Devastated when the woman he loved rejected him for his brother, Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) retreated to the wilds of China’s western desert.
He wallows now in melancholy solitude and has no use for other human beings except as clients or hired swords. He spends his time commissioning others to kill. At the beginning of Ashes of Time Redux, Ouyang Feng faces the camera and explains the benefits of paying him to provide protection. He is speaking to some frightened villagers, but also to the viewer, and the contract that director Wong Kar Wai establishes with his audience promises martial-arts violence.
Though it features highly stylized swordplay, this film delivers more brooding than fighting. If most cinema mimics the shapes and textures of novels, this work is a poem. Hong Kong-based Wong Kar Wai does have tales to tell (derived from the wuxia writings of Louis Cha), but they are presented elliptically, in murky chronology. Visitors make their way to Ouyang’s remote abode, either to seek his lethal services or a commission to perform them. They include a beautiful but penniless maiden who wants to avenge her brother’s killing; a sister and brother (both played by Lin) who each petition for the other’s death (“You two have an odd relationship,” Ouyang observes); a blind swordsman; a pauper who seeks glory as an invincible fighter. However, Ashes of Time Redux, which is organized into five sections, each a different season, functions less as a story than a sensuous meditation on love, betrayal, and death.
Despite the title, this is not a sequel, but rather a new version of a film that was released, to general indifference (except for hardcore aficionados of jianghu, the alternative universe inhabited by martial-arts warriors), in 1994. Wong has radically re-edited the footage and added a mesmerizing new music track. The result is a cinematic experience that is, for better or worse, original. Wong makes abundant use of extreme closeups and slow motion and cuts unpredictably to fantasies and flashbacks. He mixes and washes his gorgeous colors on the screen, regaling the eye with frames that resemble brushwork more than photographic images: an animated Kandinsky gouache.
Ashes of Time Redux begins with a Buddhist epigraph: “The flag is still. The wind is calm. It’s the heart of the man that is in turmoil.” At the heart of the film is a sad awareness of human fallibility. “I learned the best way to avoid rejection is to reject others first,” declares Ouyang, who has turned his secluded residence into a factory for sententious remarks. When a visitor notes, “Everyone wants to know what’s beyond this desert,” Ouyang replies, “Another desert.” Memory offers scant consolation for current disappointment. “The more you try to forget,” he observes, “the better you remember.” What is most memorable about Ashes of Time Redux is neither the backstory that it provides for characters who would become legends nor its fancy swordplay, but rather its flashy play with sight and sound. •