Wong Kar-Wai applies his customary elliptical, introspective style to the traditional martial arts fantasy world of the jianghu: Ashes of Time is his one stab at the popular wuxia genre of Chinese action film. Taking characters from a famous martial arts novel (The Eagle-Shooting Heroes by Louis Cha) Wong has reimagined the Lord of the East and the Lord of the West (and other characters) as younger men, less sure of themselves, far from their eventual literary destiny.
A series of vignettes each captioned by almanacal season: Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung – A Better Tomorrow, Farewell My Concubine, Days Of Being Wild) lives in the desert and is visited once a year by an old friend. He has a lost love, the widow of his brother, for whom she had jilted him; and the friend, Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka Fai -The Lover, Love Will Tear Us Apart, Election) has carried a torch for her himself all these years. Haughty Murong Yin commissions Ouyang to have Huang killed for jilting his sister, and his twin Murong Yang (both played by Brigitte Lin – Love Massacre, Red Dust, Chungking Express) commissions her possessive brother’s murder. Then there’s a young swordsman going blind (Tony Leung Chiu Wai – Hard Boiled, Cyclo, Lust, Caution, 2046 and most other WKW films) who just wants to see his wife again; and a slobbish swordsman whose wife refuses to stay at home. Everyone is driven to action or, in Ouyang’s case, chronic inaction, by their passions. Love is the ruling force of Wong Kar-Wai’s universe.
This is a roster of virtually every major Hong Kong star of circa 1994 – it also finds room for Maggie Cheung (Police Story, Hero, In The Mood For Love etc) in an indulgent scene of self-pity with sopping strings, epitomising the uncomfortable style of the film. In applying his miniaturist method of human relationships to a potentially epic, Wong largely ignores the rich jianghu setting; it is a star-studded compilation of characters exported from his 50s or 90s Hong Kong and dressed up as the lonely swordsman, the proud princess etc.
The archetypes of the wuxia, just as with the western, the gangster film etc, have vitality built in; the modern, urban archetypes of Wong’s post-existential world suffer recognisably communal human anxieties but their introspection, unsurety and self-pity drain the life from the film. Shared between several of these protagonists, much of the script plays out in voice-over, a favourite Wong device for giving substance to characters so prone to introspection. In the expansive desert landscape, we are teased with a few bold vista shots; likewise, the set-builders seem to have done some fine work, but only occasionally are we allowed to see it: Wong and brilliant madman DP Christopher Doyle seem obsessed with the play of light on immobile faces and much of the film is shot in oppressive close-up (even the animals).
Which is not to say it is entirely devoid of action: there’s a couple of scenes, particularly the blind swordsman’s fight with hundreds of bandits and (crassly repeated shots of) a sword trick on a lake, which achieve moments of exhilaration; even when it comes, however, the action is most withheld from us through whip pans, cuts and frame-dupe slow-motion. One of the most effective things in the film, in fact, is the sound design of these segments, which sound like a bull in a kitchen cutlery shop; Wong prefers to keep action offscreen: the synopsis sounds busy, but he elides the narrative at every opportunity. The result is a slow, dreamy atmosphere, with much sub-philosophical musing on memory, the impossibility of love, and the prophecies of the Chinese calendrical almanac, and an unreconciled unevenness of tone.
Ashes of Time never got a theatrical release in the US, and is now being reissued in its Redux version. There’s some reediting and rescoring, and what looks like some digital recoloring. It was hard to tell in Sony’s screening room, however, because their digital projection made it look like a horrible splodgy mess of pixels. But it seems as tho Wong has intensified the colors of many of the landscape shots (BRIGHT YELLOW SAND) rather like Thai director Wisit Sasanatieng’s eye-popping palette techniques. It’s many years since I saw the original and I remember it being incoherent but beautifully shot. It makes more sense now, and the artificial colours seem somehow appropriate for Wong’s jarring conception – judging from the stills and the trailer, the quality of the image may well be breathtaking, if presented correctly, but the obvious disparity between grainy original film elements and (supposedly) crystal sharp digital frames will probably still obtrude.
What I don’t remember well is the original score, so I cannot say if the extensive retinkering is to blame for its irritating and obvious omnipresence. Hand-drum and flute wallpaper prevails, along with strings and synths drenched in the same echo that plagues mystical fairy “celtic” music (usually with hand-drums and flute..) The featured cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma are all well and good, but the soundtrack strives considerably too hard both to be emotive and to bolster the slight material onscreen, which is rarely allowed a moment’s silence to itself. Wong’s one concession to the epic potential of the genre backfires in the sort of banal and second-hand techniques that are all-too prevalent in rent-a-score epic film-making.
The original film has many fans, not least as it has been never been available on a decent DVD and so has been prized as the cult item of Wong’s oeuvre. The sheer oddity of his having made a wuxia is itself a selling point. The collision of tones is potentially fascinating – think of the intense introspection of A Touch Of Zen (1969) and the Buddhist epigram “The flag is still. The wind is calm. It’s the heart of man that is in turmoil”. But there’s no contest that Wong’s antithetical style stultifies the jianghu world, the generic demands neither accepted nor challenged. That said, the habitually overbearing preoccupations of his half-formed characters are well-suited to the simplistic tendencies of the genre film, and to Wong’s project of imagining the backstory of characters not yet crystallised into their original fictional shape. He usually builds characters as he builds the film, and that he worked here for once with a completed script created by his own admission an air of fatalism. This dream-world does weave something of a spell, but mired in the stasis of the central characters it remains too often prosaic where it could be lyrical and mythic, and incidentally spoiled by a prettifying aesthetic of photography, music and digital tinkering.
Ashes of Time Redux opens October 10
Images courtesy of Sony