Ashes of Time Review

Exactly a year ago today, Michael Brooke uploaded his first reviews for DVD Times, one of which was of a disc that he dubbed the worst he’d ever seen. So to mark this anniversary, he’s reviewed the same film on a different DVD – but is the Region 0 Mei Ah version of Ashes of Time an improvement?

Ashes of Time stands out for two reasons: it’s a rare example of a highly individual film-maker being given a huge budget, major stars, a two-year shooting schedule and unlimited creative freedom to make what he wants, no matter how strange (similar examples would include Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line) – and it’s also one of those oddities that occurs in the output of many major artists, a work so genuinely and unprecedentedly original that it’s initially greeted with utter bafflement by most of its target audience (it flopped at the Hong Kong box office and was barely released abroad – indeed, it’s the only Wong Kar-Wai film not to enter British distribution in any form), and which only starts to make sense in the light of repeated viewings and familiar with its creator’s later work – parallels here include Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Véronique.

Four screenings on, I’m still not going to pretend that I’ve fully grasped Ashes of Time, but it’s certainly clearer than it was first time round. The crucial point to bear in mind is that, like Wong’s later Fallen Angels and In the Mood for Love, the ‘story’, such as it is, largely happens offscreen: we’re shown epiphanic moments in the lives of the central characters and told their emotional states at the time of the events in question, but we’re usually not given any kind of temporal or geographical context in which to place this information: there are so many flashbacks and flashforwards that it’s hard to work out which is which.

This isn’t a particularly unusual technique in Western art movies, but it’s highly disorienting (not to mention disconcerting) for what is nominally a big-budget martial arts movie featuring major stars and based on a popular novel. As another critic pointed out, it owes as much to Last Year in Marienbad as it does to Seven Samurai – and anyone hoping to make sense of Ashes of Time is going to have to bear the former as much in mind as the latter.

Based on Jin Yong’s classic (and much-filmed) novel The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, the film largely focuses (if that’s the right word here!) on two swordsmen: Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) and Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Kar-Fai). Like just about every protagonist of a Wong Kar-Wai film, they’re haunted by their respective pasts, but come to terms with their memories in very different ways: Ouyang Feng (nicknamed ‘Malicious West’) sets up a hotel-cum-bar in which he acts as an agent for would-be swordsmen. Huang Yaoshi (nicknamed ‘Evil East’) spends much of his time there, drinking a wine of mysterious origin called ‘A Happy-Go-Lucky Life’, which ultimately ends up quite literally wiping his memories.

The characters who come across them are similar ciphers: brother and sister Murong Yin and Murong Yang (both played by the androgynous Brigitte Lin, who played a similar role in Swordsman II), who may or may not be two sides of the same personality, an unnamed swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), who is going both literally and metaphorically blind, young hothead Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung) pursuing a vendetta against a gang of horse thieves, and the great love of Ouyang’s life (Maggie Cheung), whom he abandoned in favour of life as a wandering swordsman, and who is in turn loved by Huang.

This description is misleadingly coherent, though, because the film itself is anything but. There’s very little spoken dialogue: what we hear is mostly voice-over from characters with an almost pathological inability to communicate with each other. And while there are plenty of swordplay scenes (choreographed by the great Samo Hung), they’re shot so elliptically that it’s often very hard to make out exactly what’s going on: Wong and his virtuoso cinematographer Christopher Doyle use every trick in the book to turn the action sequences into something rather closer to action painting: weirdly hypnotic studies in abstract movement, colours, shapes.

It’s easy to see how many audiences would be – and have been! – repelled by a film so determinedly off-kilter, but I love Ashes of Time in the same way that I love Wong’s later Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love: these are films to immerse yourself in, to let their extraordinary images invade your dreams. Wong has an incredibly rare ability (the late Krzysztof Kieslowski had it too, but not many others) to capture pure emotional states on film, and get away with using them as a substitute for conventional narrative. If he doesn’t quite pull it off in Ashes of Time, that’s probably because the film is a little too ambitious for what was only his third feature: his later, smaller-scale works attempt something similar with rather greater success.

But the more I watch his later films, the more it becomes clearer what he was trying to do here – and the ambition alone is thrilling in itself, even when the film is at its most tantalisingly opaque. I mentioned The Thin Red Line at the beginning of this review, and although the films are very different in terms of setting and subject-matter, they have plenty in common in terms of treatment: both Malick and Wong take major stars and let them be practically upstaged by details most film-makers would ignore or play down, particularly landscapes and natural elements. And both films improve enormously with repeated viewings, which they arguably both need and indeed demand in order to give them a fair hearing.

