Wong Kar-Wai Begins To Find His Voice In This Revisited Early Outing
For a movie that could theoretically be described as a weepy-ass 90-minute soap opera with intermittent sword fights, Ashes Of Time Redux sure demands a lot from its audience. Viewers looking for updated Shaw Brothers kineticism or kung-fu kitsch are advised to steer clear of director Wong Kar-Wai's lone attempt at big-budget wuxia martial arts spectacle. The 1994 movie, freshly fine-tuned by Wong for a worldwide audience that may have missed it before the director made his name on the festival circuit, is deliberately slow-moving and disjointed in ways more Euro art-house than Jet Li pop-art. Its temporally fractured plot demands close attention even as its pace feels hell bent on lulling you into a trance.
All of which sounds like--gasp--a Wong Kar-Wai movie. Drunk on atmosphere and charged with hyper-romanticism from the opening orchestral swell, it's immediately recognizable as that most image-enraptured auteur's work, even with the cross-dressing princesses and marauding bandits. And like several of Wong's other movies, you'd need a hefty word count to adequately summarize this jigsaw plot that might still be missing a few crucial pieces by the end credits.
Ashes nominal protagonist is sardonic swordsman Ou-yang Feng (Leslie Cheung), who lives in a shack and peddles himself as the kind world-weary, allegiance-free vagabond familiar to martial arts fans: He's the guy who will whack whoever needs to be whacked for the right price. One day he's visited by old friend Huang Yao-shi (Tony Leung Ka Fai), a moody lothario who's seemingly broken hearts in every town in China. Exhausted by the weight of his philandering, Yao-shi claims to have a bottle of wine that will wipe a man's memories away. Despite being wracked by his own past unluckiness in love, Feng refuses this slate-cleaning tipple. And when Yao-shi drinks, he does indeed begin to forget the facts of his life, good and bad alike.
Over the course of what initially appears to be the following year, Feng is visited by people whose lives had been touched, usually for the worse, by inveterate oat-sower Yao-shi. There's the unsubtly named Mu-rong Yang (Brigitte Lin), who wants Feng to kill Yao-shi for breaking his sister's heart. The sister, Mu-rong Yin, still smitten with Yao-shi, wants Feng to kill her brother because of his quasi-incestuous intentions. Unfortunately for Feng's pocketbook, it turns out that Mu-rong Yang is actually Mu-rong Yin done up as a very unconvincing drag king. Then there's a blind swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) who winds up working for Feng once he leaves home, having realized his wife is smitten with that hunky jerk Yao-shi. And so on. Eventually this parade of homicidal emotional cripples convinces self-made hermit Feng to stop fretting over the past he refused to drink away and find new adventures.
What sounds like easy-to-swallow martial arts pulp plays out like a high-operatic moping session; what would normally be the self-questioning second-act prelude to the heroic bloodshed that kicks the hero out of his funk is now the whole trip. And the director's idiosyncratic-unto-surreal sense of pacing and editing often chafes oddly against the genre's required mix of melodrama and slam-bang action. The actors flit bizarrely between inscrutable wordless moodiness and chewing the scenery; when they're not engaged in enigmatic staring contests, they're shamelessly shouting dialogue such as "My sadness is unbearable!"
And tasked with a genre famous for almost ludicrously balletic action sequences, Wong perversely stages his handful of battles as frustratingly indistinct blurs of flailing limbs and slashing weapons. There's a fine line between making your audience work harder for their emotional/intellectual payoff and punishing them for expecting a little cathartic swordplay. At least the chronological deck-shuffling that would soon become a Wong's trademark eventually pays off in the final 20 minutes or so, when a head-spinning liaison between Huang Yao-shi and Ou-yang Feng's estranged lover suddenly provides the key to ordering the vignettes in this decidedly non-linear narrative.
All of which is not to say the movie's a failure, especially as a series of images. Perhaps no one can make the light reflected from a spinning birdcage as deliriously erotic as Wong. But it's frustrating in that undercooked way common to idiosyncratic directors finding their voices, or ill-advisedly dabbling in someone else's genre sandbox--or both, in this case. If nothing else, Ashes of Time Redux is interesting as a look at the still-developing vocabulary that eventually led to bait-and-switch masterpieces such as 2004's 2046, a movie where the tin read "science fiction" and instead you got pure, uncut Wong.