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Thread: Wong Kar-Wai: Ashes of Time Redux (2008)

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    Wong Kar-Wai: Ashes of Time Redux (2008)

    Sine this was released October 10, I'm posting a revised review of it here, though I saw it at the NYFF (see Festival Coverage).

    WONG KAR-WAI: ASHES OF TIME REDUX (2008)

    A successfully gilded lily

    Review by Chris Knipp

    This classic ultra-stylized and (in the words of a film festival blurb) "insanely gorgeous" 1994 martial arts or wuxia film based on the Louis Cha novel The Eagle-Shooting Horses may need no introduction to film buffs now. But before Tarantinoís release of Chungking Exrpess Americans couldnít see it unless they went to Chinatown theaters or rent pirated videotapes to see it. I caught it in San Franciscoís Chinatown in a double bill with Wongís 1988 As Tears Go By in the early 90ís. But this is a much better looking print, with clear subtitles.

    According to Wong, Ashes of Timeís negatives werenít in very good shape, and a search of various versions led him to a huge warehouse somewhere near, of all places, San Franciscoís Chinatown, that contained the entire history of Hong Kong movies. He and his team put together various versions, adding a bit to what we probably know but cutting some dialogue, adding some intertitles, digitally cleaning up the images and enhancing some of the color and making many changes in the sound, adding a whole new score or "re-arrangement" by Wu Tong with cello solos by Yo Yo Ma.

    A cinematic icon today, Wong Kar-wai didn't get international recognition till 1997 at Cannes (for Happy Together), and the majority of US art-house goers didn't notice him till the theatrical release of In the Mood for Love (2000). Now ironically since the huge blowout of Wong's epic 2046 (2004), a summing up of his 60's nostalgia themes and characters, he seems prematurely to have reached a point of exhaustion, and his English-language romance Blueberry Nights (2007) was a critical failure. In this context his project of enhancing and re-editing Ashes of Time may be seen as another example of treading water. But itís still great to have it. Many have still not seen it, definitely not on a big screen, and any films as visually magnificent as Won deserve to be seen that way.

    Itís also fortunate that all his films can be seen on decent DVDís now with readable subtitles for English speakers, instead of the weird earlier Hong Kong prints with flickering titles in Chinese and peculiar English that disappeared before you could read them. Ashes of Time Redux has the best English subtitles yet both visually and linguistically.

    In short, if you savor the visual aspect of Chinese movies, this is a treat you wonít want to miss.

    Experts will have to comb over all this to explain and elucidate and evaluate the differences. The cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who was present at the press screening of the film I saw at the New York Film Festival (as were Lin and Wong), said flat out that he doesn't like the color "enhancing" bits, I donít either. Not the yellows and oranges that are heightened, or the greenish-turquoise touches that are set in, or many of the desert sand landscapes seem to have lost their surface detail. This seems unnecessary and even obtrusive. But such changes are not pervasive enough to spoil the generally magical visual experience the film provides. Other images simply look more pristine and clear; in particular Maggie Cheung, with pale face and red dress in shots long dwelt upon, looks more haunting and luminous than ever. Those shots are as gorgeous as anything youíll ever see in a movie.

    At the NYFF screening, Wong declined to say anything about what specific changes were made in the editing. He preferred to talk about how he adapted Louis Chaís novel and how this film relates to his oeuvre. Both for him and for Doyle it was an essential milestone. Featuring the late Leslie Cheung, both Tony Leungs (Chiu Wai and Ka Fai), Jacky Cheung--and with Carina Lau as Peach Blossom, the poor girl who hires the Blind Swordsman to revenge her brother's death; with Maggie Cheung as The Woman, and with martial arts film great Brigitte Lin as Murong Yin and Murong Yang, the sister and brother. Lin, now retired, was responsible for the revival of the wuxia genre and is central to this film, though Maggie Cheung is its diva, its dream lover.

    Cha's novel is a complicated 4-volume genre epic, very popular but little known or appreciated in the West. Wong studied it carefully (and made a parody of it called Eagle-Shooting Heroes) but then though he says this film unlike all his others had a fixed plan (and thus that made for a story uniquely full of fatalism), he threw away Chaís plot and just took a couple of the main characters and made up another simpler narrative imagining what the characters' lives were like when they were young. Simpler perhaps, but seemingly incomprehensible. But after this re-watching I see it does really have a coherent narrative; itís just intricate and, above all, cyclical, confusingly looped in on itself. It ends as it begins, with the narrator looking into the camera and speaking the opening lines.

    As Zdac, a perceptive IMDb user, comments, "One thing to love about this movie is the way that director Wong Kar-Wai takes the reflective internal monologues and quirky, alienated losers from his other films and transposes them to the world of Chinese heroic fantasy. Itís an interesting idea that both ennobles and deconstructs the genre."

