After two feature films, Wong Kar-Wai was emerging as a new voice in Hong Kong cinema who was making films that weren’t the traditional martial arts or crime films of the time. Instead, Kar-Wai stood out as he was making the kind of films that related more to the world of European cinema than the world of his native Hong Kong. For his next feature, Kar-Wai decided to enter the world of the martial arts epic known as wuxia by adapting Louis Cha’s novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes. With getting a cast of some of Asian cinema’s finest actors, the project entitled Ashes of Time wouldn’t just be his most ambitious project to date. It would also become his most complicated and troubled production of his burgeoning career at that time.
The production for Ashes of Time dragged for a year as it went over-budget and over-scheduled largely due to Kar-Wai’s insistence of working without a script. The headaches of the ambitious production shot on location in mainland China’s desert proved to be overwhelming. After shooting completed, Kar-Wai took a break to work on another project that would become Chungking Express as it was released in early 1994. While working on another project that would become Fallen Angels, Kar-Wai went to work on editing and finishing Ashes of Time for its release in the fall of 1994.
The film would received mixed reviews as it also became a box office failure where the film disappeared for years as Kar-Wai’s cult began to grow internationally. Even as audiences became interested in Ashes of Time where the film was shown but in different versions. In 2003, Kar-Wai along with his longtime cinematographer Christopher Doyle and longtime editor/art director William Chang to create a re-assembled version of the film with copies of the film from China and France to be their source since the original negatives were in bad shape.
Another problem for the re-assembled version wasn’t just color-correcting the film but also creating a new score since the soundtrack was heavily-damaged to re-record. With the help of Yo-Yo Ma in creating new cello solos based on Wu Tong’s new arrangements. A new score along with pieces from the original score was re-created for the new assembled version that would be called Ashes of Time Redux.
Written for the screen and directed by Wong Kar-Wai. Ashes of Time (Dung che sai duk) tells the story of a heartbroken swordsman who serves as a middleman between bounty hunters and those seeking help. Along the way, the swordsmen deal with individuals who want revenge on bandits or siblings while he also deals with his own past and regrets. Part wuxia film and part drama, it’s a film that would broaden the wuxia genre as it would help set the course of other films of that genre such as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the recent films of Zhang Yimou. Featuring choreography from legendary martial arts star Sammo Hung, the film stars such Kar-Wai regulars Leslie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Carina Lau, and Maggie Cheung along with Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Charlie Yeung, and Jacky Cheung. Ashes of Time/Ashes of Time Redux is a hypnotic yet mesmerizing film from Wong Kar-Wai.
(Note: The following plot description and film analysis is based on the Redux version of the film)
Living alone in the desert as a middleman for bounty hunters and its customers, Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) is a man filled with cynicism as he only cares about making money no matter what side he’s on. It’s spring as one of Feng’s bounty hunters named Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) has arrived for his yearly visit but with a bottle of wine this time. Yaoshi talks about a woman (Carina Lau) he’s fallen for as he learns he’s the wife another bounty hunter (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai). Yet, Yaoshi is in trouble with that bounty hunter as he was an old friend. The problem is that Yaoshi is losing his memory while the other bounty hunter is going blind.
Returning to his home, Yaoshi has an encounter with a drunk yet masterful swordsman named Murong (Brigitte Lin) as a fight ensues. Later, Murong hires Feng to have someone kill the man going after her sister. Feng meanwhile, gets an offer from Murong’s sister to kill her brother as Feng realizes that something isn‘t right as he believes they could be the same person. It’s summer as a young woman (Charlie Yeung) offers her mule and eggs to Feng to find a bounty hunter to fight off some bandits. Feng refuses the offer as the blind swordsman arrives to talk about Yaoshi as he is thinking of taking the young woman’s offer to fight off the bandits.
Yet, the bandits continue to become a threat as another bounty hunter named Hong Quiong (Jacky Cheung) decides to fight them. While he’s a man known for simple things and has a way of handling business. Something is off as Hong gets himself injured as Feng believes that the woman with the eggs and mule is a curse. Hong however, thinks the opposite as he decides to leave with his wife (Li Bai) as Feng becomes haunted by the memories of his former flame (Maggie Cheung) who had already married his brother. Feng meanwhile learns why Yaoshi has come to the desert every year as he waits for the next spring for Yaoshi to arrive.
