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Ashes Of Time Redux  [DVD]
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Director Wong Kar-Wai revisits his lavish 1994 martial arts action film 'Ashes of Time' with this restored and expanded version. Broken-hearted hit man Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) moves to the desert after being jilted by the woman he loved. His experiences have left him pitiless and cynical, and he spends his time hiring skilled swordsmen to carry out his contract killings - but as time passes he starts to question his solitary existence and develop tentative relationships with the people around him.
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Set against these difficulties however are (1) the extraordinary and beautiful cinematography of the incomparable Christopher Doyle and (2) the extended soliloquy on the transience of human life by Maggie Cheung in the movie's second half. These elements alone make the film unmissable. Wong Kar-Wai is a filmmaker of genius and anything by him is worth seeing. Here he is being (deliberately?) obscure but the film is good even given its difficulties.
Ashes Of Time also presents Wong at his most elliptical, narrative-wise. At (or close to) the centre of the film is Leslie Cheung's 'middleman' Ouyang Feng, an apparently unscrupulous hirer of passing master swordsmen to anyone seeking vengeance, whether it be against gangs of marauding bandits or simply a traitorous lover or spouse. Wong's parable-like narrative is rendered all the more enigmatic by his trademark sharp cutting and editing style, his (at times) only partially explained character motivations and (to cap it all) by his use of the androgynous-looking Bridget Lin playing the brother/sister pairing, Murong Yang/Murong Yin, the sister having been previously spurned by visiting swordsman Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-fai).
Stylistically, Wong's film is (as is his wont) stunning to look at. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle's use of saturated colours is even more exaggerated here than in pretty much anything Doyle has done for Wong up to the director's 2046, with memorable desert shots (including an amazing sequence of a gang of bandits on horseback emerging towards the camera over a yellow desert horizon) and exquisite peach blossoms. Similarly, Doyle has captured some spectacularly shot and edited sword fight scenes (including some special and slow-motion effects), which could (I guess) have been part-inspiration for the spate of such martial arts films in the late 1990s/2000s.
However, for me, as with all Wong films, it is not (principally) the visual impact of Ashes Of Time that leaves the most lasting impression, but the way Wong portrays his characters emoting. Whilst this is less pronounced here than in his masterpieces Chungking Express and In The Mood For Love, both Leung and Lin are very good in some of the early sequences, whilst Maggie Cheung is (again) exquisite as Feng's long lost love (and now sister-in-law).
Not absolutely top-notch Wong, therefore, but well worth seeing and a film whose impact grows with each repeat viewing.
The film takes place on the edge of a vast desert, where assassin Ou-yang Feng (Leslie Chueng) has come to seek solace and solitude from the mistakes of his past. Whilst here, he is visited by a variety of characters, the presence of each of them making him reflect on various aspects of his past, and the weight of the love he lost. This probably does not sound like much of a plot to those cine-files raised on a steady diet of Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower (and before anyone gets angry, I am not saying there is anything wrong with those aforementioned films, except maybe Curse of the Golden Flower), but Ashes of Time is a much deeper and satisfying movie experience than any of the above.
Taking his time with character development, director Wong Kar Wai has crafted a beautiful and intimate film, the sort of mesmerising experience that happens all too rarely in cinema. Dealing with love, loss and regret, the slightly fractured nature of the film can seem confusing at first, but each character is essential to the feel of the film, and each character leads Ou-yang Feng to his final revelation.
And what superb characters they are. Aside from Leslie Cheung in the title role, we have Tong Leung Ka Fai as Huang Yao-shi, Fangs friend and confidante who has much in his past to regret, a superb and more than a little disturbing Brigitte Lin as the highly conflicted Murong Yin and Murong Yang (no clues in the names then?), Jacky Cheung as Hung Chi, a wandering swordsman whom Feng takes under his wing and trains to be like him but who ultimately can only be himself, and Maggie Cheung as the unnamed woman who is the love of Fengs life and the source of his sadness, to name but a few of the stellar cast on show.
Visually, the film is never less than breathtaking to look at, shot through with a golden hue that gives the film an almost otherworldly quality. Filled with lingering wide shots and paced with an aching attention to detail, even the few action sequences are done in such a way as to make them almost dreamlike in their feel. Painstaking and beautiful in its examination of its central themes, this is truly a film to be cherished.
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