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Ashes of Time Redux
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by Jay Seaver

"A shorter, but perhaps improved version."
4 stars

I saw and reviewed "Ashes of Time" three and a half years ago, when it played as part of a series of director Wong Kar-wai's films at the Brattle Theatre. I was not particularly impressed at the time, in part because I approached it as a wuxia film first and as a WKW mood piece second, and in part because there apparently hasn't been a decent print to be found for years. Watching "Ashes of Time Redux" isn't quite like seeing a whole new movie, but it was certainly a new and better experience. How much of that is due to the new cut, how much is due to the restoration, and how much is me approaching it with a different attitude is an open question.

The film takes place in and around a tavern run by Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), a once-great warrior who now mainly connects swordsmen with those who have a use for them. As the film starts, it is springtime, time for the annual visit of Huang Yaoshi (Tony Lenug Ka Fai), and old friend who brings with him a gift - a bottle of magical wine that it is said can erase memories. Feng opts not to sip from it, but Huang does, leaving Feng to deal with Murong Yang and Murong Yin (Brigitte Lin), siblings at conflict over their past encounters with Feng. As the seasons pass, others come - a swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) who fears he will lose his sight before he sees the peach blossoms of his hometown again; Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung), a barefoot would-be hero; and a girl (Charlie Yeung) who wishes to avenge her brother's death but who has only a mule and some eggs to pay with. We also learn Feng's own sad story, which led him to isolate himself from the world this way - it is, of course, about a woman (Maggie Cheung).

Those looking for action will probably come away somewhat disappointed, even more so than I was when I saw the original 1994 cut. What we see is pretty good - it is choreographed by Sammo Hung, after all, with his trademark hard-hitting style. This isn't the lighter-than-air gliding of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but close-in lethal swordplay, with plenty of blood spilled and limbs severed. We do see glimpses of more fantastical combat, where a swing of the sword can shatter mountains or cause explosions, but one of the primary big differences between the two versions - likely much of the reason why the 2008 "Redux" cut is seven minutes shorter - is that two early fight scenes are cut.

The film does not particularly suffer for their absence, but the greatest improvement to the flow of the movie is perhaps much simpler - Wong has added in chapter titles to indicate the passage of the seasons. Even though they don't always indicate a clean break between storylines, they (and the changing narrators) give the movie the feel of an anthology of individual but connected stories, rather than a single messy narrative with too many characters to keep track of entering and exiting. It's still all about Feng, but it is now presented in such a way that the movie guides us toward him, rather than away.

Leslie Cheung gives a performance worth being guided toward, showing (as he often does) a man locking his feelings away, indeed, mocking those who dare to feel. There's a knowing cruelty to Feng, with regret buried very deep underneath. The man hiding his broken heart is the sort of thing Cheung did very well, and it's complimented nicely by Maggie Cheung's brief but memorable appearance as the one who got away. The rest of the cast is similarly fine, most notably Brigitte Lin.

The restoration certainly makes a major difference in the look of the film. Christopher Doyle's cinematography is much more clear and sharp than it was in previous prints, with the desert looking vast and beautiful. Indeed, there's an argument to be made that the movie now looks too pretty - the colors are brighter and bolder than they were in the original release, a closer match to the expensive, glossy wuxia films that would appear after Ashes of Time's original release. It almost looks like digital video at times - not bad, but almost unnaturally sharp.

That's perhaps not a perfect match for the story, which is less the usual tale of honor and duty than a meditation of ephemerality of life and memory, and how love can slip away with time. For me, it tells the story better; at the very least, it looks better than it has in some time.

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originally posted: 11/03/08 15:14:30
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/03/08 Otis Maness Thsi movie is as dead as I am. Cold and dead! 4 stars
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  10-Oct-2008 (R)
  DVD: 03-Mar-2009


  DVD: 03-Mar-2009

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