If Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time Redux (2008) is not the most beautiful movie ever made, then at least its beauty is sufficient to obliterate, for the moment, the memory of all others, including Wong’s own ravishing In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004). Beauty and its memory, along with regret for lost love, are Wong’s subjects, and Redux, notwithstanding its martial-arts derivation, is the distillation of his swooning romances. It is also the materialization of his ongoing Proustian project—to revivify the past in all its sensory richness and capture the one that got away. In this case, the elusive object of desire is not a woman or a man but a movie in its entirety.
The original Ashes of Time (1994) was the third feature Wong put into production and the fourth he completed. Taking time off from the lengthy, difficult postproduction of Ashes to have a fling with screwball comedy, he completed the effervescent Chungking Express (1994) in record time—three months, start to finish. Ashes of Time, which was released in various versions (one for Hong Kong, another for Taiwan) later the same year, could not have been further from Chungking’s carefree spontaneity. It suffered from soporific pacing that never varied despite Wong’s attempt to amp it up with Eisensteinian edits synced to the beat of a tinny synthesized genre score. The editing jolts clashed with the images, which were both murky and washed-out, or at least that’s the way they appeared in the various 35-mm prints and video dubs that made their way to festivals and a handful of art houses. I fell asleep in three countries trying to watch Ashes of Time, and you may share that experience in your own home if you rent the version available from Netflix.
Based on Louis Cha aka Jin Yong’s The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, a series of novels published in Hong Kong in the late 1950s, Ashes of Time is set in the parallel world of the wuxia pian (martial-arts movie), where master sword fighters have power over the elements and laws of nature. Not only can they fly, but, in Wong’s version of wuxia storytelling, they can cause the earth to quake and lakes to spout. When Wong discovered that the original film materials and prints were decomposing—becoming themselves “ashes of time”—he embarked on a five-year project using new digital tools and his mastery of cinematic rhythms to produce a lysergically colored world of aquamarine skies and windswept deserts in myriad shades of yellow-orange, where time contracts into swirls of color or expands in gestures of infinite yearning. With its anamorphic close-ups of exquisitely chiseled faces and its desert tableaux vivants, Redux is closer to a Sergio Leone spaghetti western or the melodrama of King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946) than it is to a traditional wuxia pian or even a recent art film–wuxia hybrid like Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers (2004).
Redux’s episodic narrative, replete with flashbacks, spirals like a dream that you grasp in its entirety only for a fleeting moment on awakening, and is no easier to follow than the original. It doesn’t hurt the experience when seeing the movie for the first time to get lost in its beauty alone. But perhaps it is helpful to know that the story is filtered through the consciousness of Ouyang Fei (Leslie Cheung), a temporarily retired master swordsman living in an inn on the edge of the Gobi Desert, where he acts as a go-between for warriors and their clients. Like nearly all the characters in the film, Ouyang is haunted by the memory of a failed romance. Afraid of rejection, he abandoned the woman he loved (Maggie Cheung), who then married his brother. Once a year, Ouyang is visited by another great swordsman, Huang Yoshi (Tony Leung Ka Fai), who secretly is in love with the same woman. Huang was a childhood friend of still another wandering swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), who is now going blind. The blind swordsman knows that his wife, Peach Blossom (Carina Lau), has had an affair with Huang, but nevertheless he dreams of surviving long enough to see her once more. In a film in which eroticism is most strongly evoked through the sense of touch, one scene is unforgettable. In the midst of what is to be his final battle, the blind swordsman sees in his mind’s eye (or in the cosmic simultaneity of all time and space) Peach Blossom, standing in a pool of water, her hands stroking the neck of a horse whose head is bent toward her breast.
The actors, most of them international stars and regulars in Wong’s films, magnificently negotiate the mythic aspects of their characters and the lovesickness that makes them all too human. In particular, Maggie Cheung’s grief-stricken final monologue is the heart of the film and goes to the core of all Wong’s work. Ashes of Time Redux ends with a montage as transcendent as that of Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera (1929). When I get my hands on the DVD, I’ll play it as a bedtime story every night.
Ashes of Time Redux opens today at selected theaters in New York and Los Angeles. For additional information, check your local listings.