Sunday, July 6, 2014

Ashes of Time Redux (1994)

Directed by: Wong Kar Wai
Runtime: 1hr 40mins
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Sidenote: I'm aware I'm going out of chronological order here, but since several of his films are related, I'd like to watch them all in a row and tackle them one right after the other. I'll go back and write about Days of Being Wild soon.

Actually the title of this post is a bit of a lie. Ashes of Time was originally released in 1994, but the Redux version (likely the only version available today) was a re-edit/remastered/re-release done in 2008, after an accident nearly destroyed the film entirely.

It's a poetic tale of swordsmen, assassins, and unrequited love. It's maybe one of his most under-appreciated and perhaps misunderstood works (at least when you look at western reviews). However, I love the film, and not just because I'm a fan of WKW.


This film is loosely based on characters from Louis Cha's (pen name Jin Yong) famous series of wuxia novels "The Legend of The Condor Heroes". The novels quickly became beloved classics, that we westerners can only compare to something like Lord of the Rings. Louis Cha is essentially Tolkien to Asians. In their culture he is like Shakespeare, or an even bigger name writer (if there is one).

If you're interested in a bit more about Louis Cha, the Wuxia genre, and the novels that inspired Ashes of Time, check out my brief introduction to Louis Cha post here.

Since the story had been adapted so many times already for TV and film, WKW wanted to do something different. The characters of Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) and Huang Yao-Shi (Tony Leung Ka Fai) who are the first characters we meet in the film, are in their 60's in the original novel. They are well established characters, so the starting point for WKW was a curiosity as to who these people might have been in their younger years. He asked himself, what made these characters become who they were in the novel? While normally WKW works without a script and develops things as he goes, with Ashes of Time he knew exactly where the primary characters needed to end up.

The leitmotif of the film is the Chinese Almanac. It serves as title cards that explain the changing of the seasons, or simply the passage of time.

The Choreography for the action/fight scenes was done by Choreographer Sammo Hung, legendary actor, martial artist, choreographer and film director/producer. The film also features many famous faces: Leslie Cheung, both Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Tony Leung Ka Fai, Jackie Cheung (who starred in his previous film As Tears Go By alongside Andy Lau), Maggie Cheung (also in As Tears Go By), Bridget Lin, Carina Lau, and Charlie Yeung.

The shoot itself took place in the desert of China. Doing an old wuxia story required working in the desert simply for the fact that it would have looked the same then as it does now, and they didn't have a large budget to devote to special effects. Not to mention that early 90's CG was not particularly good. This choice has allowed the film to hold up visually over time, better even than films like Chungking Express (shot the same year) that has an undeniable 90's quality to it.

There is, however, an undeniable film grain to Ashes of Time. This isn't due to the eventual destruction of the film (which I'll get to). Their low budget meant the low light scenes had a lot of grainy looking film. In order to keep things consistent, they used this as a style and produced film grain across the entire film. This actually works for the film because it is in keeping with the texture of the desert itself.

However, shooting in the desert also made for a long difficult shoot. Most films take 3-4 months to shoot, but for Ashes of Time they were shooting for over a year. In fact, it took so long and went so over budget that during the making of it, comedy/parody director Jeffrey Lau (who was working as a producer on Ashes of Time, and co-wrote the script for WKW's earlier film Days of Being Wild) made a parody version of the story called The Eagle Shooting Heroes (1993), in an attempt to recoup some of the losses.

Also, once the shooting on Ashes of Time had finished, their producers wanted them to finish the film quickly and premiere it in Venice. However, WKW understandably needed a break from the film. Instead he went on to make Chungking Express, a quick low budget shoot, and premiered that film in Venice, all before returning to finish Ashes of Time for release later that year (1994). So if you're thinking Chungking Express has some similar themes and styles, that's because the two films were shot one right after the other with the same crew and much of the same cast.

Flash forward to 1999, when WKW learned that the warehouse holding the original negatives of the film was closing and he had to come pick up the film. He found the warehouse, and consequently the film very damp, and in pieces. So they decided to do a restoration. However some pieces of the film were so unusable they had to get pieces sent in from overseas. Even after that, still some pieces were completely lost to time. They could not restore the film in its original form. So what started as a simple restoration became a complete re-edit (while trying to maintain the films original ideas). WKW even got famous Chinese cellist Yo-Yo Ma to record additional music to accompany the original soundtrack.

