'Ashes': Irresistible & impossible

Posted: October 30, 2008

There's a rumor going around that "Ashes of Time Redux" is a martial-arts movie, but I'd advise Jackie Chan fans to give it a wide berth.

It's art, certainly, but it ain't martial.

"Ashes of Time" is the work of celebrated visualist Wong Kar Wei, who in 1994 made "Ashes of Time," regarded as one of the most beautiful movies ever made.

By critics and cineastes, but apparently not by Wong, who didn't like the way the movie was recut before its release (such as it was) in different markets around the world.

So he remade the movie in a manner closer to his original intent and called it "Ashes of Time Redux."

Viewing the remake, we get an idea why distributors recut the original. It doesn't make much sense. It's probably not meant to. "Redux" is a piece of visual poetry without much interest in conventional narrative.

It's the highly impressionistic tale of a lonely assassin named Ouyang (Leslie Cheung) in the deserts of ancient China who appears to have retired, but is happy to dispense advise to colleagues and customers.

There's a man (or is it a woman?) who wants to kill his/her sister's faithless suitor (Tony Leung Kar-fai), a man connected to Ouyang's own lovelorn past. That story peters out, and Ouyang busies himself in the affairs of a blind assassin (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and a reputation-hungry rookie swordsman (Jackie Cheung).

There is some fighting, but be advised this is nothing like the arty martial arts movies we've seen recently from Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou - handsome, widescreen affairs that created space for epic stories and carefully choreographed martial ballets.

"Redux" is a smaller, more intimate movie of close-ups, and the fighting (there's only a few minutes of it) is often blurred to the point of confusion. Wong and Chris Doyle (the guy M. Night Shyamalan brought in for "Lady in the Water") are not much interested in wire-technology or swordplay or the representation of fighting styles. It's not about who's killing whom (I'm not even sure that Wei knows who they are) or how, but how light and color move across the screen. Or the beauty of static images.

You may find yourself impressed without being moved. I like blazing peach blossoms and flaming deserts as much as the next guy, but I kept hoping there was a story in there somewhere, and wasted a lot of time squinting at the mysterious subtitles and sorting through occasional story fragments, all related to Wong's favorite theme - that love is at once irresistible and impossible.

Irresistible and impossible - those words could also describe the movie, though cinephiles and purists will find themselves in the camp of the former. And it would be foolish for anyone to see it on video. *

Produced by Jeffrey Lau, Jacky Pang Yee Wah and Wong Kar Wai, written and directed by Wong Kar Wai, music by Frankie Chan and Roel A. Garcia, distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

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