AKA: Dung che sai duk redux; The Heretic East and the Venomous West
Review By: David Austin
[Confession time: I’ve never seen the original version of Ashes of Time – I gave up following a failed attempt years ago to watch a DVD of it that easily ranks among the most appallingly discs ever created. Consequently, I cannot speak to the differences between the two versions.]
Ashes of Time is an almost purely sensual experience. The film is about colors, and light, and the eyes, faces and skin of some of the most beautiful (and most talented) actors and actresses that Hong Kong has to offer. The soul of the film lies neither in its plot or its dialogue, but rather in the deep textured oranges and blues and greens with which Wong and famed cinematographer Chris Doyle lens the deserts of western China. Wong constantly cuts away from the story to focus on the landscape, making it as essential a character as any of the protagonists. Surprisingly few films truly capture the physical majesty of China. I once took an 18 hour train ride through China and was stunned by the immensity and variety of the landscapes outside the cramped urban centers. Wong and Doyle capture this feeling of vastness.
This is not to suggest that the human players are short-changed. Wong pays as much attention to how he shoots the cast as he does to the backdrop. Consider the artistry of a lengthy shot of Brigitte Lin standing before a slowly rotating birdcage, the shadows flickering across her face. We are clearly in the hands of the same sensualist who years later would helm In the Mood for Love, with its restrained fetishizing of smoke and rain and gorgeous cheongsam dresses.
Significantly, those pleasures are not those of a typical wu xia film – the closest thing to what Wong achieves here are the austere masterpieces of King Hu like A Touch of Zen or Raining in the Mountain, or the heavily stylized wu xia thrillers of Chu Yuan, particularly the lush and romantic Sentimental Swordsman series. Battle and violence are de-emphasized, aside from a few set pieces filmed in a deliberately enigmatic fashion. Wong, both implicitly in his work and explicitly in interviews on the subject included in this release, has staked out his position that wu xia films are about a philosophy – encompassing the chivalric code of the martial artist - and that the martial arts themselves are merely a means to an end. According to Wong, “there’s no point in making a film about guys, 500 years ago, fighting each other.”
That is where Wong Kar-wai and I differ. For me, the fundamental pleasures of a kung fu or wu xia film lie in the aestheticized violence and the outrageous displays of athleticism and physical prowess – the intricate choreography and rhythms achieved via the Peking Opera gymnastics of Kuo Chui and Lu Feng of the Five Venoms and Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung of the Seven Little Fortunes, or the brutal precision of a Gordon Liu or Chen Kuan-Tai. I can respect that Wong has no interest in making such a film and I also appreciate the philosophic aspects of the genre, which certainly enhance the best of the martial arts films, but to dismiss those aspects of the genre entirely indicates to me not that Wong wants to subvert the martial arts film or to create something truly original within the genre but rather that he is fundamentally disinterested in the subject. Wong does not work with the conventions of the wu xia – he sidesteps them almost entirely.
Needless to say, this makes Wong an odd choice to helm the big-budget, star-studded Ashes of Time, based (very, very loosely; perhaps “inspired by” would be a better descriptor) on Louis Cha’s The Legend of the Condor Heroes. It is best, I think, to view Ashes of Time more as a Wong Kar-wai film that happens to be set in a wu xia world, rather than a wu xia film that happens to have been shot by Wong Kar-wai. Ashes embodies all of Wong’s signature themes, the importance of moments and memory, yearning, loss, self-denial and self-destruction, and regret. The film is as elliptical as Wong’s cryptic 2046 – similarly dependent on extrinsic texts for full understanding and appreciation.
The actual story of the film is set in the interstices and prologues of Cha’s novel – how the characters got to where they are. Wong frames the story through Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), a loner living in the desert and working as a go-between for swordsmen and those who need their services. Through this device, Wong tells the stories of Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-fai), Ouyang Feng’s friend; the gender-ambiguous Murong Yin and Yang (Brigitte Lin); a blind swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and his lover Peach Blossom (Carina Lau); and Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung), an up-and-coming swordsman who eventually becomes the King of the Beggars. At the same time, the story is grounded by Leslie Cheung’s low-key performance as Ouyang Feng, one of the antagonists of the original novel, and Feng’s reminiscences over his former lover (played by Maggie Cheung), who married his brother out of spite.
