Coming to Ashes of Time only in its re-tinkered incarnation poses a challenge to those of us seeing the film in light of Wong Kar-wai’s so frequently sublime subsequent body of work. A martial arts tone-poem shot by the incomparable Christopher Doyle, featuring a heady array of Hong Kong cinematic royalty armed and in flowing robes, it was originally released in 1994, yet existed for most Wong fans as an elusive enigma, a merging of idiosyncratic auteurism and genre dynamics that promised to be dynamite, and maybe an unfulfilled box office breakthrough. But I’ve seen the new Ashes of Time Redux twice now, and I’m still not so sure what to make of it. Once we establish that any Wong film is far more exciting than most films, I think this particular film has a lot of trouble bearing up critical scrutiny.
The melancholia induced by obsession with the past permeates much of the densely woven emotional and intellectual textures of Wong’s work, perhaps most stunningly in his 2001 masterpiece In the Mood For Love. Yet memory’s stratagems can be rendered as thin a trope as anything else. The allure of oblivion in Ashes of Time Redux is announced outright in the voiceover upon which the film seems vastly over-dependent. It never assumes the weight or nuance radiating in Wong’s other explorations of the theme. I adore the sheer notion of the old friend (Tony Leung Ka-fai) who visits the lonesome swordsman-for-hire (Leslie Cheung), carrying a bottle of magical wine that makes your past dissolve. But, even after 90 minutes of flashbacks within flashbacks and various encounters in deserts and swamps, landscapes linked only by the peculiarly toned, super-saturated colour palate, I’m not sure that we wind up with anything more than notion itself.
If I seem to be avoiding story, it must be said that Ashes of Time Redux, despite the Lois Cha source novel, is decidedly unconcerned with narrative cohesion. There are characters, and there are moods. I don’t know that either shift much. There are propositions, most memorably one made by two siblings who apparently share the same body, one of whom tries to hire someone to kill the other. There’s some fighting, and Wong’s camera placement here is especially inspired, framing only sections of a teeming battle scene so that steel slashes or combatants hurl across the screen only to vanish. The poeticized action, lacking in any vivid violence, is something to see, if not feel. Its imagery is more durable than those of another character slashing a mirror-like lake—she can’t find a worthy sparring partner, so she practices against her own reflection—which gradually succumbs to aesthetic cliché through overuse. Though it’s not nearly as corny as Frankie Chan and Roel Garcia’s boilerplate score, the closest the film ever comes to bending to genre by far.
So there are many issues, of taste, of inertia, of reliance on gloss, both figurative and literal, of using immutability as a cover for lack of substance. And there are many arguments to made for the film’s purity, spectacle and meditative rigor. But let me say this, especially for anyone who makes Ashes of Time Redux their first Wong experience: It may be enough to be dazzled by the fluttering light and unearthly colours and Maggie Cheung’s cameo, but don’t buy for a minute that Wong can’t deliver all this and much more.