Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Dec 14, 2020 5:45 pm 
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Ashes of Time (1994). Ashes of Time Redux (2008) - to accompany the Roxie retrospective.


'Ashes of Time' was Wong Kar-wai's sole foray into the genre of the wuxia movie and naturally a very original one.

As one would expect, Wong's version of a wuxia, martial arts film gives first place to his usual preoccupations: memory, the irretrievability of the past, the impossibility of love. This isn't so much a wuxia film as a bold hybrid that uses wuxia trappings, with more talking and less fighting, in a style both lavish and minimal. The scenes, shot by Wong's sublimely flamboyant regular dp Christopher Doyle, are striking and visually rich, with intimate closeups that often frame a small but remote background with a tree, a mule, a distant horizon, like an early Dalí landscape. There are a couple of big slash-'em-up's, with men on horseback and swords gleaming, bodies and blood flying, slo-mo grinding, and that delicious, satisfying sound of tempered steel against tempered steel ringing out in the open air amid muffled cries. These vivid sounds make the abstract fight scenes seem anchored in reality.

Given Doyle's highly artful means of shooting and the stylized editing, the fights are beautiful but very impressionistic; it's extremely hard to make out details. But objecting to that is like complaining that Picasso's women, or De Kooning's, aren't anatomically correct. The blurry, abstract fights are the essence of the film and exactly what you would expect from the violent moments in Chungking Express and Fallen Angels. More of the time however involves two people sitting at a table drinking wine, some with alleged power to erase memory and restart a man's life, poured from large jars into small shallow bowls and eagerly quaffed.

Naturally, those who meet here to drink and chat are lonely people with love-longings, deep hurts, and communication difficulties, in their own heads a lot and tending to the enigmatic utterance. Sometimes they get drunk and reveal things or make promises they can be held to on pain of death, like the Anglo-Saxons in their mead halls. As usual with Wong there are lengthy voiceovers.

In this framework, desire and promises lead to a danger of death by the blade. The storyline, with its multiple flashbacks and sometimes enigmatic utterances, isn't easy to follow on the first viewing - or on the tenth, though the mystery may explain why this is particularly a movie that continues to entrance and bemuse in successive viewings.

It consists of a series of subplots laid out in haiku-like vignettes. The central character and narrator, who links the five chapters, is Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung, playing, as before, with great presence and ease), who is a sort of broker for assassins at a remote outpost to which he has come from his home on White Camel Mountain. He arranges martial arts tasks for people who, let's say. . . want things done, for a fee. In flashbacks, when he is younger, we see him operating in this desert place (which Christopher Doyle has said was the toughest shoot he'd ever had). This stark, dramatic setting contributes enormously to the distinctive look of the whole film.

Much of the action is out of doors. An important, and fabulous, character is Mu-rong Yin (Brigitte Lin), who sometimes goes by Mu-rong Yang, impersonating a man, her brother; so Yin and Yang, a two-sexed dual personality. Mu-rong Yin is unhappy because she has been rejected by Huang Yao-shi (Tony Leung Ka-fai). Here's one of the enigmatic details: Mu-rong Yang wants Huang offed for jilting his sister, Yin, the female alter ego, but Yin herself is dead set against this. But wait! The person Yin wants killed is her brother! "You two have an odd relationship," says Ouyang Feng, coldly considering the economics. Huang Yao-shi is, in fact, a friend of Ouyang Feng's who visits him, usually, every spring. This one year, in a decisive early scene, he brings a very special wine of forgetfulness - an allusion to the pain and impossibility of the past. It seems to work. But losing your past is dangerous.

There is a gang of horse thieves Ouyang Feng decides must be eliminated - risky venture, and the chance for a gorgeously messy battle scene. There is the beautiful creature known only as The Woman (Maggie Cheung, exquisitely refined since her appearances in Wong's first first two films), who is the love of Ouyang Feng's life. But he lost her. He says it was because his profession was too dangerous for her. She says it happened because he was too proud to propose . While he was away she decided to marry his brother out of spite, a fait accompli he discovered on returning home some time later. It was a gesture that caused grief to all concerned.

Tony Leung Chiu-wai is, or becomes, a Blind Swordsman. It's while staying overnight with Ouyang that we see him finally lose his sight - just before a major sword fight. Ouyang gives a meal to a ragged and hungry young swordsman, Hong-Qi (or Hung Chi) (Jacky Cheung), and plans on using him. He's a great swordsman, even if (a quirky Wong detail, narrated this way) he has the bad habit of running around barefoot. Ouyang has to get him some shoes. Properly shod swordsmen, he explains, bring a much higher price than the barefoot kind. Always there are the handsome men with the robes, the mustaches and long flowing hair, the lovelorn women, the wine, the musings, the horses and camels against a tiny far-off horizon. It's an intoxicating effect, making you feel hypnotized and not caring that it's all a bit vague.

This beautiful, garrulous riff on wuxia took Wong a year to finish. As we know the delays led him to break off for a while and make Chungking Express in only 26 days, Quentin Tarantino suggests as a refreshing palate cleanser. After all the effort of Ashes of Time, the film didn't get the attention it deserved internationally except for in France, and was seen elsewhere only in Chinatown theaters. Later the negatives had deteriorated, and different versions turned out to be in use. A problem was that this had been Wong's first film to be released by his own fledgling production company, Jet Tone, and he wasn't able to issue it in the quality he'd have liked. For all these reasons Wong sought to give the film a new life in a definitive version through reediting from various found negatives (one from San Francisco's Chinatown where I originally saw it), and a thoroughgoing reedit and reissue, Ashes of Time Redux, resulted in 2008.

It's not so easy to compare the two versions frame by frame in person, since copies of the original one are hard to come by in the US. But we know that in Redux, though it was made from the old films, and still based on a prequel conception of The Legend of the Eagle Shooting Heroes by Louis Cha, there are significant changes. Redux, which I reviewed at the time it was shown in the 2008 NYFF, has alternative footage and changes in the order of scenes. It has new opening titles and new fade-ins for the seasons that designate the film's chapters. (Ouyang's words about directions and almanac predictions add to the film's slow pace and archaic flavor.) Redux also has a new color-scheme, because the images have been heavily, lovingly, reprocessed; and a new soundtrack has been added with a new score or "re-arrangement" by Wu Tong with cello solos by Yo Yo Ma. Redux is seven minutes shorter. A martial arts battle scene at the outset has been cut. YouTube has an earlier version of a continuous six-minute scene of Maggie Cheung. Here the monologue is a bit corny, but the shot, with the deep tones and her pale skin, is striking and beautiful, and remains.

Awkward elements of the new version are the pumped-up color (inspired by the faded color of the old prints) and some editing-out of elements from landscape scenes, which Christopher Doyle has said he did not authorize. I made some comments on this in an online discussion when Redux came out. In either form, this is a treasure for devotees, but may baffle some who like his other films.


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