Ashes of Time Redux Review
Memory is a funny thing. The last time I watched Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time was about ten years ago and my memory of it is as a beautiful and moody but rather confusing martial arts action adventure full of cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s unusual angles and motion manipulations. I’m not about to go back and check my old HK VCD copy of the film to compare (no, not even a DVD and considering the quality of previous editions out there, not one I ever felt pressed to upgrade), but in retrospect, particularly after films like Fallen Angels and 2046 whose melancholic tone it matches perfectly, Ashes of Time now seems to make much more sense, not be quite so complex and seems to fit much more comfortably into the Wong Kar-wai canon than you would think a martial arts epic really should.
There are very good reasons for this – most obviously is the fact that this is a Redux version of the film, the director Wong Kar-wai going back and reworking the film, partly though necessity since the original negatives and soundtrack were in such a bad condition, but also to correct aspects of the structure and characterisation that he was never entirely satisfied with at the time. Based on a three-volume epic martial arts work The Eagle Shooting Heroes by Louis Cha, not only is the narrative scope of the story rather involved with its huge cast of characters, but it’s even more complex on an emotional level. By rearranging events, and more explicitly restructuring the film into more meaningful time divisions, Ashes of Time does indeed succeed in making the true purpose of the film a little more clear and easier to follow without significantly altering the intent or, more importantly, the mood of the film.
But that could just be my memory playing tricks on me, since almost certainly the person I am viewing the film now isn’t the person who viewed it ten years ago, and even more significantly, the director reworking Ashes of Time isn’t the same person who made it back in 1994. Such an approach to recutting a film is almost always going to be questionable, but in the case of Ashes of Time Redux there’s perhaps a greater validity to the director tampering of time and rearranging of events, since memory, the passage of time, reflection on the mistakes of the past and searching for new beginnings are exactly what the film is all about.
Perhaps then I’m also mistaken in the belief that Ashes of Time has been simplified in its new Redux version, since anyone viewing it for the first time is likely to find that it is almost impossible to unravel the complex levels of characterisation and emotions that are presented with in the opening storyline (I was still finding new aspects and emotional depths after a third viewing of this new version), specifically those of the conflicted Princess of the Murong (Brigitte Lin), a woman haunted by the memory of Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), a passing swordsman through her kingdom who she believes was sincere in his love for her. Unfortunately, he loved another, Peach Blossom (Carina Lau) and regrettably she was the wife of a Blind Swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), so, in an attempt to undo the wrong he has done, Huang Yaoshi has taken a wine of forgetfulness and can no longer remember the past. He has however left a lot of wounded souls in his wake, and several of them gather in procession at the hut of Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), a swordsman for hire who has retreated to the desert to forget the woman he loved (Maggie Cheung) who is now his brother’s wife.
That’s an awful lot of pain and regret to cover within just the first part of the film – and there are more troubled souls who appear later - but the characters don’t even suffer in isolation, rather their memories of loss and suffering resonate with each others, nourishing it, deepening it. Such, for example is the deeply conflicted nature of the Princess of Murong who, unable to reconcile her love for Huang Yaoshi with her hatred for him, has split her nature into two distinct personalities, male and female, called Murong Yang and Murong Yin, one seeking to regain his love, the other wanting to kill him. This conflict of love and regret is a characteristic we’ve seen in damaged characters in later Wong Kar-wai films (notably in the change Tony Leung’s character undergoes between In The Mood For Love and 2046), but never so ambitiously as it is achieved here. Here it’s not just one person, or even two people in conflict with each other but, in one remarkable bed scene – initially likely to be very confusing for the first-time viewer – there are no less than four people involved, their faces changing in relation to their desire and the memory of touch, five if you count the Princess of Murong’s split personality, and seven if you include Carina Lau and Tony Leung’s characters since they are also implicated in their affairs, even if they are not shown.
Astonishingly ambitious though this scene is alone, Wong Kar-wai finds additional means of expressing these complex layers and relationships through the eternal landscapes, the changing seasons and the extreme climatic conditions of the desert, through music, through colour, light and shade and through movement, but he also deepens the complexity of these emotions with the passage of time, slowing it down or speeding it up as appropriate. Allowing this story to fall into the past, it then becomes a memory that resonates with the later stories, with Charlie Young’s peasant girl looking backwards for vengeance on a militia troupe and with Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung) seeking to rush forward, break away from the past and seek a new beginning. Their pasts define who each of them are, determines their actions and their fates, and time plays its part, deepening wounds, slowing reflexes, weakening the body and the mind, driving men and women to commit foolish acts for the sake of events and feelings in the past that they can no longer meaningfully relate to or return to.
