After Wong Kar Wai’s ill-advised American venture My Blueberry Nights last year, the re-release of his 1994 Ashes of Time is a welcome reminder of his sheer virtuosity as a filmmaker. Until now, the film was virtually impossible to get hold of, and the director has pieced together a definitive version from negatives scattered across Hong Kong and various Chinatown cinemas. Re-edited and re-scored, the film, set in the world of period martial arts, is a poetic meditation on love and solitude, at once utterly contemporary and firmly rooted in the Buddhist canon.
The film is inspired by Louis Cha’s classic 1950s novel, Eagle Shooting Heroes (also known as Legend of the Condor Heroes), part of a literary tradition that dates back to the Ming Dynasty. Both the novel and the film are striking examples of wuxia – martial arts chivalry, a genre that has become popular in the West thanks to films like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which clearly owe a debt to Ashes of Time (the fact that Christopher Doyle was also the cinematographer on Hero makes the comparison all the more striking). But though the film delivers a handful of the requisite action scenes, Wong Kar Wai devotes his energy to exploring the subtle intricacies of human nature, beautifully captured in the film.
Ashes of Time imagines Cha’s protagonists Ouyang Feng and Huang Yaoshi as young men, before they become the infamous Lord of the West and Lord of the East in the novel. The late Leslie Cheung delivers a wonderfully assured performance as Ouyang Feng, a man who lives in virtual isolation on the edge of the Western desert, having fled his home after the woman he loved (played by Maggie Cheung) married his older brother. Now acting as a middleman, he matches clients looking for retribution with swordsmen-for-hire. He becomes ever more aware of his own solitude as his life intersects with those of the damaged people he encounters, including Yaoshi, a good friend now determined to drink his memories away.
The film is built as a triptych that follows the changing seasons, and Wong Kar Wai rejects a traditional narrative structure in favour of beautifully crafted scenes, with tight close-ups of his characters interspersed with evocative desert panoramas. And though the film can be hard to follow (watching the movie after a couple of glasses of red wine is not a great idea), the second time around the somewhat fragmented scenes coalesce into an intense reverie.
Though the temporal and physical setting is strikingly different to Wong Kar Wai’s habitual neon-lit cities, this film unmistakably bears his hallmark: an obsession with love, both unrequited and lost. The respect and devotion he shows to his actors is rewarded by terrific performances, and, as always, his partnership with Christopher Doyle delivers gorgeous, dynamic cinema. The release of Ashes of Time Redux may be debated by purists, but it’s an exciting opportunity to see an example of Wong Kar Wai’s early work on the big screen.