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Ashes of Time Redux

Wong Kar-Wai’s Classic Tale of Lost Love (Remastered)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Wong Kar-Wai’s (My Blueberry Nights, 2046, In the Mood for Love) fourth film, Ashes of Time, released in 1994 in Hong Kong and over several years in the West, returns to cinemas fourteen years later with a new print (cobbled together from various sources) that better serves cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s super-saturated palette, a new score better suited to its themes and setting, and more coherent, more accessible storytelling. Still present, of course, is Kar-Wai’s idiosyncratic, introspective, character-first, action-second take on the wuxia (Chinese swordsman) genre.

In the early 90s, movie producers approached Wong Kar-Wai about adapting Louis Cha’s wuxia novel, The Legend of the Condor Heroes. After struggling with adapting Cha’s novel, Kar-Wai decided on a prequel focusing on four characters from Cha’s novels, Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), a cynical swordsman who lives in a remote, desert inn and earns a modest living as an agent for other swordsmen. Every spring, an old friend, Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka Fai), visits him. They share stories of the previous year’s experiences. During his visit, Yaoshi offers Feng a drink from a memory-erasing flask of wine. Together, they share a story involving a woman, Murong Yin / Murong Yang (Brigitte Lin), who disguises herself as a man. Pretending not to see through the ruse, Yaoshi offered to marry Murong, but fails to appear at the appointed time. A heartbroken Murong attempts to convince Feng to kill Yaoshi.

The scene shifts to the story of the Blind Swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and a young woman (Charlie Yeung) who approaches Feng, hoping to enlist his services as a swordsman to kill several members of a local militia as revenge for the death of her brother. Feng refuses to act directly, but allows the (nearly) Blind Swordsman to take the contract. For the (nearly) Blind Swordsman, attempting to fulfill the contract means almost certain death, but it’s his only chance to see the peach blossoms of his distant hometown before he permanently loses his eyesight. Ashes of Time Redux also takes in the story of Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung), an impoverished swordsman, and his wife (Bai Li), who refuses to leave his side, and his relationship with the distant Feng.

Ashes of Time Redux circles back, often elliptically (a Wong Kar-Wai trademark), to Feng’s past, his romantic relationship with his brother’s wife (Maggie Cheung), and their connections to the mysteriously motivated Yaoshi. As in other films from Wong Kar-Wai’s oeuvre (and one of central influences, Michelangelo Antonioni), unrequited or lost love and the inability to transcend that unrequited or lost love result in ruminating regret, existential ennui and enervating despair. What Ashes of Time Redux doesn’t lead to, however, is to the action set pieces wuxia fans expect from the genre.

While Ashes of Time Redux contains several set pieces, they flash by in a blur of motion, light, and color that make it difficult, if not impossible, to tell hero apart from foe (or foes). Shifting the focus from action to character, from the external to the internal, of course, was Wong Kar-Wai’s intention all along. That limited (and still limits) the potential audience for the film. Outside of Doyle’s sensual cinematography, non-cineastes or non-Wong Kar-Wai fans, will find Ashes of Time Redux difficult to sit through. For Wong Kar-Wai’s fans, however, seeing Ashes of Time Redux as he intended will prove well worth the decade and a half wait.