Film Review: Ashes of Time Redux

Bottom line: A visual and aural intensification of an idiosyncratically arty but classic genre film.

Cannes Film Festival, Special Screening, Out of Competition

This full-scale restoration will be a grand treat to those many fans of Wong Kar-wai who have never been able to see the 1994 original except on badly duped DVDs. One of the director's rare forays into genre territory, the film depicts the timeless and placeless world of wuxia (chivalric warriors practicing the martial arts).

Predictably, though, the rambunctious Wong was not content merely to repeat or reinvigorate the genre when he began shooting "Ashes of Time" more than 15 years ago, but decided to reinvent it completely. Commercial prospects for this new version are dicey because martial-arts lovers may find it too arty, and art-film lovers, Wong's international fan base, may find it too generic and too violent. DVD sales, however, should be robust and festival screenings plentiful.

In any case, one wonders what fecundity of imagination -- or perversity of artistic willfulness -- it took to shoot a costume epic that is made up almost entirely of dark rooms, close-ups and tightly constricted long shots. Or what about the fact that the film contains only a handful of repeating, doubled, easily confused characters rather than the proverbial cast of thousands?

Wong's obsessive themes of memory, the irretrievability of the past and the impossibility of love, trump those of the traditional wuxia film, which tend to deal more with honor and the indomitability of the spirit. Furthermore, where is all the sword-fighting that audiences might reasonably have expected to see? While it's true that some stirring action scenes are sprinkled throughout the film, for the most part, as in most of Wong's films set in modern times, it's all interiority, unrequited longing and emotional frustration.

The film is still a formal wonder, as it was 15 years ago, full of Wong's signature step-printing technique, his off-kilter shooting angles and a flamboyant visual style that often produces something more like an abstract expressionist painting than a movie. But while it's hard to be definitive about what's different in the new version without comparing it shot by shot with the old, the music seems much more powerful and more fully keyed-in to the action, and the color is saturated and intensified to make the film even more stylized than it already was.

In short, while those who didn't "get it" the first time around won't warm up to the film any more than they did then, those who do will be ecstatic.

Cast: Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Brigitte Lin, Carina Lau, Maggie Cheung, Charlie Young, Jacky Cheung. Director: Wong Kar-wai. Screenwriter: Wong Kar-wai. Director of photography: Christopher Doyle. Production designer: William Chan Suk Ping. Music: Frankie Chan, Roel A. Garcia, Wu Tong, Yo-yo Ma. Editor: William Chan Suk Ping, Patrick Tam
Production Company: Jet Tone Prods.
Sales: Fortissimo Films
No MPAA rating, 93 minutes.