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DVD Review: Ashes of Time Redux

I relish the golden age of cinema we live in.

Many may disagree, longing for the 60’s or 70’s. But honestly, where else can you get the ultimate vision of every director for almost any film you’ve ever taken seriously? The answer is only in DVD-land.

As a result, we now have Lucas’ THX 1138 in its fullest form, Ridley Scott’s Final Cut of Blade Runner, as well as even a restoration of Coppola’s Apocalyspe Now, a film which had no reason critically to be recut and re-released, as it has been treated as a masterpiece since the film first hit audiences.

Director’s cuts, reduxes, lost versions, restorations of nearly-lost films—and these days they all come in the mail and you keep them as long as you want… can anyone argue with what we’ve been blessed with? It’s like being in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and the future all at the same time. Could you EVER have watched Umberto D forty times (and if you have, I both envy and pity you) when it was made?
Such access and analysis would have been simply impossible.

Speaking of time, Wong Kar-Wai has released “Ashes of Time Redux,” a re-working of his 1994 cult wuxia classic, for American release in arthouse theatres and now the first American release on DVD. The result is stunning.

I’ve never seen the original Ashes of Time. Indeed, just as with other films in the pre-DVD era, access to the film as a Westerner would have been almost impossible prior to now, unless one could get a bootlegged VHS. But even as a novice, I can tell the film has been reworked, because it features an enhanced score recently recorded by Yo-Yo Ma and the time-marking storytelling style that Kar-Wai explored frequently in 2046. As the seasons change, we are reminded by a visual cue that it is Spring, Summer, Autumn, or Winter. Only, we are not told necessarily what year it is—just as in 2046 when we are told what the year is but not necessarily what the reality is. In this way, “Ashes of Time Redux,” even though the original was made ten years prior to 2046, is a pleasant sequel for the Western viewer, because to those of us who are seeing it for the first time, it is an appropriate sequel to the themes of love, regret, and time explored in his last Mandarin film.

Ashes of Time Redux also benefits from being released to a Western audience that helped Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gross millions of dollars. That film probably was the singular moment the mainstream Western audience embraced the “wuxia” picture, which is essentially a kung-fu/medival/fantasy hybrid, much like Lord of the Rings might be to a Western audience. In wuxia pictures, there is good and evil, magic powers, and warriors adhere to an ancient code. This is the meaning of “Wu” (from Wushu [meaning ‘martial arts’] perhaps? Or maybe the province ‘Wu?’) and “Xia” which together somehow translates as “Martial Honor” or “Martial Code,” if I understand it correctly.

The only difference between this Wuxia picture and everything else the West has seen in the post-Crouching Tiger era is that there is little honor in the main protagonist at all. Actor Leslie Cheung’s (who passed away 2003, may he rest in peace) character Ouyang Feng is a bitter, isolated swordsman whose job it is to “solve problems” for people. He meets warriors that will appear in a Chinese series of novels called the “Eagle Shooting Heroes” by Louis Cha (the modern Lord of the Rings epic in the East) and during the seasons he watches them change and discover things about themselves that they never knew—but Leslie Cheung’s character, sadly, does not change at all–and according to a synopsis of the “Eagle Shooting Heroes” novels that I read, might end up ultimately turning evil (that is, if the Kar-Wai character is even the same Ouyang Feng.)

I have read that the film’s elliptical references and prequel-esque story to the Eagle Shooting Heroes’ novels is scant and reconstructionist at best, and you don’t need to have read them to understand what is at the heart of the film. I agree—but I can’t speak with the authority of someone who has read the novels. Suffice it to say I enjoyed the film without them.

The film is ultimately the best wuxia film we’ve seen stateside. It delves deeper and more realistically into its characters than any other wuxia film I’ve seen—in some ways it betrays the traditional form, which traditionally has always been about being exciting, daring, and chivalrous. “Ashes of Time Redux” exhibits none of those characteristics. It is contemplative, introspective, and its main character betrays the trust of the audience. It has more in common with a Martin Scorsese or (later) Stanley Kubrick character than any honorable warrior from traditional wuxia storytelling.

It is ironic then, that this film both predates Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the year it was filmed, but post-dates it stylistically. This only further evidences the gifts of director Wong Kar-Wai, who’s films supposedly haven’t made a dime in theatres, yet continue to have artistic life on DVD releases because of their thematic longevity. It wouldn’t be fair to fans if Kar-Wai had filmed a lighter, more action-oriented wuxia picture (though technically–get ready to get really confused–he did! He filmed a companion comedy piece called “Eagle-Shooting Heroes” with the same cast over the same period, though I don’t think it has been made available to us since I can’t find it yet.) It isn’t in Wong Kar-Wai’s nature to give us a character the stature of Chou Yun-Fat’s “Li Mu Bai” or Jet Li’s “Hero.” Kar-Wai’s vision of broken warriors consumed with regret and lives that intersect both thematically and relationally is more Dickensian than anything traditional wuxia pictures have had to offer. “Great Expectations” comes to mind immediately, as does the long-running show “Lost,” where people are tied by their unknown and unrequited love/associations once-removed from one another. It is in these relationships Kar-Wai offers, that some characters find redemption, and some do not. Redemption is not in flying or swordfighting—though there is a little of both in the film.

It is difficult to say how tall in stature the film resides along side other films of Kar-Wai’s career. It’s my second favorite after 2046, and quite a relief after his American film disaster, “My Blueberry Nights.” It may not be a new film, but so omnipresent are Kar-Wai’s themes that one feels all of his films are somewhat interchangeable chronologically. Therefore, it is an appropriate thematic sequel to both “In the Mood for Love” and 2046, even though chronologically it is not literally true.

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