Ashes of Time Redux: Wong Kar Wai Rare (Genre) Film

Cannes Film Fest 2008–My first encounter with the work of the Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai was as a Variety critic at the 1994 Toronto Film Fest, where I saw two of his pictures, “Ashes of Time” and “Chunking Express,” courtesy of the late programmer David Overby. This movie is a follow-up to Wong Kar-Wai’s “Days of Being Wild,” which was also shown at Toronto Fest.

In the oeuvre of Wong, whose most popular work in the U.S. is still the 2000 “In the Mood for Love,” “Ashes of Times Redux” is rare picture, a genre film that’s set in the distant past, centering on the world of Wuxia (warriors practicing martial arts).

The full-scale restoration does justice to the 1994 film, elevating it through visual and aural intensification to the artistic levels used to be seen in films by a perfectionist craftsman like Wong Kar Wai.

A loose adaptation of Louis Cha’s famous martial-arts novel “The Eagle-Shooting Heroes,” the tale is set in five parts, or five seasons that are part of the Chinese almanac. The story takes place in and around a desert hotel run by Ouyang (Leslie Cheung), once the best-known thief in the martial arts world. Having lost his woman to his brother, Ouyang, frustrated and cynical, and with plenty of time, observes the friends and strangers around him.

Each of the character is past 30, and each has experienced the loss of love or other tragedy, turning the movie into an evocative meditation about loss and memory, recurrying themes in all of Wong’s films.

Tony Leung Kar-fai is near mental breakdown, as his bouts with amnesia caused the missing of an all-important appointment with the woman he loves. Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia was the woman who waited and is now moving into a world of her own creation. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai was the “Sunset Warrior,” before his vision began to decline, and while he can still see, he has lost his reason for wandering. Jackie Cheung, still young and wild, is a swordsman who’s determined to make it in the martial arts world, but unfortunately his wife (Karina Lau) insists on traveling with him.

Describing the synopsis and its main characters doesn’t capture the filmic experience, since the movie is as much about visual style and mood and ound as about sheer contents. Suffice is to say that Wong has personalized the costume epic, and in the process reinvented the genre for his own needs, placing greater emphasis on interiority rather than exteriority, unrequited longing and emotional frustrations rather than heroic actions and violent battles with masses of extras, reliance on close-ups of faces rather than long takes of landscape.

While this film is set in the past, the concerns and vision remain contemporary, of the present time. He also departs from the traditional martial arts genre in treating his characters not so much as heroes but as ordinary people, placed at the stage before they became heroes, and he doesn’t dwell so much on the genre’s perennial issues of personal honor and indomitable spirit. This film is imbued with a sense of fatalism, based on the notion that the characters’ fates are known from the beginning; they are almost preordained.

Bearing its auteur’s signature and idiosyncratic vision, “Ashes of Time Redux,” like all of Wong Kar Wai’s films, deals with the problems of sustaining human connections, the inevitable burden of the past on the present, the impossibility of love.

And as always, there’s sheer pleasure in observing his s commendable skills, merging his sad, melancholy tale with precise compositions, exuberant lighting that contribute to the illumination of his characters.