Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 03, 2008 1:28 pm 
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A successfully gilded lily

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 goers didn't notice him till the theatrical release of In the Mood for Love (2000). Now ironically since the huge blowout of Wong's epic 2046 (2004), a summing up of his 60's nostalgia themes and characters, he seems prematurely to have reached a point of exhaustion, and his English-language romance Blueberry Nights (2007) was a critical failure. In this context his project of enhancing and re-editing Ashes of Time may be seen as 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 as this one will now be. (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's 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 probably know but cutting some dialogue, digitally cleaning up the images and enhancing some of the color and making many changes in the sound, adding a whole new score or "re-arrangement" by Wu Tong with cello solos by Yo Yo Ma.

Experts will have to comb over all this to explain and elucidate and evaluate the differences. The cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who was present at the press screening of the film at the NYFF (as were Lin and Wong), said flat out that he doesn't like the color "enhancing" bits--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 such changes are not pervasive enough to spoil the generally magical visual experience the film provides. Other images simply look more pristine and clear; in particular Maggie Cheung, with pale face and red dress in shots long dwelt upon, looks more haunting and luminous than ever. At the NYFF screening, Wong declined to say anything about 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. Featuring the late Leslie Cheung, both Tony Leungs (Chiu Wai and Ka Fai), Jacky Cheung--and with Carina Lau as Peach Blossom, the poor girl who hires the Blind Swordsman to revenge her brother's death; with Maggie Cheung as The Woman, and with 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 wuxia genre and is central to this film, though Maggie Cheung is its diva, its dream lover.

Cha's novel is a complicated 4-volume 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 that made for a story uniquely full of fatalism), he threw away Cha's plot and just took a couple of the main characters and made up another simpler narrative imagining what the characters' lives were like when they were young. Simpler perhaps, but seemingly incomprehensible. But after this re-watching I see it does really have a coherent narrative; it's just intricate and, above all, cycliccal, confusingly looped in on itself. It ends as it begins, with the narrator looking into the camera and speaking the opening lines.

As Zdac, a perceptive IMDb user, comments, "One thing to love about this movie is the way that director Wong Kar-Wai takes the reflective internal monologues and quirky, alienated losers from his other films and transposes them to the world of Chinese heroic fantasy. It's an interesting idea that both ennobles and deconstructs the genre. "

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, and they're ubiquitous here: there is more talk than fighting. 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."

It's lines like these that define the film's special combination of humor, chutzpah and noble fatalism. But as the Redux version makes clearer than before, the film is primarily anchored and structured by its grounding in the Chinese calendar. The Chinese almanac is divided into 24 solar terms and the narrative moves forward selectively through these terms, which (naturally, being chapters in an almanac) contain weather descriptions, and advice as to what is propitious or unlucky, and in what regions and directions. New inter-titles in this version add to the emphasis on this solar-calendar structure. 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--figures shot by Doyle through a huge intricate wicker basket are particularly mesmerizing. The shadows from that basket may seem gratuitous, but only as Cezanne's apples are gratuitous.

The sword fights, which do not begin until a long way into the film, are for the most part 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).

Derek Elley of Variety thinks the alterations, notably the new non-synth musical accompaniment with a "heavier" western classical sound; the inter-titles; the dialogue cuts and the addition of Lin's own voice in her Mandarin dialogue, "have the effect of taking the pic out of the period in which it was made and giving it a look and feel that was largely alien to Hong Kong cinema of the mid-'90s." This seems to me irrelevant, since Wong's take on the genre was already highly original, and the film still seems very much itself and even more so, and, except for the occasional excesses in color "enhancement," this is a very fine re-release. Devotees can always go back and watch their copies of the earlier version on tape and DVD. Part of the New York Film Festival, this is a Sony Pictures Classics release opening in US theaters starting October 10, 2008. Don't miss it! Don't worry about understanding it. Later you can read all about it in a book, like Stephen Teo's Wong Kar-Wai: Auteur of Time (2005). Meanwhile, just drink in the images and sound.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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