Film Review: Re-editing a memory is a formidable task for 'Ashes of Time Redux'

 Leslie Cheung and Jacky Cheung are master swordsmen in 'Ashes of Time Redux,' filmmaker Wong Kar-wai's re-edit of his 1994 film, 'Ashes of Time.'

Photo by Lau Wai Keung and Chan Yuen Kai/Block 2 Pictures, Lau Wai Keung and Chan Yuen Kai/Block 2 Pictures

Leslie Cheung and Jacky Cheung are master swordsmen in "Ashes of Time Redux," filmmaker Wong Kar-wai's re-edit of his 1994 film, "Ashes of Time."

The bittersweet melancholy and slippery unreliability of memory -- particularly the memory of unrequited, abbreviated or idealized love -- is a persistent theme in the work of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai.

And yet, cinema is a way of, essentially, freezing memory: The images and sounds captured on film last forever, or at least as long as the film itself.

 Leslie Cheung and Jacky Cheung are master swordsmen in 'Ashes of Time Redux,' filmmaker Wong Kar-wai's re-edit of his 1994 film, 'Ashes of Time.'

Photo by Lau Wai Keung and Chan Yuen Kai/Block 2 Pictures

Leslie Cheung and Jacky Cheung are master swordsmen in "Ashes of Time Redux," filmmaker Wong Kar-wai's re-edit of his 1994 film, "Ashes of Time."

In ancient China, Ouyang Feng is a fallen swordsman who is afraid of love after having his heart broken. But the bounty hunters that work ...

Rating: R for some violence

Length: 93 minutes

Released: October 10, 2008 Limited

Cast: Jacky Cheung, Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Chiu Wai

Director: Kar Wai Wong

Writer: Kar Wai Wong

More info and showtimes »

Or do they? "Ashes of Time Redux" is Wong's re-edit of his 1994 film, "Ashes of Time," inspired by the epic "Condor Heroes" novels of Chinese author Jin Yong and the popular wuxia (heroic swordplay) movies of Hong Kong.

Wong says he decided to construct this theoretically definitive "redux" when he discovered that the original elements for the film were scattered and deteriorating, and that different cuts of the film were in circulation. So those with memories of the original "Ashes of Time" -- admittedly, a small minority of moviegoers -- may find themselves questioning the accuracy of their recollections when they watch "Redux," as if they were characters in the film itself.

According to reports, Wong has shortened "Ashes of Time" from 100 to 93 minutes; added new music cues, featuring the cello fo Yo-Yo Ma; and digitally tinted some of Christopher Doyle's beautiful cinematography. I haven't seen the original version, but the color in this "Redux" is sometimes so "hot" that the desert sand looks like the powder in a Kraft macaroni-and-cheese mix. Far more effective are the images that appear to have retained their original contrasts: Wong demonstrates that simple closeups can appear almost as kinetic as action shots, if the light from a pool of water or the shadows of a spinning bird cage are dancing across the actor's face.

In a recent interview in New York magazine, Wong -- whose most recent movie, "My Blueberry Nights," was partly shot in Memphis -- described "Ashes of Time" as "not like the standard martial-arts film; it's more like Shakespeare meets Sergio Leone, but in Chinese."

Set against the passing of the seasons as marked by the Chinese calendar, the circular, confused story unfolds as if in a dream -- and, in fact, the movie may be occurring inside the head of the narrator, a hermit-like swordsman named Ouyang Feng, played by the late Hong Kong superstar, Leslie Cheung. (The cast is loaded with superstars from the twin industries of Asian filmdom and pop music.)

"The root of man's problems is memory," comments Ouyang; even so, he's reluctant to drink the magic wine of forgetfulness offered by a visiting swordsman- for-hire (Tony Leung Ka Fai).

In "Ashes of Time," senses fail even if memories linger, and identities become confused. (What else would one expect from a film with this title?) Brigitte Lin (in her last movie to date) plays twin characters named Yin and Yang -- or is it one person pretending to be brother and sister? One martial artist goes blind; another says: "I lost my real self." Motivated by honor and passion, the characters keep secrets from one another; Wong, too, withholds information from the viewer, preferring mystery to clarity.

Although most of the characters are martial-arts masters, the movie contains little action. The few scenes of combat that do occur are brief but exhilarating: stunning slow-motion blurs of tumbling bodies, swooshing robes and flashing blades, punctuated by the odd splash of blood. This is martial arts as imagined by the painter, Francis Bacon. (The movie's "R" rating for violence is absurd.)

I admit I'm not a fan of post-release tampering with films, whether the re-editing occurs years later, as in the case of "Ashes of Time," or as a quick sales gimmick for DVD. Would we have wanted Picasso to go to the Prado with a brush and some tubes of paint to "fix" portions of "Guernica" that he didn't like? Even so, my reaction to the original "Ashes of Time" probably would be as mixed as my response to this redux.

Wong has created some masterpieces (don't miss "In the Mood for Love"), but I found "Ashes" to be overly talky and theoretical. Instead of cutting minutes, Wong should have trimmed the language; too many characters make too many statements about life and love that are less eloquent than the silent play of light and shadow.

The film is at Malco's Ridgeway Four.

-- John Beifuss, 529-2394

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