I never know how to describe Ashes of Time. The first–and probably last–time I tried, I describe it as a mix of Magnolia and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. As difficult as it is to describe, it’s got to be impossible to advertise–a character-based martial arts film, where fight scenes lack any visceral impact. Wong stylizes them, but not for any entertainment value. Given he’s become a more recognized and marketable filmmaker since the film’s initial release, as this “redux” edition started, I wondered if he’d tried to make it more palatable to any of the fans he picked up following that Norah Jones music video he made.
Pleasingly–and surprisingly–he did not. Ashes of Time is as hostile to the passive filmgoer as ever.
What’s most amazing, in terms of the narrative, is how Wong approaches his storytelling. The film opens with a few minutes, then skips ahead an indeterminate period of time. Wong separates the film into seasons (a possible addition to the redux edition, but I’m not sure) and, at the third of five seasons, foretells the protagonist’s future. It’s a strange and wonderful move, playing with the point of storytelling–if the reader knows the ending at the beginning, it’s going to change how he or she experiences the narrative–but to reveal the ending as an aside, it’s an entirely different effect. In Ashes of Time, it contributes to the film’s surreality.
The film’s visual style is one of its most hostile features. Set in a panoramic desert, in a small village, Wong never shows the village in an establishing shot. The desert never gets a vista shot for narrative’s sake. There’s only one time he even comes close and then it’s to emphasize the shot’s singular presence in the film. Much of the film takes place inside Leslie Cheung’s house, which is occasionally seen from the exterior but certainly not long enough to give the viewer any real sense of it.
There’s a wonderful scene between Cheung and Brigitte Lin where it’s nothing but close-ups.
The film’s actors have a rather awkward task here. There are lots of monologues, lots of close-ups–Maggie Cheung basically just has a long, single shot monologue. They’re in ornate costumes, playing these historical, mythic characters, but delivering these humanizing, rendering lines. In addition to delivering the majority of these monologues, Leslie Cheung narrates almost all of the film–both exposition and internal reflection–giving him the hardest task.
Both the Tony Leungs–Chiu Wai and Ka Fai–have good roles. Chiu Wai has the flashier role, but the importance of Ka Fai’s performance gradually comes through. Lin’s excellent, as is Charlie Yeung in a smaller role. Maggie Cheung’s monologue–her delivery of it–is invaluable.
While Christopher Doyle’s photography is–as always–wonderful, it’s the editing here. William Chang and Patrick Tam out do any expectation. Ashes of Time gets better as it moves along, every pitch perfect. The omnipresent musical score–from Frankie Chan and Roel A. García–transports the viewer into Wong’s created world. While he based it–loosely–on a novel, what Wong does in Ashes of Time is create a setting the viewer cannot be familiar with, but can’t be foreign in either. It’s an immersive experience, one requiring active participation with wonderful result.
Directed by Wong Kar-wai; screenplay by Wong, based on a novel by Louis Cha; director of photography, Christopher Doyle; edited by William Chang and Patrick Tam; music by Frankie Chan and Roel A. García; production designer, Chang; produced by Jeffrey Lau, Jacky Pang Yee Wah and Wong; released by HKFM Releasing.
Starring Bai Li (Hong Qi’s Wife), Jacky Cheung (Hong Qi), Leslie Cheung (Ouyang Feng), Maggie Cheung (Brother’s Wife), Carina Lau (Peach Blossom), Tony Leung Chiu Wai (Blind Swordsman), Tony Leung Ka Fai (Huang Yaoshi), Brigitte Lin (Murong Yin / Murong Yang) and Charlie Yeung (The girl).