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Original Title:
Dung che sai duk

Hong Kong 1994/2008

Drama, Wuxia

Wong Kar-Wai

Leslie Cheung
Tony Leung Ka-Fai
Maggie Cheung
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai
Jacky Cheung
Brigitte Lin
Carina Lau
Charlie Yeung
Li Bai

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Ashes of Time - Redux

Story: Ou-yang Feng (Leslie Cheung) leads a reclusive life in the desert from where he looks for swordfighters in the nearby cities to sell their skills to those in need of them. One day he gets a visit from an old friend, Huang Yao-shi (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), who brings him a magical wine that is supposed to make you forget your past. Huang drinks from it and leaves, eventually. After that Ou-yang Feng has to deal with his own past when Yin Murang (Brigitte Lin) and her brother knock at his door, whereas latter wants Haung Yao-shi to die. Soon thereafter, Feng is visited by a blind swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) who is plannig to get rid of a bunch of horse robbers for a neighboring city and who seeks shelter at his home. Only in Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung) Feng finally finds a swordsman whose skills he can sell to others for money. A homeless girl (Charlie Young), though, who can only give some eggs and her donkey as payment, one day arrives at his place and wants to hire someone who avenges her brother's death. Although Feng only wants to take further steps if he gets payed with cash Hong Qi agrees to take on the job which doesn't only get Feng into serious problems but also lets him dive deeper into his own past...

Review: After 14 years Wong Kar-Wai decided to polish up his wuxia-entry "Ashes of Time". The reason for that, according to his own words, was that there were too many different cuts circulating of which some didn't even get his blessing. Moreover, there were some things that he couldn't realize before for technical reasons. Unfortunately, I can't draw any direct comparison to the original version as I didn't watch it apart from a few scenes. However, Wong doesn't turn the whole movie upside down. He revised the soundtrack, the pictures now come with a complete new colorful look, which was needed badly given the original poor quality, and the director also cut his film five minutes shorter. That makes sense, too, because erasing some of the fights scenes simply adds to the coherence of the overall picture, that is because if you look at it closely "Ashes of Time" is a drama around love and pain, anyway, simply playing in a wuxia-framework. All in all, Wong's final cut apparently needs to be seen in the context of his after-"In the Mood for Love"-era, but a complete readaption this is surely not. "Ashes of Time" remains "Ashes of Time" as more qualified Hong Kong cinema-lovers than me also confirm.

Wong Kar-Wai's story is based on Jin Yong's "The Legend of the Condor Heroes". Yet, only in a loose way as Wong sheds some light on the background story of such characters as Ou-yang Feng and Hung Chi. The main focus clearly lies on Feng who later becomes the villian in Jin Yong's epic tale. How did Feng become the person as whom we know him? Obviously, he had no good start in his life and then there was also that unfulfilled love story... Leslie Cheung ("A Better Tomorrow", "Farewell my Concubine") manages in an impressive manner to portray this withdrawn character who is hurt deep inside, but gives a cold professional appareance, with an enormous amount of facets. For most part the movie is told from his perspective whereas he oftentimes takes over the role of the narrator with his monologues, too, and still the director manages to give the audience the feeling of a necessary objective distance. Next to Leslie Cheung's subtle performance a lot of other famous stars lose color. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai actually gets only a small role, the other Tony Leung (Ka-Fai), though, stands as a counterweight to Ou-yang Feng as he as a whole simply seems emotionally warmer than him.

Jacky Cheung ("Perhaps Love", "Bullet in the Head") as Hung Chi definitely gets only a raw deal, which is a shame, and the rest of the cast like Carina Lau, Brigitte Lin - even though latter has some nice moments - and Charlie Yeung are way behind Cheung and Leung's performances, only Maggie Cheung manages to create an enormously tense atmosphere in her small scenes. Good acting skills, and that's something you can't deny any of them to have, are without a doubt stronly needed because even though the protagonists are supposed to portray heroes Wong Kar-Wai put strong emphasis on depicting them as human beings with all their flaws and suffering they have to endure. The emotions are clearly standing in the foreground and some of the intense dialogues eventually manage to make you fall under the movie's spell. At first, however, it didn't look like you would get any emotional access to the film at all. The initial part is a bit difficult to digest, but as soon has you have gotten the part with Yin Murang behind you the movie unfolds his own unique kind of magic. Before that a lot is alienating, also thanks to the very art-like pictures and cuts as well as camera angles that seem rather questionable at times, even though the adjective "surreal" would be the better choice of word.

In the end, though, the film earns some extra points exactly because of its wonderfully poetic pictures. Art house meets style and naturally no one else than Christopher Doyle ("Hero", "In the Mood for Love") is the man behind the camera responsible for it. Thanks to the revised film material the colors finally show to advantage and the grainy look during the outdoor shots now lets us still make out everything in the landscape. The times of the blurry look of most of the movie's cuts are now gone, which is actually what discouraged me from watching this must-see. The pictures of the landscape also add to the all permeating feeling of loneliness and a love that is out of reach.
The soundtrack revised by Wu Tong and played by Yo-yo Ma replaces the original synthesizer one by Frankie Chan and Roel A. Garcia. If this was really necessary remains a question of taste, but it surely changes the mood of the film a bit and the new more classical music orientated soundtrack feels more western with its bombastic moments, even though some of the original main themes have been kept in the score.

The sword fights in "Ashes of Time" are either very fast or edited in a aesthetically heavy fashion so that martial arts fans actually won't get their money's worth here. It is too often the case that you simply can't see what's happening in the fights and since they also aren't really important to the movie it was a good decision to cut them down in the Redux-Version. "Ashes of Time" is a philosophical centered Wuxia movie in which apart from the theme of love buddhistic motives also play a major role, you just have to look at the dividing of the film in different seasons whereas at the end one circle is completed and a new one begins. Especially the dialogues and monologues towards the end are rich of content and subtlety and give the movie a great amount of emotional substance.
For some critics "Ashes of Time" was an overrated movie even in 1994 and it's true that Wong Kar-Wai especially at the beginning tells his story in a too confusing fashion and puts some scenes into the film that are simply alienating, but the feeling "Ashes of Time" still manages to arouse in the viewer even today after all these years is without a doubt proof that this is a classic. A beautiful drama told in poetic pictures.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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