Wong Kar Wai's Ashes of Time Gets Its Comeback
Cynics make the worst romantics; they should know better, they know they should know better, and they'd die if you knew better. Forced underground by a formative heartbreak, a cynic's romantic nature can flourish into a sort of private dementia. You can take my weary word for it, or you can take Wong Kar Wai's, whose new/old film, Ashes of Time Redux, wittily, earnestly, gorgeously sets up the paradox he has returned to throughout his career—that of romantic memory as both scourge and succor.
Wong is nothing if not consistent in his themes (loneliness, disconnection, obsession with the past) and in his characters (proud, haunted, imperially alone), and in Redux, he successfully imposes his sensibility upon the usually strictly observed genre of wuxia, a historical strain of martial arts, kick-'em-up flicks. It's a vision that seems to have arrived fully formed: Wong wrote Ashes of Time as a kind of prequel to Hong Kong author Louis Cha's classic wuxia bestseller, The Eagle Shooting Heroes, and in 1992, the film began a six-month bête noire shoot in the Chinese desert. Wong made his breakthrough film, Chung King Express, while still wrestling Ashes to the ground in post-production; the latter film received only a smattering of distribution and has been little-seen in the U.S.
That should change with Redux, a full-scale refurbishment of the original, featuring a new score by Yo-Yo Ma, some possibly new or unseen footage (Wong is cagey on the subject), and a digitally remastered print in which many of cinematographer Christopher Doyle's adoring close-ups and leering desert-scapes have undergone flashy color restoration. The upgrades did not thin the plot, such as it is, down to easily digestible spoonfuls, but then Wong's narrative appetite has never been that interested in satisfaction; he would rather push the idea of satisfaction around on a plate, a technique which somehow proves most satisfying of all.
Structured over five seasons taken from the Chinese almanac, Redux's touchstone is Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), an assassin-for-hire who runs a drifter hotel in East Buddha Nowhere. Ouyang suffers a limited variety of guests (killers and those seeking a killer) while refusing to pine for the woman (played by Maggie Cheung) who married his brother. "The root of man's problems is memory," Ouyang says, a theory taken up by various barefoot, blind, lovesick men and berserk, devoted, defeated women. Every now and then, a swordfight breaks out or, more accurately, a sequence breaks out—as jarring in arrival as it is in impact—almost painted onto the screen from an impressionistic palate of swish-pans, sound cues, and slo-mo. Even more memorable is Doyle's exquisite shadow-play; a birdcage and a moon-face are all he needs.
Wong has a bit of a wink with all of the deadpan death threats and grand allusions—women rake their cheeks along tree bark, limestone, and a horse's neck in fits of longing—before turning mannerism into the very stuff of transcendence, as with Maggie Cheung's penultimate lament. It's a knowing end-run around cliché that seeks to assert the damnable truth of cliché itself. In a move that would become his trademark, Wong rejects the happy ending for the almost ecstatically sad, making your heart soar even as he tells you, essentially, that it's impossible, all of it—that it'll never work.
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