The film was re-released in 2008 under the name Ashes of Time Redux. From the time he retrieved the original film in 1999 to the time it was re-released in 2008, WKW had made 3 other films and several shorts. Clearly the re-edit was something he took his time with. It's hard to imagine a filmmaker spending more time on any one film, but as we know he would also go on to take his sweet time working on the film The Grandmaster (2013).

On to the film itself:

Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung)
Wong Kar Wai said during an interview (for the dvd/bluray release) that it's the most complex story he's ever done.  There are many characters and all are intertwined in some way. I agree with his assessment, because most of his films are small, personal stories that follow just a very few characters, but Ashes of Time, introduces many characters that all impact the main character. It's also edited out of sequence, so you'll meet characters and see events that won't necessarily makes sense till later in the film (perhaps explaining some of the misunderstanding of the film).

The film follows Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), from White Camel Mountain, who has taken up residence in the desert of China. He left his home and everyone he knew looking for a life of adventure hoping to become a great swordsman. Now, he makes his home out in the desert, where people come seeking help. He hires hitmen and connects people with them. (Assassins are a character type WKW would return to in Fallen Angels)

Huang Yao-Shi (Tony Leung Ka Fai)
He's a hardboiled, tough, no-nonsense businessman. In a way he's a bit like a cafe/hotel owner who provides a roof over traveler's heads out in the desert, and he has to deal with all sorts of crazy people who come along.

A friend of his, Huang Yao-Shi (Tony Leung Ka Fai), visits him every year. This year he stops by to deliver a gift someone had sent for Ouyang. Huang explains that it's wine that will make you forget your past. The woman who sent it said that the root of a man's problems is memory. Without a past, everyday would be a new beginning. While Ouyang refuses to try it, it seems to work on Huang. Later, we come to understand why Huang would want to forget, and we also understand who sent it and why.

Murong Yin/Murong Yang (Bridget Lin)
Shortly after this scene we are introduced to Bridget Lin's character(s) Murong Yin/Murong Yang (who is one of the craziest characters in any WKW film). She, much like Tolkien's Smeagle, is a split personality. She believes herself to be both a man and the man's sister. Huang had promised to marry the sister, but had since gone away.

As a result the brother side of her wants to hire Ouyang to kill Huang Yao-Shi, partly out of anger over his treatment of her, but also because he's jealous that she loves Huang, and fears losing her. The brother would prefer if she were loyal to him.
Of course, the sister is in love with Huang, so she attempts to hire Ouyang to kill her brother to break free of his overbearing role in their relationship.

Ouyang is never quite sure who he's talking to...
Obviously this presents a very interesting problem for Ouyang. He can't really accept because if he kills one of them he obviously won't get paid from the other one (them being the same person).

Eventually the problem seems to work itself out. After a night of drinking, the sister seems to mistake Ouyang for Huang and they (sort of) make love (although both thinking of someone else). Seeing her brokenness, Ouyang takes pitty on her. Speaking for Huang (while she still thinks he's Huang) he tells her he loves her, and this seems to be all she needed to hear. After that Ouyang never sees her again.

The Blind Swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai)
Peach Blossom (Carina Lau) wife of Blind Swordsman
When we meet the character known only as The Blind Swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) he is not completely blind, but he knows he will be soon. Again, the out of sequence editing can be confusing. The Blind Swordsman is married to a woman named Peach Blossom (Carina Lau), although we don't know her name is Peach Blossom till later in the film (which is significant because he is always talking about how he wishes to see the peach blossoms one more time before he goes completely blind).

We learn that Huang Yao-Shi and Peach Blossom had an affair, and The Blind Swordsman swore he would kill him the next time he saw him. We assume the only reason he's living on the road as a sword for hire, is to track down Huang, while making money on the side. However, by the time he finally runs into Huang again he can no longer see, so he lets him live.

Also, like any swordsman he's out for glory, to prove he's the best. One of the first few scenes with The Blind Swordsman shows him trying to find and challenge someone who is known throughout the land as a fast swordsman. Blind Swordsman, of course, challenges him and kills him.

