Criterion Prediction #169: Ashes of Time, by Alexander Miller
Title: Ashes of Time
Cast:Brigitte Lin, Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Maggie Cheung, Tony LeungChiu-wai, Li Bai
Synopsis: Five narratives in the dusty martial world that connect to the malevolent and enigmatic Ouyang Feng aka Malicious West (Cheung), an agent who provides people with assassins and mercenaries.
Critique:There are countless wuxia/martial arts movies. The genre is as old as time itself and in this myriad filmic world where there’s many overlapping narratives, characters and themes, there’s nothing quite like Ashes of Time. For most audiences the film has a mixed reputation, for some, it’s the frustrating production that had the director so distraught he made Chungking Express as a sort of creative release. For some North Americans, their introduction arrived in the awkward re-jiggered redux release, with its updated color timing, score, and editing, while this is touted as the superior edit, and the version championed by the director, the theatrical cut of Ashes of Time is, in my opinion, the better film. Despite the updated visuals and cleaned up transfer, the original score is excised, the credits are replaced and the soundtrack is layered with dopey foley/stock effects (you know the kind of grunts and moans you’d hear in a video game?). But worst of all the narrative (which is already complicated) is reshuffled, some key scenes appear out of order while others are omitted outright, title cards are included, and the English subtitles read differently.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, this critique will be for the original Ashes of Time as it was released in 1994 as it’s the movie I have watched and studied over the years.
Wong’s wuxia epic is a marked departure from the machinations of the genre. Whereas “wuxia” translates to“martial/chivalrous heroes,” Wong paints a barren and unsparing landscape populated with wanderers and killers who are anything but honorable and light years from heroic. The famous folk heroes of martial arts pictures such as Wong Fei-hung or Ip Man abide by a code, standing on principle and honor, but the tousled wanderers of Ashes of Time wield swords and kill for money and revenge.
And, given that this is a Wong film, they’re also motivated by emotional longing and love. The Sartrean nature of Wong’s characters lends the film an atmospheric interiority laden with the director’s trademark penchant for voiceover narration. Ashes of Time is equally dependent on the significance of the unspoken word. Of course, the cast consists of familiar faces synonymous with the director (Lin, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Cheung). And who better to deliver the melancholic dialogue and carry the existential weight that defines a Wong film?
We often associate the director’s aesthetic flourishes with urban environments, the bustling cityscapes of Hong Kong and Buenos Aires reflecting the fleeting transience of romance and all that. The thematic texture in Ashes of Time translates wonderfully, the desolate dessert backdrop is equally supportive Wong’s visionary style, he and Christopher Doyle take full advantage of the open vistas, counterpointing space with negative space and all the handheld, cross-processed, intuitive means of expression that we’d expect from their collaboration. Although the fight choreography was arranged by the incomparable and legendary Sammo Hung, it’s mostly obfuscated by the virtuoso camerawork. An odd compromise that probably shooed away genre fans while probably felt offbeat to the arthouse crowd, but the more superior achievement in Ashes of Time is that the kinetic imagery comprised of dizzying technical innovation is combative in its own way, enough so that it serves as a different type of fighting.
In production, Wong seems to have lost himself in the making of the film, not in the deliberate method in which he discovers his movies in post-production. It feels like he was lost in the grasp of frustrated ambition. But the vision, scope, style, and overall maverick sensation spins a distinctly unique feature that is both gritty and sumptuous, while it’s cobbled out of genre fare it’s fundamentally a rejection of formalism, but Wong’s instincts don’t feel contrary, there’s a degree of depth to Ashes of Time not often associated with martial arts films.
Wong isn’t going to espouse dialectics but incorporates some social commentary into overarching themes of the film; consumer capitalism was a pervasive presence in the minds of many Hong Kongers toward the end of Britain’s imperialist lease.While heroes in the world of wuxia cinema are consistent with dutiful ethics Ashes of Time is made up of people whose purpose in wielding a sword is for financial gain. They too echo the absorption of capitalism, in a way that suggests the all-encompassing nature self-interest that permeated a time when Hong Kong operated under the One Country Two Systems principle.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: There are rumors and suggestions that Chungking Express is coming back into print as well as the potential inclusion of more of Wong’s work (Days of Being Wild, Happy Together). But Ashes of Time is an odd duck in the director’s filmography. There’s obviously a rift between the two versions (forums and eBay/Amazon user comments are evidence of that) and if there’s any home video distributor up to the task of providing both versions of a film, it’s the Criterion Collection. The dual versions of Othello, Red River and My Darling Clementine are good examples. Another area where they excel is giving light to titles with reputations as “flawed” (Heaven’s Gate, Ride with the Devil–two titles I happen to love) and that’s a word that unfortunately has followed Ashes of Time throughout its lifetime on home video. If Criterion moves forward and substantiates the rumors surrounding more Wong movies getting spine numbers, the addition of Ashes of Time would be an intriguing release given the film, its different versions and its reputation.