When Wong Kar-wai’s lone attempt at a martial arts film, “Ashes of Time,” first came out in 1994, it was considered by most to be awfully pretty and mystifyingly elliptical. “Redux” finds it restored, re-edited, seven minutes shorter, with feverishly heightened colors and dramatic new music from Yo-Yo Ma. Having never seen the original version, I can’t speak to whether it’s also been clarified, but here’s what I got:
The Blind Swordsman (who’s more in the process of losing his vision) loves his wife Peach Blossom, but left her because she has a thing for Huang Yaoshi, a warrior who’s a bit of a wandering playboy, having also stolen the heart of, and then jilted, Murong Yin, who’s nutty and has developed a separate personality in which she cross-dresses and claims to be her brother, Murong Yang. They all, along with Hong Qi, a rural would-be assassin, his wife, and a destitute peasant girl seeking revenge, drift in and then out of the life of Ouyang Feng, who was once a great swordsman himself, but who now lives alone in the desert acting as an agent for other fighters and dreaming of his own great love, who abandoned him to marry his brother. Each eventually dies or goes off to become a figure of legend.
Well, wuxia stories don’t need to make perfect sense, something Wong winked at in “2046,” when Tony Leung enlisted Faye Wong to help him write one: “Iron Abacus? Isn’t he dead?” “Is he? Then make it Iron Head.” “Where did Iron Head come from all of a sudden?” Stiil, as a martial arts film, “Ashes of Time Redux” kind of sucks, despite choreography from Sammo Hung — no one gets around to fighting until halfway through, at which point the action is shot gorgeously and incomprehensibly by cinematographer Christopher Doyle.
That’s fine. It’s better to look at “Ashes of Time Redux” as a typical Wong Kar-wai film that just happens to be set in a mythical, martial arts-dominated landscape, an episodic reverie in which the beautifully heartbroken once again muse to themselves in meandering voiceovers and scrutinize the situations in which they find themselves for meaning or consolation, and it’s all so lusciously lovely and cinematic you take it in with jaw agape. The cast is ridiculous: Tony Leung, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Brigitte Lin, Jacky Cheung, Charlie Yeung, and Leslie Cheung and Maggie Cheung as the separated lovers whose broken relationship turns out to be what the film is actually all about. She convalesces by the sea, and he stares out at the unreal dunes, and they both have the kind of faces film was created to capture. The remembered fragment of the last time they saw each other is an encounter more heated and dangerous than any battle — love, for Wong, will always outdo swordplay.
“Ashes of Time Redux” will open on October 10th. For more coverage of the New York Film Festival, click here.
[Photo: “Ashes of Time Redux,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2008]