Unfortunately, I lack the necessary grounding to fully appreciate the significance of these characters, as the source materials have yet to be properly translated into English and my Chinese is close to non-existent. The Louis Cha novels I have read provide some basis for thematic understanding, but I am not familiar with Ouyang Feng, Huang Yaoshi, Hong Qi and the other characters whose inner lives and backstories are fleshed out in Ashes of Time. As someone without prior knowledge of the characters, I found the snippets of story followed by hastily details of their future careers somewhat disconcerting.
That said, Ashes of Time is undeniably an achievement. Wong had access to a murderers’ row of HK talent for Ashes of Time, both behind and in front of the camera. In addition to his usual team of screenwriter William Chang and cinematographer Doyle, Wong got Sammo Hung, now the grand old man of HK action cinema, to do the action choreography and, in the new version, Yo Yo Ma to perform for the soundtrack, supplementing the original Frankie Chan score. The cast, on the other hand, includes Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Carina Lau, Jacky Cheung and Maggie Cheung, all at the height of their game when Ashes of Time was filmed back in the early nineties.
Recommended? Yes, those interested in Wong Kar-wai, wu xia films, or simply looking for some of the greatest visuals ever committed to film should consider Ashes of Time essential viewing.*
*One small point that is nagging me: There is a scene in Ashes of Time where a character is killed by a sword blow to the neck. As his blood flows it, it makes a sighing sound, causing the character to reflect that he had always heard of such a blow but never expected to hear it fro the first time from his own neck. This is taken almost word for word from a scene in the second Lone Wolf and Cub film, which in turn took it from the manga which was its source material. The Lone Wolf comics (and films) date back to the early ’70s, the Louis Cha source material dates back to 1957, so it is certainly possible that the scene was taken from the original novel, but I somehow doubt it. If anyone can shed some light on who first came up with this nifty concept, I would be curious to know.
If you like this, you might like: Swordsman 1-3, A Touch of Zen, The Magic Blade, 2046, The Blade, The Bride with White Hair
DVD Production Company: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Ashes of Time is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, in a colorful, clean new anamorphic widescreen print. Extras are limited but interesting, including a trailer, and two featurettes that provide background to the film and the restoration/revamp.
The first featurette, a 12-minute “Making of” entitled Born from the Ashes, is by far the less interesting. It does not cover the actual restoration or recreation process at all, aside from some footage of Wong, Yo Yo Ma and Frankie Chan working on the score. The short film also includes brief recent interview segments with Wong, Doyle, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Carina Lau, Yo Yo Ma, Sammo Hung and Charlie Yeung. Wong does discuss the changes in the Redux version a little, pointing out how he emphasized the seasonal structure of the movie.
More remarkable is the 42 minute Q&A between Wong and critic J. Hoberman of The Village Voice. You can safely skip the first 6 minutes, which consist entirely of Hoberman showering effusive praise on Wong, but once Wong opens his mouth, things get more interesting. Wong discusses the motives and necessity behind revisiting the film as well as the process (and if you never thought you’d hear Wong Kar-wai make a Raiders of the Lost Ark reference, now is your chance). Wong also discusses his scriptwriting methods and how they meshed with what so far has been his only directorial feature using characters taken or adapted from another’s work. Other topics include the difficulties of working in the desert (including which actor insisted on driving the entire way instead of flying and which refused to leave Hong Kong for the shoot at all), his collaborative process with Doyle, and the genesis of Brigitte Lin’s conflicted character. It is certainly worth a spin.
© David Austin
Filed under: Movie Reviews and Movie Reviews: Hong Kong and DVD Reviews and DVD Reviews: Hong Kong and Rating: Good ★★★ and People: Brigitte Lin and People: Maggie Cheung and People: Tony Leung Chiu-wai and People: Tony Leung Ka-Fai and People: Wong Kar-wai and People: Leslie Cheung