unnecessary and even obtrusive, but it's not enough to spoil the experience. Other images simply look more pristine and clear. Wong wouldn't say what specific changes were made in the editing. He preferred to talk about how he adapted Louis Cha's novel and how this film relates to his oeuvre. Both for him and for Doyle it was an essential milestone. The cast features the late Leslie Cheung, both Tony Leungs (Chiu Wai and Ka Fai) and Jacky Cheung, and has Maggie Cheung as The Woman and martial arts film great Brigitte Lin as Murong Yin and Murong Yang, the sister and brother. Lin, now retired, was responsible for the revival of the genre and is central to this film, though Maggie Cheung is its diva, its dream lover.
Cha's novel is a complicated 4-volume wuxia genre epic, very popular but little known or appreciated in the West. Wong studied it carefully (and made a parody of it called 'Eagle-Shooting Heroes') but then though he says this film unlike all his others had a fixed plan (and thus made for a story full of fatalism), he threw away the story and just took a couple of the main characters and made up another simpler story imagining what the characters' lives were like when they were young. A simpler story. Well. The story has always seemed completely incomprehensible to me but after re-watching 'Redux' it obviously is nonetheless a coherent narrative; it's just intricate and, above all, cyclical. It ends as it begins, with the narrator looking into the camera and repeating the opening lines.
'Ashes of Time' was shot in the desert. Doyle had never done that. The film was long delayed and the shoot was difficult. Doyle knew nothing about martial arts or 'Jianghu,' the parallel universe of martial arts fiction. He was under extreme constraints, having very little artificial light. Nonetheless he produced some of the most beautiful sequences in modern film, because he's a great cinematographer, perhaps the greatest of recent decades, as Wong Kar-Wai is one of the defining contemporary cinematic geniuses.
Wong is notable for his meditative and arresting voice-overs. Here is a sample: "People say that if a sword cuts fast enough, the blood spurting out will emit a sound like a sigh. Who would have guessed that the first time I heard that sound it would be my own blood?" "You gained an egg, but lost a finger. Was it worth it?" There are aphorisms or bits of advice: "Fooling a woman is never as easy as you think." The film is anchored and structured by the Chinese calendar: the Chinese almanac is divided into 24 solar terms and the narrative moves forward selectively through these terms, which contain weather descriptions (naturally) and advice as to what is propitious or unlucky and in what regions and directions. There is also a great deal about oblivion and forgetfulness (which are linked with wine, including a magic wine that eliminates memory). The desert and drinking are visual touchstones throughout as are pairs, opposites, and contrasts; and there is cross-dressing and perhaps bisexual love. The images are full of flickering light. The sword fights, which do not begin until more than half way into the film, are without the acrobatic feats actually performed or digitally faked as in current martial arts films, though they are elaborately staged by the action choreographer Sammo Hung. They are a symphony of fast cutting, closeups, blurs, and slow motion (which Wong intended particularly to express the fatigue of the Blind Swordsman in the film).