Ashes of Time Redux, Wong Kar-wai's restored version of his 1994 episodic martial arts epic is a little shorter than the original version, with changes mostly on a sub-noticeable level in the margins and montage (especially in the very first and very last sequence.) New title cards clarify the structure, the subtitle translation has been improved considerably, and the original score has been retained but re-arranged, so that the overall feel is less synth-pop Morricone cheese than generic period grandiosity (with cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma). And the movie's very existence makes another wormhole in the space-time continuum of Wong's career.
The "Redux" Ashes of Time came about, Wong says, out of a desire to have a "definitive version" of a movie mostly available in different versions, on DVDs of wildly divergent quality. (Sometimes, being a fan of East Asian cinema feels a bit like being a biblical scholar, and tracking down different apocryphal versions of the same text. It's especially true for someone like Wong, who recuts movies in between festival premieres and releases, after already having abandoned months' worth of shoots and reshoots before settling on a movie's final form.) Redux is varied in image quality from scene to scene, but it's ravishing compared to the awful World Video edition of the original theatrical Ashes (it's what you get when you rent the movie from Netflix or Mondo Kim's), and much better than the (I now realize) yellow tinted Mei Ah DVD you can buy in Chinatown (until now the best way to see the movie). What we have here was assembled mostly from the original negative, but also pieced together (hence the inconsistent picture) from prints that had been languishing in Chinatown warehouses, along with many other long-unscreened prints of Hong Kong films. Wong talked quite a bit, in his press conference following the NYFF press screening, of the experience of sifting through, well, the ashes of time — this hidden history of his country's cinema, and its exhibition abroad.
That such an archive-dive would appeal to Wong can hardly be surprising given that Ashes of Time's most deeply felt sentiment is Maggie Cheung's lament, "wouldn't it be wonderful if we could go back to the past?"
Which Wong has, of course, by making anew the first film made through his independent production company — before his enthronement as a world-cinema brand, before Hong Kong's handover to China, before the suicide of Ashes of Time's star and Wong's frequent muse, the Hong Kong icon Leslie Cheung.
The movie itself, too, goes back to the past, moving through spring, summer, fall, winter and spring with Leslie's swordsman-for-hire Ouyang Feng, who meets a different Hong Kong star in each quadrant of the calendar, while also establishing parallel stories of lost love and forgetting. (There's a jug of wine that causes amnesia; characters drink it to forget their lost loves.)
The movie's almanac structure (clarified with new title cards) moves both cyclically and linearly; in fact the biggest surprise for me was how easy the plot is to follow. (This may be a product of having watched the original theatrical release on DVD last week prior to the screening and having it fresh in mind.) It's surprising because the movie — with its frequent landscape shots and diaristic voice-overs, emotionally associative cuts between different characters in different locations, single-shot flashbacks, whirlingly incoherent fight scenes — fits together vaguely, like the fragmentary, impressionistic memories you have of a movie you saw, once, a long time ago. And maybe that's the past that Wong is going back to.
This impressionistic approach (aided by the blurry, vibrant palette of the world's greatest cinematographer, Chris Doyle) is how Wong's films have functioned in general, especially in regards to memory, but here and elsewhere (particularly the gangster pastiche Fallen Angels), the approach seems specifically tied to genre. Ashes of Time is actually an imagined prequel to Louis Cha's seminal martial arts novels The Eagle Shooting Heroes, an apparently archetypal text in the martial arts genre. (For what it's worth, Wong produced his sometime producer's Jeff Lau's Eagle Shooting Heroes, a parody of the book and genre it founded; it features much of the same cast and was shot around the same time, adding to an already epic, confusing shoot.)
So it's fascinating to me how Ashes of Time — which Wong struggled to piece together during a long-even-for-him postproduction — seems to come together like a movie you're remembering, rather than a movie you're watching — here as always, Wong doesn't expend much screentime building up the story, preferring to drop the necessary information in voice-overs playing over abstracted visuals, and making character interaction a matter of mood rather than story arc-related transaction. In other words, everything you see in Ashes of Time could be your memory of a single marginal shot in a movie adhering to some perfect narrative ideal.
We tend to watch movies backwards — by the time we see the movies we've heard so much about we come with ideas informed by their imperfect reflections in discussion and parody and homage, so that reference and allusion and influence build up an archetypal idea of the original. And I think we've all seen supposed ur-movies that have been disappointments to us, because their particulars diminish our idea of them. It's like being in Plato's Cave, turning around to look at the ideal originals of the shadowy suggestions, and saying, "So... that's it?"
So I'm fascinated with movies like Once Upon a Time in America, say, or Miller's Crossing, that attempt to fully embody the power of cultural-subconscious suggestion. And I'm equally fascinated with Wong's tribute to the original, which in its oblique, elusive beauty is like a road map for our search for lost time.
Ashes of Time played at the New York Film Festival on Saturday. Sony Pictures Classics is releasing the film here this Friday.