This is probably not the kind of storyline, treatment or theme that you would expect from a traditional martial arts film, but it’s everything you expect from a Wong Kar-wai film. The action aspects of the film are certainly not neglected – with legendary martial arts choreographer Sammo Hung on board this is more than adequately taken care of – but its purpose now appears better defined and integrated into the film, the drive into hordes of warriors, the anger of each sword stroke and the flow of blood matching the melancholic mood and race to self-destruction of its characters and their attempt to erase the mistakes of their past. Whether the rescored soundtrack adds or takes away from one’s memory of the original is a personal matter for each viewer, whether the Redux reordering of events and rebuilding of the structure improves the film is also debatable. Is it justifiable for the director to use the experience and maturity that he has now to look back and correct the mistakes of the past in a way that is denied to his characters? In the context of Ashes of Time those changes are necessary and justifiable, since in the case of Wong Kar-wai (and surely for other directors too) none of his films remain forever frozen in time, but gain resonance and deeper meaning with each subsequent film. Such is the nature of time and memory – the very subjects of this film – that should he not have changed a single frame of Ashes of Time, it still would no longer be the same film it was 15 years ago when it was just a film by the director of As Tears Go By and Days of Being Wild, but would become a film by the director of In The Mood For Love and 2046. Ashes of Time Redux is certainly that.
Ashes of Time Redux is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. It’s available as part of The Wong Kar-wai Collection, a 3-disc set which also includes new restored versions of Chungking Express and Happy Together, but is also available separately and on Blu-ray. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format. The disc is region-free.
In the extra features, director Wong Kar-wai explains the problems with the condition of the original elements that necessitated the recutting and restoration of the film. Even without taking that into consideration, Ashes of Time probably looks better than it ever has, and it’s an understatement to say that it looks better than any previous DVD edition. In fact, it looks phenomenal. The quality however is variable – there are faint hints of damage that has been very well restored and a certain amount of grain evident – but even here in most cases, the grain is inherent within the original film stock used and the conditions under which the film was shot in the desert and on a limited budget. The colouration of the film is deep and rich, and the black tones are strong and reasonably detailed with only an occasional area of shadow detail flattening out into low-level noise. Sepia tones are also employed – I can’t recall if this is a new tint that has been applied to mask flaws, but it suits the mood and tone of the film. The transfer is anamorphic and progressively encoded, the image flowing smoothly with only minor fluctuations or flickering. Curiously, the aspect ratio of the film varies from shot to shot between 1.78:1 and 1.85:1. Other than the fact that there is a Blu-ray edition of the film also available from Artificial Eye, this is as good as you could have ever hoped the film might one-day look on DVD.
Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 options are provided. The damage to the original soundtrack was even more extensive than the problems with the negative image, so in both cases the soundtrack has been restored and remixed. There are however few noticeable problems here, with only the occasional line of dialogue sounding slightly duller than others. In most cases the dialogue is strong and clear and sound effects have adequate impact. The new music score is perhaps a more controversial aspect of the Redux version, the director taking an artistic decision to rescore Frankie Chan’s synth track with an orchestral arrangement with Yo-yo Ma as soloist. The merits of this are debatable, but it does give the film a more stately, timeless quality. Regardless of this, the music score has a wonderful tone and comes across clearly and effectively.
English subtitles are included in a clear white font and are optional.
There would appear to be a substantial number of extra features, but the majority are drawn from individual Cast and Crew interviews from the launch of the Redux at Cannes 2008. Christopher Doyle (16:45) talks about his working relationship with Wong Kar-wai, the challenges of filming in the desert and the challenges of pushing cinematography to be more than just representational. Tony Leung (8:35) recounts how Wong Kar-wai presented him with nothing more than a copy of the song ‘Private Investigations’ by Dire Straits as a means of defining his character, and the unusual personal and professional relationship he has with the director. Charlie Young (9:44) talks about her being as a young student on her first movie, and the important experience gained. Carina Lau (4:13) likewise covers how she came to work with Wong, first on Days of Being Wild and how he pushes his actors to explore new areas.
There are two Interviews with Wong Kar-wai The first (5:10) covers the need to revisit and restore the film, the second (18:13) looks in more detail at the making of the film itself, from the original source materials and his approach to them as a fan of martial arts serials, to the technical difficulties encountered in the filming and editing of the film. He explains his reasoning for removing and reordering scenes, for the look and grain of the film and for the new music score.
The Making Of Ashes of Time (14:05) is an EPK summary made up of snippets from each of the above mentioned interviews with the addition of Sammo Hung and some clips of reshooting linking sections with the director providing some narration. The Trailer (2:07) is also included and looks awesome, capturing the sense of action, drama and mood of the film.
Made in 1994 and reworked in 2008, Ashes of Time Redux proves to be closer in spirit to the later works of Wong Kar-wai than its martial arts epic origins and setting would suggest. This could be down to the director’s decision to tamper with the original elements, but it’s more likely that the film has matured wonderfully with the passing of time into the gem it always promised to be. A further reason for the film’s qualities being more evident now is that there simply hasn’t been a decent print of the film available or an even a DVD that was in any way watchable. That has certainly been corrected with this stunning DVD from Artificial Eye, who have also made it available on Blu-ray.