by HELEN GEIB
Hong Kong writer-director Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time is a wuxia film- a martial arts fantasy– for the arthouse. It has a setting, themes, and character types immediately recognizable from its (popular art) genre, but the elliptical storytelling, intense emotionalism, and hauntingly beautiful imagery that are hallmarks of Wong’s idiosyncratic films.
Released in 1994, Ashes of Time is perhaps the least known and appreciated of its director’s major works. Its relative obscurity is a product in part of the general incomprehension of Western critics and audiences of the martial arts genre and the film’s use of genre elements, and in part of the film’s availability on DVD only in low quality imports.
The second obstacle has at last been removed with the release of Ashes of Time Redux, simultaneously a restoration and slightly altered version of the film. Redux is in effect Wong’s final cut, re-edited to be a few minutes shorter than the original release version and with a newly recorded score.
The wuxia genre is not entirely alien to today’s American moviegoer thanks to sleeper hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang Yimou’s brilliant Hero and House of Flying Daggers, and Hollywood’s entry from last year, The Forbidden Kingdom. The genre nevertheless remains strange and perplexing to most, just as the underlying Chinese history, culture, and mythology remain very little known. While Ashes of Time is a challenging film for all audiences for the usual reasons of a Wong film (the elliptical storytelling, oblique emotional cues, primacy granted the image), the foreignness of the martial arts fantasy genre causes additional difficulties for American viewers, difficulties that do not exist for an intended domestic audience intimately familiar with the genre’s conventions.
Ashes of Time was made by and for people to whom both the general and particular antecedents of the material were readily known and accessible. The enduring popularity and significance of the martial arts fantasy in Chinese cinema may reasonably be likened to that of the Western in American cinema. The film was released at the end of one of the genre’s cyclical periods of high popularity in Hong Kong cinema.
In addition, it is loosely based on- or more accurately: inspired by– works by highly popular post-war genre novelist Jin Yong. Many films and television series were adapted from his novels before, around the same time, and after Ashes of Time was released, including successful adaptations of the novels that inspired the film’s principal characters.
The lead actors, stars with established personas and significant bodies of work, brought associations to the film that may well have been even more potent for the contemporary audience than the association of the characters with Jin Yong’s novels and their earlier screen adaptations.
– Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Jacky Cheung, and Carina Lau played four of the five principal characters in Wong’s Days of Being Wild (1990), a hit film with close thematic similarities to Ashes of Time.
– Brigitte Lin as Murong Yin and Murong Yang plays a double/single role as brother and sister/split personality- yin and yang. Lin came to Ashes of Time from starring roles in several of the major martial arts fantasy films of the early 1990s, including Swordsman II, Dragon Inn, and The Bride with White Hair. Swordsman II, also based on a Jin Yong novel, famously features Lin in another type of dual male/female role.
– Tony Leung Ka-Fai and Maggie Cheung co-starred with Lin in Dragon Inn, a story of tragically lost and unrequited loves; their characters in Ashes of Time are the objects of unrequited love and themselves love without return.
A note on the DVD release: Special features include the trailer, a 45 minute interview with Wong, and a featurette about the making of the film including interviews with Wong, cinematographer and frequent Wong collaborator Christopher Doyle, and others.
Other new releases this week: Australia, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, I’ve Loved You So Long