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Where EAST meets the Northwest

SWORD FOR HIRE. Tony Leung plays the Blind Swordsman in Ashes of Time Redux. The film showcases the gorgeous visual poetry and the delicate rendering of repressed emotions that have become a signature of director Wong Kar Wai’s films. (Photo/Lau Wai Keung and Chan Yuen Kai, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

From The Asian Reporter, V19, #14 (April 7, 2009), page 11 & 13.

An epic returns

Ashes of Time Redux

Directed by Wong Kar Wai

Produced by Wong Kar Wai and Jeff Lau

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics

DVD, 93 minutes, $28.96

By Marie Lo

Ashes of Time, first released in 1994, is Wong Kar Wai’s sweeping martial arts epic starring Leslie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung, and Maggie Cheung. Filmed in remote parts of China, the film was over budget and took an exhausting six months to shoot.

Just as the making of the film was arduous and complex, Ashes of Time Redux, released on DVD last month, is also the result of a long restoration process. When the economic crisis hit Hong Kong in 1998, the company that housed the existing prints of the film folded. The stored prints, however, were damaged, which led to a search for old prints from around Asia and North America. Ashes of Time Redux is pieced together from these various prints, an apt parallel for a film with a fragmented and complicated storyline that requires its audience to do the same.

Wong Kar Wai was introduced to western audiences with his stylized, dreamy, and quirky film, Chungking Express, which was shot in two weeks as a break from the lagging and laborious Ashes of Time. Because it was also released in 1994, the success of Chungking Express has eclipsed Ashes of Time. This definitive restored version has been re-edited, digitally colorized, and re-scored with solos by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Using advanced technology that had not existed when the film was first released, Ashes of Time Redux showcases the gorgeous visual poetry and the delicate rendering of repressed emotions that have become a signature of the director’s films.

Ashes of Time is loosely based on Louis Cha’s The Eagle-Shooting Heroes. The film pivots around Ouyang Feng, played by the late Leslie Cheung, a loner who lives in an isolated outpost in the desert. Still, people find him because he is a middleman of sorts, connecting ordinary folks seeking vengeance with swordsmen down on their luck.

As a cast of characters pass through his outpost seeking his services, it soon becomes clear Ouyang Feng’s status as a middleman represents more than just a jaded outlook on life; he comes to symbolize the repressed desires, regret, and longing that can only be rerouted and expressed through violence.

According to Wong Kar Wai, the theme of the film is how humans react to nature, and the film is structured according to the Chinese Almanac. In the original version, this was alluded to, but it was not explicit. In the redux version, captions announce the seasons which segment the narrative; the result is a story that unfolds in both an episodic fashion as well as cyclically, like the seasons.

If nature is a character in this film, then so too is memory. Memories are both ephemeral and substantive. They can wield power over individuals, and they can cause pain. Yet they can also be fallible and easily forgotten. The film’s apparent lack of chronology seems to highlight the process of memory and forgetting. Flashback sequences flit in and out in the same way a familiar image can conjure up a memory only to have it recede.

At times, this complicated structure makes the film difficult to follow. But like all good films, its artistry and architecture reveal themselves with each subsequent viewing. Ashes of Time Redux is definitely a film that invites many viewings.

Under the visual direction of cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Wong Kar Wai’s frequent collaborator, even the bleak landscapes seem extravagant. Colors pulse and dance the way old films flicker on the movie screen. The lighting in the film has a life of its own. It inhales and exhales, contracting the scene to provide shadowy, abstracted, and claustrophobic shots or expanding to encompass the majestic landscape.

The battle scenes are choreographed by Sammo Hung, an actor, director, and producer who is perhaps best known for his fight choreography in Hong Kong action cinema. He has choreographed fight scenes for Bruce Lee, Tsui Hark, John Woo, and Jackie Chan, and his work in this film does not disappoint.

The DVD also includes a making-of featurette as well as a question-and-answer session with Wong Kar Wai, which provides insights into his artistic vision and his filmmaking process.

For those who love Wong Kar Wai’s later works, such as Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, or the Cannes-winning In the Mood for Love, Ashes of Time Redux is an important aesthetic foundation for understanding the trajectory of the great auteur’s work.

Ashes of Time Redux is available on DVD. To learn more, visit <www.sonyclassics.com>.