Once that business is over he finds himself in Ouyang's employ, having proved himself a worthy swordsman. Villagers had come to Ouyang asking for help. Bandits had been pillaging local villages in the area. The Blind Swordsman is assigned to fend off the attackers. In one of the most beautifully shot and edited action sequences in WKW's filmography Blind Swordsman stands his ground against insurmountable odds. Sadly with the clouds obscuring the sun, he has difficulty seeing and he dies at the hands of the bandits.

Before fighting the bandits, Blind Swordsman told Ouyang to give Huang a message that his wife waits for him. It's a tragic story. Blind Swordsman stood his ground, no doubt knowing he would not survive the fight. Furthermore, he was willing to allow his wife to be happy with who he thought she loved even if it's no longer him. However, once word of his death returns to her, she is obviously very distraught, but it's unclear whether she had truly stopped loving him or not.

Hung Chi (Jackie Cheung)
Now, of course, Ouyang needs a new hired assassin to do his biding. That's where Hung Chi (Jackie Cheung) comes in. I don't recall hearing his name in the film, IMDB informs me that it's Hung Chi, but in the film he is the shoeless swordsman. He is very fast, but also very poor. Ouyang sees potential in him so he takes him in, buys him a pair of shoes and sets him to work.

The begger (Charlie Yeung)
Hung Chi's job is to complete the task the Blind Swordsman could not. He succeeds. But after successfully taking out the bandits, his wife shows up. She clearly misses him and has followed him a long way to catch up with him. He tries to send her away, back home to wait for him while he is out trying to make a name for himself as a swordsman, but Ouyang warns him against acting that way.

I should also mention that over the course of the film a young woman had been coming looking to hire an assassin to kill 3 militiamen who murdered her brother. Ouyang refused to help her because she had no money to offer, but Hung Chi takes pity on her and kill the 3 men, losing a finger in the process. After the job is done Hung Chi decides to listen to Ouyang's advice, taking his wife with him as he travels.

Known only as the woman - Ouyang's love (Maggie Cheung)
After this we get more of Ouyang's story. He explains to Hung Chi that he was once like him. He only thought of personal glory as a swordsman. He left his love (Maggie Cheung) at home and went off to live life on the road. How often do we forego certain other opportunities for the sake of chasing or youthful ambitions? When he returned the woman he loved had married his brother. That's why he still lived out in the desert. He no longer felt he belonged in his home town, no longer had anyone to return for. These two characters live with regret the rest of their lives.

Ouyang's friend Huang Yao-Shi would visit her once a year to check up on her before making his visit to Ouyang. She explains to Huang that she used to think of love as a game and admits it was a prideful mistake to have left Ouyang. She regrets that during the best years of her life the one she truly loved was not with her.

She fell ill, but before she died she sent the aforementioned wine that would make a person forget their past. We now understand the opening scenes. She wanted Ouyang to be able to forget her and move on with his life. The irony is, as he discovers, that the wine is a joke. The more a person tries to forget, the better you remember. WKW himself stated that the theme of the film is Ouyang's line toward the end of the film. Even after you've made mistakes and perhaps even lost love, the important thing is to not forget.

It is the most complicated of Wong Kar Wai's films. It's got some of the most unique characters, and it (along with Days of Being Wild) set the tone for the rest of his career far better than As Tears Go By. Lost or unrequited love became a common theme across the rest of his films.

Even with some of the original film having been lost, what WKW was able to salvage and remaster turned out to be a pretty good film dealing with the pain of lost love. I never saw the original, I only know Ashes of Time as Ashes of Time Redux, and as far as I know the film no longer exists in any other form.

I've read westerner reviews of this film, and most comment on how it's hard to make sense of the film or find any central purpose in the film. It helps, but isn't quite required that you see the film more than once in order to understand the complexity of the film. I also wonder if these reviewers understand the background, or what the story is based on. One way or another I'm certain this film will mean more to anyone familiar with the original Louis Cha story.  

Having said that I think it can still be enjoyable for western audiences. I appreciate the tragic beauty of the thoughts and ideas presented in WKW's lost and unrequited love stories, and Ashes of Time is among his most visually spectacular films.

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