Whether you think it’s a genuinely groundbreaking masterpiece, or a pretentious, barely coherent mishmash, Ashes of Time demands to be seen, if for no other reason than it’s a rarely-shown early film by a man who, on the evidence of the sublime In the Mood for Love now has to be counted a world-class talent. And coming from an industry more noted for clones and rip-offs even than Hollywood, it’s that ultra rare thing: a complete and probably unrepeatable one-off.

At the time of writing (December 2001), there are two DVD editions of Ashes of Time, so here’s the rundown on each. Note that the ratings apply to the Mei Ah disc – the World Video one frankly isn’t worth rating!

World Video

World Video’s version of Ashes of Time is, quite bluntly, one of the worst DVDs I have ever seen. And this isn’t a knee-jerk reaction – I reached that conclusion six months before writing this and stand by it literally hundreds of DVDs later. The picture quality is no better than VHS – indeed, I’ve seen a better VHS copy! – and the original print was nothing to write home about: it’s riddled with scratches and splices. The sound is bog-standard mono, and somewhat muffled at that – but this is as nothing to what the distributors have done to a film so heavily reliant on its visual impact.

Appearances are deceptive: this initially looks like a 1.85:1 image with electronic subtitles being presented in the black bar that makes up part of the letterboxing. This would have been fine – but, sadly, it’s nothing of the kind. The image has been cropped from its original 1.85:1 to 4:3 and then cropped again at the bottom by the subtitle bar, which takes up around 25% of the picture. The results are truly hideous – close-ups of faces frequently have the mouth cropped off – and with many important scenes it’s often very hard to make out what’s going on (and with this particular film that doesn’t help!)

Why on earth did World Video do this? Well, the answer can occasionally be seen peeping out of the top of the subtitle bar – they worked from an original Hong Kong print with Chinese and English subtitles, and decided to remove the Chinese subtitles and make the English ones clearer (they’re certainly more readable, but they’ve retained most of the original’s mistakes: “If I don’t return at sunset, take a massage to someone for me”). But if given a straight choice between keeping the Chinese subtitles and losing a quarter of what’s left of the picture even after cropping it to 4:3, there’s no question which option I’d go for. And it’s an option we’re not given, because the subtitles can’t be switched off.

There are just five chapter stops, though as one is at the start of the film and another gives you the end credits that effectively reduces them to three. For what it’s worth, there’s a choice between a Cantonese or Mandarin soundtrack, though anyone who speaks either language will be even less forgiving of the way the picture has been cropped to fit the subtitles.

Extras are restricted to a couple of trailers for Ashes of Time and Bodyguard from Beijing (the DVD of which has apparently received similar treatment and should also be avoided). To add insult to injury, the trailer is letterboxed, letting us see a selection of the film’s most ravishing images as they should be seen, and giving us some idea of what we’re missing from the main feature. To be honest, the trailer is the only thing on the DVD really worth watching – making it seem a bit expensive for less than one-and-a-half minutes of worthwhile footage! And to add insult to injury, it’s actually more expensive than the Mei Ah version – but please don’t be fooled!

Mei Ah

Although I have plenty of reservations about Mei Ah’s version of the film, it’s so much better than World Video’s that there’s no contest whatsoever. Its major selling point is that it does at least allow you to appreciate the film as Wong and Doyle shot it, being framed in the correct 1.85:1 aspect ratio (and though it’s non-anamorphic and the subtitles are compulsory, the picture is at least 16:9-friendly).

So it’s comfortably the best DVD of Ashes of Time you can get at the moment – but that still doesn’t mean it’s up to much. The print is in amazingly poor condition for a film that’s only six years old at the time of writing (and this DVD is no spring chicken: it’s been out for years) – there’s barely a frame that isn’t marked by spots and scratches, and while I’m well aware that Hong Kong studios are less good at preserving films than their counterparts in the West, I’ve still seen conspicuously better prints of much older HK films. And the transfer is never more than competent, and often not even that – I can excuse the graininess, because that was very much a characteristic of the original 35mm version, but there’s plenty of artefacting as well, which wasn’t.

The sound is mono, and pretty basic mono at that – it’s never painful to listen to, and it’s a definite improvement over the overly fuzzy World Video soundtrack, but otherwise this is no-frills with a vengeance: music and dialogue are clear enough, but that’s about the most I can claim for it. And there are no extras whatsoever – in fact, there isn’t even a menu! However, there are seventeen chapter stops, which is a vast improvement on World Video’s measly five, and makes it easy to skip to my favourite scenes (and this is very much a film of favourite scenes).

All in all, though, this is a huge leap forward from the ghastly World Video edition, in that it is at least possible to appreciate Ashes of Time without experiencing mental and aesthetic torture. It’s not a great DVD in itself, but it does at least present the film as Wong Kar-Wai shot it – and that’s one hell of a lot better than nothing. But there’s plenty of scope for improvement if any other distributor wants to have a go.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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