Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai may be familiar to most Memphians as the director of this year's locally filmed My Blueberry Nights, which was his English-language debut. But he made his name, at least in the West, with a series of sleek, frenetic, über-modern, über-urban '90s films — Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Happy Together. Even when he's gone period, as on the early Days of Being Wild or his career-best In the Mood for Love, it's still been in urban settings.
For that reason, Ashes of Time is the outlier in Wong's filmography. Made in 1994 — Wong took a break on post-production for the epic to make Chungking Express on the quick — it's a wuxia film, the historical strain of martial-arts films. It is set in ancient China, amid a stark landscape of peasants and warriors. In setting, it couldn't be more different from Wong's other work.
And yet, thematically, it fits into Wong's oeuvre perfectly. Few filmmakers have so consistent a tone and set of concerns as Wong, whose films almost always hinge on memory, loss, and romantic longing. With Ashes of Time, he imposed these themes on the wuxia genre, and the themes won.
Though considered a seminal work of modern international cinema, Ashes of Time never had an official American release, until now. With Ashes of Time Redux, Wong has re-edited and refurbished the film, cutting it down to 93 minutes (from the original 100-minute run time), adding digital tinting to enhance the color, and adding a new score from Yo-Yo Ma.
Shot by Wong's longtime collaborator Christopher Doyle, Ashes of Time Redux is — like all Wong films — visually rich. Shot in the Chinese desert, Doyle mixes breathtaking, almost surreal landscape shots with extreme close-ups on the film's all-star (in Chinese cinema terms) cast. Set in a "time of eclipse," Ashes feels less like a historical piece than a missive from a past dystopia or an alternate world.
But Ashes of Time Redux is as difficult to follow as it is beautiful to look at. The film is structured around five seasons and passages from a Chinese almanac. At the center of the plot, such as it is, is Leslie Cheung as the agent Ouyang Feng, who hires famous bounty-hunters for people in need. In and out of Ouyang's house drift assassins-for-hire and those who need them, many of them haunted by romantic regrets. All the while, Ouyang fixates on the woman (Maggie Cheung) who married his brother.
It is a highly elliptical, heavily mannered film. The action scenes are few and almost abstract, with more emphasis on natural beauty and human brooding. Wong tames the Chinese action cinema, for better or worse, into a film that fits his own character — one that luxuriates in melancholy. It is gorgeous, frustrating filmmaking.
Ashes of Time Redux
Opening Friday, November 7th