Ashes of Time Redux (Dung che sai duk)

Director: Wong Kar Wai
Screenplay: Wong Kar Wai (based on the novel The Eagle Shooting Heroes by Louis Cha)
Stars: Brigitte Lin (Mu-rong Yin / Mu-rong Yang), Leslie Cheung (Ou-yang Feng), Maggie Cheung (The Woman), Tony Leung Chiu Wai (Blind Swordsman), Jacky Cheung (Hung Chi), Tony Leung Ka Fai (Huang Yao-shi), Li Bai (Hung Chi’s Wife), Carina Lau (Peach Blossom), Charlie Yeung (Young Girl)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1994 / 2008
Country: Hong Kong / China / Taiwan
Ashes of Time Redux
Ashes of Times ReduxAshes of Time Redux is a brooding, melancholic twist on the wuxia, the genre of historical martial arts films that typically focus on swordplay and action. Writer/director Wong Kar Wai delivers swordplay from time to time, but in radical fragments that refuse the typical pleasures of martial arts violence and instead play as counterpoint to the film’s true focus: the characters and their tortured psyches. Yet, in typical Wong Kar Wai fashion, the characters and their stories are oblique and often confusing, leaving us with little to understand outside of the overriding emotions that drive the film.

The film, which was Wong’s third, was originally shot over six months in 1992, and it proved to be so difficult to piece together in postproduction that Wong left it for a while to shoot Chungking Express (1994), the film that would first gain him significant attention in the West. When Ashes of Time was released in 1994, Wong considered it unfinished, thus we get the Redux version, which features a digitally restored image that heightens the intensity of the film’s colors, an enhanced score by Yo-Yo Ma, and possibly some new footage or at least rearrangement of the existing footage. The fact that Wong would return to one of his early films at this stage in his career suggests that, like the memories that torture his protagonists, it was something he simply could not let go.

The plot is a tangle of flashbacks and interlocking stories and interconnected characters, and a single viewing of the film will most likely result in a sense of visual dazzle and not much else. The main character is Ou-yang Feng (Leslie Cheung), who specializes in “solving problems.” He runs a small tavern in the middle of a desert where people bring him their problems, which usually involve the need to have someone killed. Ou-yang also narrates the film, which takes place over five clearly marked seasons, and his words embody many of the themes that have come to obsess Wong Kar Wai’s films, most notably loneliness, disconnect, and especially the burden of romantic memories (one character says quite directly that the “root of man’s problems” is “memory”).

There is more to the story--much more, in fact, including murderous siblings, a blind swordsman played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai, and various lost loves--but Wong Kar Wai’s narrative approach is so frequently confounding and elliptical that at some point it is easy to disassociate from the story and simply drink in the images, free from context or meaning. The story’s events take place during a drought, so the images (shot by Wong’s longtime cinematographer Christopher Doyle) are scorched tones of yellow and brown, suggesting both heat and dryness, set against bleary blue skies that look like dripping watercolors. Interiors are often lit with colored lights, casting characters in various shades of unnatural blues and greens that give them the appearance of sitting beneath neon signs. The film’s imagery is its most striking asset, creating an impressionistic sense of both vastness and intimacy that frequently overwhelms the characters and their problems.

Ashes of Time Redux DVD

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
  • Chinese Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • “Born From the Ashes: The Making of Ashes of Time Redux“Q&A With Wong Kar Wai” featurette
  • Theatrical trailer
  • DistributorSony Picture Home Entertainment
    Release DateMarch 10, 2009

    Having been digitally restored and color corrected for its theatrical re-release last year, Ashes of Time Redux is an even more visually striking film, and it is well represented by the anamorphic transfer on this DVD, even though the clarity of the image is somewhat inconsistent, with some shots looking quite smooth while others are noticeable grainy (part of this may be because the Redux version was assembled from different prints, including the original camera negative). Colors are very intense, with deeply saturated, often unnatural shades of yellow dominating many of the scenes. Contrast is also exaggerated, leading to parts of the image being purposefully washed out. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is quite good, lending Yo-Yo Ma’s retooled score depth and power, although much of the film consists of straight dialogue with ambient effects.
    “Born From the Ashes: The Making of Ashes of Time Redux” is a 14-minute featurette that looks at the film’s restoration and re-presentation in 2008. It includes interviews with Wong Kar Wai, cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and numerous members of the cast, mostly from the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Significantly more information can be found in “Q&A With Wong Kar Wai,” a 41-minute dialogue with the director hosted by Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The only other supplement on the disc is the theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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