Monday, November 03, 2008

Ashes of Time Redux

I honestly wonder how much my liking this version of Ashes of Time more than the original version is due to the actual merits of the two cuts and how much is due to the me of 2008 not being the me of 2005. Not that I'm that much different, but when I saw the original cut, I'd only seen two of Wong Kar-Wai's films before (if you don't count stuff he just wrote for money, like Haunted Cop Shop 2), and so didn't really know his aesthetic. I sort of thought he was just doing his big wuxia action movie, like Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou would later do.

I did like the movie much more this time around, though I'm now very curious to see what Eagle Shooting Heroes is like. It is, apparently, a spoof of the same novel that was adapted into Ashes of Time, shot at roughly the same time, on the same sets, with much of the same cast and crew (though, if the IMDB is to be believed, with several in different roles). No writer is credited on IMDB, but I seem to remember Wong Kar-Wai being referred to as responsible during one of the old Weekly Wednesday Ass-Kicking showings (which, for a time, substituted a Weekly Wednesday Wong Kar-Wai series).

Dung che sai duk redux (Ashes of TIme Redux)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 October 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square (first-run)

I saw and reviewed Ashes of Time three and a half years ago, when it played as part of a series of director Wong Kar-wai's films at the Brattle Theatre. I was not particularly impressed at the time, in part because I approached it as a wuxia film first and as a WKW mood piece second, and in part because there apparently hasn't been a decent print to be found for years. Watching Ashes of Time Redux isn't quite like seeing a whole new movie, but it was certainly a new and better experience. How much of that is due to the new cut, how much is due to the restoration, and how much is me approaching it with a different attitude is an open question.

The film takes place in and around a tavern run by Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), a once-great warrior who now mainly connects swordsmen with those who have a use for them. As the film starts, it is springtime, time for the annual visit of Huang Yaoshi (Tony Lenug Ka Fai), and old friend who brings with him a gift - a bottle of magical wine that it is said can erase memories. Feng opts not to sip from it, but Huang does, leaving Feng to deal with Murong Yang and Murong Yin (Brigitte Lin), siblings at conflict over their past encounters with Feng. As the seasons pass, others come - a swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) who fears he will lose his sight before he sees the peach blossoms of his hometown again; Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung), a barefoot would-be hero; and a girl (Charlie Yeung) who wishes to avenge her brother's death but who has only a mule and some eggs to pay with. We also learn Feng's own sad story, which led him to isolate himself from the world this way - it is, of course, about a woman (Maggie Cheung).

Those looking for action will probably come away somewhat disappointed, even more so than I was when I saw the original 1994 cut. What we see is pretty good - it is choreographed by Sammo Hung, after all, with his trademark hard-hitting style. This isn't the lighter-than-air gliding of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but close-in lethal swordplay, with plenty of blood spilled and limbs severed. We do see glimpses of more fantastical combat, where a swing of the sword can shatter mountains or cause explosions, but one of the primary big differences between the two versions - likely much of the reason why the 2008 "Redux" cut is seven minutes shorter - is that two early fight scenes are cut.

The film does not particularly suffer for their absence, but the greatest improvement to the flow of the movie is perhaps much simpler - Wong has added in chapter titles to indicate the passage of the seasons. Even though they don't always indicate a clean break between storylines, they (and the changing narrators) give the movie the feel of an anthology of individual but connected stories, rather than a single messy narrative with too many characters to keep track of entering and exiting. It's still all about Feng, but it is now presented in such a way that the movie guides us toward him, rather than away.

Leslie Cheung gives a performance worth being guided toward, showing (as he often does) a man locking his feelings away, indeed, mocking those who dare to feel. There's a knowing cruelty to Feng, with regret buried very deep underneath. The man hiding his broken heart is the sort of thing Cheung did very well, and it's complimented nicely by Maggie Cheung's brief but memorable appearance as the one who got away. The rest of the cast is similarly fine, most notably Brigitte Lin.

The restoration certainly makes a major difference in the look of the film. Christopher Doyle's cinematography is much more clear and sharp than it was in previous prints, with the desert looking vast and beautiful. Indeed, there's an argument to be made that the movie now looks too pretty - the colors are brighter and bolder than they were in the original release, a closer match to the expensive, glossy wuxia films that would appear after Ashes of Time's original release. It almost looks like digital video at times - not bad, but almost unnaturally sharp.

That's perhaps not a perfect match for the story, which is less the usual tale of honor and duty than a meditation of ephemerality of life and memory, and how love can slip away with time. For me, it tells the story better; at the very least, it looks better than it has in some time.

Also at HBS.