Wong Kar-wai | 90 mins | TV | 15 / R
A wandering man with magic wine and no memory; a clan prince who’s also his beloved sister; a master swordsman who’s almost blind; his wife, who loves his best friend; a persistent peasant girl after revenge for her little brother, with only eggs for payment; a young swordsman with no shoes and a camel; a large gang of bandits with a left-handed member; and a desert-dwelling problem solver who connects them all. Oh if only Ashes of Time were as simple as that sounds.
Despite apparently being an Eastern action movie — it’s in the wuxia genre, which, for the uninitiated, also covers the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers — Ashes of Time isn’t what one would typically expect from such a billing. Reviews talk about it being a confusingly-plotted art film — and those are the positive ones — which, coupled with my relative dislike of Chungking Express, meant I didn’t really expect to like it a great deal. But I found myself surprised, because I really enjoyed it.
For one thing, I followed the plot right to the end, though the final fifteen minutes throw up a series of twists to rival any thriller. I don’t claim to understand every nuance of every character, the meaning of every event, exactly how everything is connected (assuming it is), or what it’s really all about… but based on what I’ve read, even following it is an achievement on a first viewing. I felt more or less the same way at the end of The Big Sleep, and the trick here is the same: pay attention. Yes, this requires some effort on the part of the viewer — I was aware of myself paying close attention throughout in order to follow and comprehend the story, more so than in most films (even discounting easily-followed mainstream-aimed efforts). An awareness of this need for hyper-attentiveness from the get-go (which, as I say, I had thanks to perusing a couple of reviews) is likely to aid the viewer (which, as I say, it did me).
The story itself, then, is quite episodic. There’s some overlap, but in general characters come and go from the problem solver’s home in a parade, rarely interacting with one another. Each individual piece explores a different facet of a similar theme — “anecdotes about chivalric swordsmen”, as the Radio Times puts it — which serves to tie them together, alongside other plot elements and character points — several have wives in love with others, for example, while others have left their wives at home and one has been followed by his.
Wong (again, so I read) broke ground within the genre by prioritising emotion over action. Therefore potential viewers shouldn’t expect the abundant martial arts/swordplay the genre often provides. If Hero was too arty for you (as it was for me first time round), then this will almost certainly be beyond the pale. Despite the paucity of action — despite several stories concerning assassination and death, the actual act isn’t the point in the slightest — when it does turn up (the first significant sequence is halfway through) it’s excellent; effectively, if differently, done.
Indeed, the film is beautifully shot; perhaps not as obviously as Hero’s colour-coded vibrancy, but there are frequent moments that dazzle and I can’t recall a single weak visual. Wong mucked about with the colours as part of his reduxing, to the reported distaste of cinematography Christopher Doyle, but it still looks stunning throughout.
Wong’s 2008 redux included not only these tweaks to the visuals, but also modifications to the audio and losing seven minutes from the original cut. I’ve never seen it so can’t compare, though some reports claim the changes helped clarify the plot. For the curious, a catalogue of differences can be found here. Equally, those after better-informed reviews might like to read DVD Times’ coverage, with Noel Megahey on the DVD and John White on the BD, and Heroes of the East’s review of both cuts.
Having pointed you toward those wise reviewers, let me just say that Ashes of Time Redux is not your typical wuxia film and not for everyone. My enjoyment of it came as something of a surprise, which is always nice.
Film4 are showing Ashes of Time Redux tonight at 1:05am.