Ashes of Time Redux
Written and Directed by Wong Kar-Wai
Starring Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Kar-fai, Jacky Cheung, Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, and Maggie Cheung
Now Playing in Limited Release
Wong Kar-Wai may be the most unjustly categorized filmmaker alive: it’s easy to see his movies as little more than small, dizzying portraits of love, loss, and romance — as mood pieces.
But Wong’s best films — In the Mood for Love, 2046, and now his latest, Ashes of Time Redux — reveal a combination of intellectual and poetic heft that’s rarely seen. His films thrive on moments of emotional overload; they are lurid and almost staggeringly beautiful. But they are important because they meditate on life in the wake, the continuous absence, of those moments. It’s cinema that, almost because it’s so beautiful, is also mournful and deeply perplexing.
In the opening minutes of Ashes of Time, a character announces that “memory is the root of all of man’s problems.” This is Wong’s keenest obsession: he is constantly disrupting the passage of time in his films (in fact, they all exist in moments isolated from any sort of temporal reality) forcing the past and present to blend and interchange seamlessly.
What he ends up producing are cascades of images and moments that are repetitive and self-reflexive, shifting uncontrollably between vague periods of time — in a way, his films are memories.
The movie’s protagonist, Ouyang Feng (played brilliantly by the late Leslie Cheung) is a former swordsman, living in near isolation in the desert, years after being betrayed by the woman he loves (Maggie Cheung — always stunning). Near the end of Ashes of Time he declares that he never really saw the desert he has lived in for so long; he was too obsessed with the memory and loss of his lover. Wong’s characters constantly question whether, at least when it comes to love, the present is anything more than a feeble reflection of the past.
Ouyang Feng works as a middleman between hired swordsmen and the people who require their skills to exact revenge or regain their honor. Throughout the film, a series of swordsmen and clients come to Ouyang, each bringing their own memories, their own pain.
Ashes of Time Redux, is superficially a “martial arts” film and these characters — played by a terrific cast that includes both Tony Leungs and Brigitte Lin — each take part in their own conflicts and elaborate fight scenes. But Ashes of Time is more concerned with humanizing these characters; they are sad, enigmatic, and sharply conceived. It is amazing to watch Tony Leung Chiu-wai’s swordsman slowly yield to blindness — or to see Murong Yin and Yang (actually the same person) grapple with their conflicting identities.
Of course, Ashes of Time is visually arresting, and has such deeply enduring images. It’s hard to not obsess over the blind swordsman groping through a yellow-lit corridor, or the two lovers, engaging quietly and passionately, each imagining that other is someone else, and aware that the other is doing the same. These are Ashes of Time’s best moments; they are aesthetically resonant in a way that extends beyond our ability to dissect or parse.