There are a handful of films where the story of their troubled creations threatens to overshadow the films themselves: Apocalypse Now, Heaven’s Gate, Fitzcarraldo, Cleopatra. Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 Ashes of Time isn’t as well-known to most moviegoers as the others on that list, but in many ways its making was every bit as ambitious and as fraught.
Having made his name as a director with a pair of stylish, stylized Hong Kong-set stories of the urban young (1988’s As Tears Go By and 1990’s Days of Being Wild), Wong set out to tackle wuxia, the period martial arts story that all but defines Chinese cinema for most Westerners. To do it, he packed up a charismatic cast and genius cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, and left Hong Kong for a remote and dusty province of China to film on location. Since Wong works without a formal script, feeling his way forward with the help of his ideas, Doyle’s imagery, and the actors’ understanding of their characters, the exhausting shoot dragged on for months. The resulting film, released after near-endless shooting and editing in 1994, was unlike any wuxia anyone had ever seen—gorgeous, elliptical, complex, and low on actual martial arts. It was a box-office bomb in Hong Kong and never got a decent U.S. release.
Wong recently revisited Ashes of Time for rerelease and, faced with the need to piece it back together for proper restoration, decided to tinker a bit. The result is Ashes of Time Redux, a refurbished and lightly streamlined version of the original, freshly out on DVD in all its confusing and piercingly beautiful glory. The late Leslie Cheung plays Ouyang Feng, a retired swordsman who brokers revenge for others. In fact, seemingly half of China beats a path to his door, either wronged women in search of someone to enact their vengeance (including a cross-dressing Brigitte Lin), or wandering warriors looking for work (including the great Tony Leung as a blind swordsman). Through these encounters and their backstories, Wong begins teasing out some of his trademark themes—star-crossed love, heartbreak, coincidence, doubling—as fighters and non-combatants alike play out their sorrows and disputes across the stark desert scenery. The plot, such as it is, is almost insanely complicated and hard to follow, but the brooding, lovelorn mood remains intact, as does the visual dazzle. Whether it’s the delicate lattice of shadows from a wicker birdcage playing over a face or a thin fountaining fan of blood spewing from a slit throat, the imagery Wong and Doyle conjure up here remains worth all the trouble it took to capture it, and whatever trouble you take to get to see it.
The production of Ashes of Time took so long and was so tiring that Wong tried to clear his head during a break in the editing by making another film that had nothing to do with swords or sand or doom. He grabbed Leung and Lin and shot quickly on the Hong Kong streets he knew so well. Chungking Express was done by the time Ashes of Time hit theaters, and while the latter could have cooled Wong’s career, the former raised it to another level. It remains Wong’s calling card beyond Hong Kong and perhaps his best-loved work, and a new Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray issue shows it hasn’t lost an ounce of its charm.
Wong’s happenstance way of working makes much more sense amid the constant connections and disconnections of a bustling urban setting. Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) brushes by the unnamed woman in a blond wig (Lin) hours before they find themselves in a hotel bed together; Cop 223 hangs at the same carry-out counter where Cop 633 (Leung) gets his usual chef salad from gamine countergirl Faye (Faye Wong). The bittersweet comedy of Cop 223 pining for an ex before Lin’s wrong woman obliquely sets him right takes up the film’s first half, then disappears entirely as Wong shifts to Cop 633’s dashed romantic hopes and the lengths to which the obsessed Faye will go to cheer him up and make/win him over (including breaking into his apartment to clean it and replace his careless bachelor junk). Doyle’s brilliant camerawork catches foot chases and gunfights as a choppy blur but never messes about when it comes to capturing the stifled heartbreak on Leung’s face, or the wide-eyed joy on Wong’s. The flimsy excuse for a plot shouldn’t bar anyone from soaking up movie romance done absolutely, magically right.