If you are looking for an objective review of Ashes of Time Redux, I'm merely being honest when I tell you to look elsewhere. However, if you are looking for the thoughts and musings about Redux from someone hopelessly in love with the original, you've come to the right place.
Ashes of Time is the top of the heap in my book. No other film can take me to the places that Ashes can as far as visual beauty and emotional depth. Sitting in the theater Friday afternoon felt like a moment I had been waiting for for a very long time. Although my adoration comes from the original that was released over 14 years ago, early reports of this re-edit put my mind at rest that I would not be disappointed. And indeed, Redux exceeds expectations set by the original in a totally new form. Wong has taken the mesmerizing fragmentation and tethered it with a grounded structure, discarding some scenes and supplementing others and folding random time into seasonal chapters. The characters are infinitely more complex and their relations doubly captivating. Having seen the film many times in various forms, the result of seeing Ashes of Time Redux is like a film composed of my dreams—utterly new but instantly familiar.
Nothing within the story has changed from the original; pieces have simply been rearranged. Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) is a swordsman who now makes his living as a broker. Living on edge of society at a desert outpost, Ouyang solves problems for a price. His outpost also represents a last point of contact—a meeting place for the desperate and the lost who are all somehow connected. Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) is Ouyang's friend who visits him seasonally. He is a fierce swordsman who easily breaks hearts. Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung) is the barefoot warrior. A simple man with deadly skills, Hong Qi finds work with Ouyang. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai plays a swordsman who is losing his sight. Simply known as the Blind Swordsman, he contacts Ouyang for work so he can return home before his sight is totally gone. Murong Yin and Murong Yang (Brigitte Lin) are bother and sister. Or are they sisters? Or are they simply the same person. Either way, both characters represent one individual psychological turmoil. Murong Yin and Yang both seek out Ouyang because "they" are in need of a killer. These are all heroes who have lost their way emotionally, burdened by longing and tortured by loss.
Ashes of Time is a swordplay melodrama—a period piece without irony. It works both with and against the long tradition of martial arts dramas. Wong examines the hero's isolated existence in a self-reflexive critique that veers off course of what one might expect of a Hong Kong wuxia pian. Righteousness is traded in for narcissism, and honor is traded for pessimism. These swordsmen (and swordswomen in the case of Brigitte Lin's characters) find solace in their abilities to fight. Wielding their weapon frees them from melancholic web, if only for a brief moment. It is with the suspended waves of action that the characters are able to float above desperation. And while many are disappointed in the action sequences, they are the kinetic showboats of the film. Tightly choreographed by Sammo Hung and artistically shot by Christopher Doyle in his own personal method of undercranking.
Ashes of Time has an infamous history which can finally be put to rest with the release of Redux. Wong was undaunted by a mediocre reception for Days of Being Wild and launched into the ambitious project of filming a swordplay film loosely based on Jin Yong's martial arts novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes (aka The Legend of the Eagle Shooting Heroes). Ashes was to be his first film by his own production company, Jet Tone. He trudged off to Western China with contracts with the biggest stars in Hong Kong with nary a script or much of a plan. As the shooting continued for months, Mainland officials had to be dealt with to allow endless shooting, and stars had to fly back and forth. After almost a year and a half of shooting, the crew retreated to Hong Kong with the monumental task of editing the footage. Post-production dragged on, and Wong unleashed his pent up creativity with the fast, cheap and out of control Chungking Express. When Ashes was released soon after, Chungking Express had stole its thunder. Audiences were disappointed in the action and confused by the story. Even the festival circuit seems uninterested, preferring the kinetic exuberance of Chungking Express to the melodramatic mire of Ashes of Time. As a result Ashes languished, both commercially and physically.
Fans were left in the cold. Screenings of Ashes were few and far between, happening either at festivals or theaters dedicated to Asian cinema. Locally, Asian Media Access brought Ashes of Time here twice for screenings at The Riverview, Oak Street and Metro State. Things weren't much better for those hoping for a decent DVD release. Most would settle for an average DVD, but instead Ashes was released in two versions that could very well be the two worst DVD releases I have ever seen (and I have seen my fair share of bad DVDs.) When Wong realized the dismal situation, he set about to remaster the film only to find the remaining prints were damaged, in some places, beyond repair. So started his Redux, working to rebuild his film from the pieces salvaged from the dust. Because remastering the film as it originally existed was impossible (due to portions of the film that were literally gone) Wong took the opportunity to reconsider the film by reworking it and the soundtrack.
Ashes of Time Redux looks amazing, as Wong has taken much care to be very specific with how the image was meant to be: retain grain in some areas and sharpen in other areas. The colours look as they never have before (or at least to my eyes.) The sky was never so blue and the sand never so yellow. Most of the scenes that seem new to me are probably just so vividly different, I don't recognize them. Although Redux is actually slightly shorter than the original, the camera seems to linger more in Redux. The shots seem longer, and the content seems more beefy. Specifically, the conversation between Murong Yang and Ouyang Feng around the birdcage is far more developed and hypnotic. In addition, Redux gives far more time to Maggie Chueng's character in her final conversation with Huang Yaoshi. Achingly beautiful, she gives a soliloquy that surmises the film's broken souls.
Some of the crazy keyboard stuff in the original soundtrack has been orchestrated, powered by Yo Yo Ma's cello. The new soundtrack allows the music to recede more to the background, where at times it was overpowering in the original. If I have seen the film ten times, I have listened to the soundtrack a hundred times. I love the original, but am hardly disappointed by the new soundtrack.
For all intent and purposes Redux is the only version of Ashes of Time. My impulse to watch the two versions I have on DVD (Mei Ah and World Vision) and compare it with the new version is nothing more than my OCD taking over. Those versions are poor manifestations that barely resemble what the original was meant to be. If Wong was frustrated by Ashes in 1994, editing it must have been immensely easier. His subsequent films—especially Happy Together, In the Mood For Love and 2046—were made of a language that he was no doubt looking for in 1994. In many ways, I see 2046 as a futuristic Ashes of Time, with similar themes and pacing. As if this film had a fate all its own, perhaps this ambitious project needed to gestate for 14 years.
Ashes of Time has fully been realized with Redux. Alarmingly gorgeous, Ashes of Time can still make me swoon 14 years later. Admittedly, there are scenes missing from the new version that I pine for, but I can put that behind me with the notion that this film is having a much deserved rebirth. Not only is it there for me to see in the theater, it will no doubt be available in a form that I can enjoy for many years to come.
Official website for Ashes of Time Redux here.
Fascinating Q & A with Wong Kar Wai, Christopher Doyle and Brigette Lin at the NYFF here.
Edit: David Bordwell just posted a very nice overview of Ashes of Time and the issues involved in reduxing here.