While the film’s complex story takes place in the span of a year, its loose structure in placing the film on its seasonal settings gives way to an epic that isn’t like anything else. While at times, the pacing lags a bit in a few scenes. It’s a film that is really about a man whose lack of morals about hiring bounty hunters to do their jobs would only have him face his own regrets and mistakes that he’s made in the past. A lot of the story is told from Feng’s perspective in the narration as he reflects on his own past and hopes of attaining glory while looking on at his bounty hunters. Each have their own story to tell through a bit of their own narration as they all deal with their own issues and moral conflict.
The looseness of the story is attributed to Kar-Wai not using a script as his direction of the film is truly mesmerizing. Particularly shooting on location at the desert where he goes for a huge, epic feel. Kar-Wai definitely displays grand visuals for many of the film’s deserts and battle scenes with help from Sammo Hung’s choreography in the fights. Yet, he maintains a sense of intimacy for some of the non-action, dramatic scenes while creating gorgeous shots filled with landscapes being exploded along with a shot of water gushing from a lake. In many ways, it’s a dream-like film of sorts with lush images of water and landscapes set in a rough desert. Yet, it has all of the touches of a Kar-Wai film where despite a few flaws in the story.
Longtime Kar-Wai collaborator Christopher Doyle brings a gorgeous yet hypnotic look to the film’s cinematography. Shot with grainy film stock, Doyle’s photography maintains a gritty look to the film, notably the fight scenes. For the scenes in the jungle, there’s a lush feel with its mesh of green, white, and other colors. A lot of Doyle’s photography plays to a lot of the work he’s done with Kar-Wai as it’s definitely one of the film’s technical highlights.
Another Kar-Wai collaborator in William Chang does a lot of excellent work to the film’s art direction, costume design, and editing. The look of the homes and places that the characters encounter have a decayed film with the exception of the home of Feng’s former lover that is grand yet intimate. The costume design is also exquisite with the ragged robes the men wear and the gorgeous ones that Maggie Cheung wears for her character. In the editing, Chang along with Patrick Tam and Kit-Wai Kai bring a fluid yet mesmerizing editing style that is filled with shimmering speeds for some of the film’s action and dramatic scenes that is a trademark of Kar-Wai’s work. Even as its stylized approach help move the action scenes while the film does a lag a bit in a few places, notably in the first act.
Sound designer Robert MacKenzie and sound editor Nopawat Likitwong do some very good with the film’s sound in creating collages for some of the dramatic action scenes or something intense in more intimate fight scenes. The music of Frankie Chan and Roel A. Garcia (with additional music and re-arrangements by Wu Tong in the Redux version) is wonderful for its bombastic pieces for some of the film’s action scenes along with more soothing pieces that includes some cello solos from Yo-Yo Ma (in the Redux version) for the closing pieces of the film.
The cast is definitely phenomenal with a small appearance from Li Bai as Hong Quiong’s wife along with Maggie Cheung in a small but pivotal appearance as Feng’s ex-love as she brings a radiance that isn’t seen much on film. Carina Lau is very good as the wife of the blind swordsman who becomes the object of affection for Yaoshi. Brigitte Lin is excellent in the role of Murong, a woman disguised as a master swordsman who is intent on seeking war against her sister’s lover. Jacky Cheung is great as Hong Quiong, a master swordsman with simple ideals as his encounter with a young woman makes him re-think about the ways of being a bounty hunter.
Charlie Yeung is wonderful as the young woman who tries to make an offer to Feng with just a basket full of eggs and a mule as she ends up playing a major role in affecting the lives of the bounty hunters. Tony Leung Ka-Fai is brilliant as Yaoshi, a bounty hunter who meets Feng yearly as he is dealing with own issues while losing his memory as he carries a secret that would later impact Feng. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is superb as the blind swordsman who is dealing with his sudden blindness as well as the appearance of the young woman who asks for help.
Finally, there’s the late Leslie Cheung as Ouyang Feng. A middleman between the bounty hunters and its customers who is trying to deal with regrets and other issues while maintain his role as an outsider. Cheung’s performance is definitely marvelous to watch as a man who is filled with snide cynicism about the ways of the world as he tries to hide his own past. Even in the way he’s restrained throughout while showing that he can be a badass in the few fight scenes he has. It’s definitely one of Cheung’s finest roles of his great career.
(Note: The Following 3 Paragraphs is a compare/contrast about the original Ashes of Time and its Redux version)
In the original Ashes of Time, the film opens with a intense, fast-paced battle scene where Feng fights a bunch of bandits in an epic, sprawling battle that is meant to introduce him. That sequence is cut from the Redux version along with details about Yaoshi that is spoken though the subtitles are improved in the Redux. Also cut are little details and introduction as the material is added in the Redux are the breaks for the seasons as well as additional scenes that are essentially second unit shots of water and skies.
Since the original version (that can be found online) is in such bad condition, the cinematography is brighter and much rougher while the pacing in the original is a bit more ragged where it lags the story more than in the Redux. Other things that the Redux does in order to bring a better visual feel to the film are the visual effects. The BUF visual effects team add a few things to the film including a scene of flies flying up from a lake.
Another major sequence that is cut from the original is another battle scene at the end of the film involving Feng, Murong, Hong Quong, and Yaoshi that is as intense and stylized. It’s understandable why Kar-Wai cut some of the sequences not only to improve the pacing of the film but also clarify things in the story. Another notable thing that is prevalent in the original that was forced to be re-done for the Redux version is the score by Frankie Chan and Roel A. Garcia that is more dramatic in the original. While the score in the original is slightly better than the one in the Redux, the Redux version is a better film in terms of visuals and in storytelling despite the plot’s complexity.
The 2009 Region 1 DVD from Sony Pictures Classics presents Ashes of Time Redux in its theatrical anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio of 1:78:1 with Dolby Digital for Cantonese and 5.1 for French with English subtitles. Among the special features that appears in the DVD is a 42-minute Q&A with Wong Kar-Wai held by The Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman. The interview has Kar-Wai talk about the production and why it took five years to restore, re-cut, and re-do Ashes of Time.
Kar-Wai revealed that because of the economic crisis in Asia in the late 1990s, the warehouse that stored all of the negative prints of his films and many others were to be destroyed. Kar-Wai managed to save his films as did many others where he found that the negative of Ashes of Time was in very bad shape. Thanks to copies that circulated in France and other places, Kar-Wai and his team were able to do work on the restoration which proved to be tough. Even as he told Hoberman about having to make some changes in order to improve things though he knew that not everyone would like it though the original version of the film remains in bad shape. Even as they had to remix and re-do some sound and dialogue (some of which proved to be very difficult due to Leslie Cheung’s suicide in 2003).
Kar-Wai also talked about his collaboration with William Chang and Christopher Doyle. The latter of which, he reveals about Doyle’s personality and how he takes his work seriously as a cinematographer. Even as they often have clashes, notably in In the Mood for Love as Kar-Wai didn’t want hand-held and Doyle did. Kar-Wai also talks about his approach to writing as he does write screenplays but he only uses it as a guide into what he wants since he finds the film when shooting.
The 14-minute Born From Ashes: The Making of Ashes of Time Redux is a special that features rare behind-the-scenes footage of the making of the original film. Featuring interviews with Wong Kar-Wai, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Charlie Yeung, Carina Lau, Sammo Hung, and Christopher Doyle. The actors talked about making the film and revealed how difficult it was in just shooting there while Hung talked about how Kar-Wai was able to do something different from the typical martial arts films that were being made at the time. Even as everyone (with the exception of Hung) is interviewed at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival where they’re promoting Ashes of Time Redux as they talked about how great it is to have the film finally come out at Cannes to an audience that wants to see it.
The trailer for Ashes of Time Redux appears in the DVD along with trailers for films like Synecdoche, New York, Rachel Getting Married, Adoration, Kung Fu Hustle, and Waltz with Bashir. It’s definitely a DVD that fans of Kar-Wai must have in their collection.
Ashes of Time/Ashes of Time Redux is an excellent yet spectacular film from Wong Kar-Wai featuring a great ensemble led by the late Leslie Cheung. Fans of Kar-Wai will no doubt want to see this though they will probably be dismayed by the changes Kar-Wai made for this new version. Audiences new to Kar-Wai should see other films like In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express before seeing this one. Notably the Redux version which is more preferred due to its remastered look and a clearer plot. In the end, Ashes of Time/Ashes of Time Redux is a marvelous yet stylish film from Wong Kar-Wai and company.
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