    Ashes of Time was shot in the desert. Doyle had never worked under such harsh conditions. The film was long delayed and the shoot was difficult. Chungking Express was made in an interlude between Ashes of Time shooting. Doyle knew nothing about martial arts or Jianghu, the parallel universe of martial arts fiction. He was under extreme constraints, having very little artificial light. Nonetheless he produced some of the most beautiful sequences in modern film, because he's a great cinematographer, perhaps the greatest of recent decades, as Wong Kar-Wai is one of the defining contemporary cinematic geniuses.

    Wong is notable for his meditative and arresting voice-overs, and they're ubiquitous here: there is more talk than fighting. Here is a sample: "People say that if a sword cuts fast enough, the blood spurting out will emit a sound like a sigh. Who would have guessed that the first time I heard that sound it would be my own blood?"

    There are arresting lines like: "You gained an egg, but lost a finger. Was it worth it?"

    There are aphorisms or bits of advice: "Fooling a woman is never as easy as you think."

    It's lines like these that define the film's special combination of humor, chutzpah and noble fatalism. But as the Redux version makes clearer than before, the film is primarily anchored and structured by its grounding in the Chinese calendar. The Chinese almanac is divided into 24 solar terms and the narrative moves forward selectively through these terms, which (naturally, being chapters in an almanac) contain weather descriptions, and advice as to what is propitious or unlucky, and in what regions and directions. New inter-titles in this version add to the emphasis on this solar-calendar structure. There is also a great deal about oblivion and forgetfulness (which are linked with wine, including a magic wine that eliminates memory). The desert and drinking are visual touchstones throughout as are pairs, opposites, and contrasts; and there is cross-dressing and perhaps bisexual love. The images are full of flickering light--figures shot by Doyle through a huge intricate wicker basket are particularly mesmerizing. The shadows from that basket may seem gratuitous, but only as Cezanneís apples are gratuitous.

    The sword fights, which do not begin until a long way into the film, are for the most part without the acrobatic feats actually performed or digitally faked as in current martial arts films, though they are elaborately staged by the action choreographer Sammo Hung. They are a symphony of fast cutting, closeups, blurs, and slow motion (which Wong intended particularly to express the fatigue of the Blind Swordsman in the film).

    Derek Elley of Variety thinks the alterations, notably the new non-synth musical accompaniment with a "heavier" western classical sound; the inter-titles; the dialogue cuts and the addition of Lin's own voice in her Mandarin dialogue, "have the effect of taking the pic out of the period in which it was made and giving it a look and feel that was largely alien to Hong Kong cinema of the mid-'90s." This seems to me irrelevant, since Wongís take on the genre was already highly original, and the film still seems very much itself and even more so, and, except for the occasional excesses in color "enhancement," this is a very fine re-release. Devotees can always go back and watch their copies of the earlier version on tape and DVD. Part of the New York Film Festival, this is a Sony Pictures Classics release opening in US theaters starting October 10, 2008. Donít miss it! Donít worry about understanding it. Later you can read all about it in a book, like Stephen Teoís Wong Kar-Wai: Auteur of Time (2005). Meanwhile, just drink in the images and sound.
    _________________
    ©Chris Knipp 2008
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 10-31-2008 at 09:58 PM.

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    COMMENTS REGARDING ASHES OF TIME REDUX

    I had a wonderful afternoon. Having completed my work and school responsibilities, I watched ASHES OF TIME (1994) at home (the best dvd version available anywhere, the Mei Ah dvd sanctioned by WKW) then I drove to South Beach to watch ASHES OF TIME REDUX. I listed my favorite Wong Kar Wai film among my Top 10 films of the 1990s.

    I had heard about what's different about the new version, not from WKW who mostly wants fans to find out for themselves but from Ashes of Time devotees. The problem is that there are a number of "old" versions both on film and disc and one never knows which of these "old" or "original" versions anyone is using as a point of reference. Anyway, one IMdb poster who claims he watched Redux "three times at Cannes" made a rather specific list of what's different about the new version. I didn't see as many differences perhaps because my point of reference is reportedly the best version available on dvd (I've read that the version released in France is absolutely "worthless" but who knows for sure).

    Anyway this is what matters: the version I watched at home is 97 and one half minutes long and the Redux version is officially 93 minutes long. Two of the four minutes cut come from an action sequence right at the beginning, a sort of flashforward that partly serves to whet the appetite of action/martial arts fans who might be disappointed by the fact that no such scene appears for the next half hour or so. The scene looks as great as the rest of the film but it serves no clear narrative purpose at the onset of the film and some of its shots (like the ones involving a gang of horse thieves) are repeated later on. The other two minutes excised from the Redux version are little bits removed here and there that would be almost imperceptible to most. The new version adds new opening and closing credit sequences (the latter is changed completely. It's here where the revamped score is most noticeable because of Yo Yo Ma's solos). Anyone paying attention to the voice-over and the color scheme could tell when each of the five sections ends and the next one begins. The new version adds chapter headings. Nothing wrong with that. I guess that it facilitates understanding the plot for some that feel its rather dense. Having seen the film numerous times over the course of many years, my opinion about the film's narrative legibility is of little value (for what is worth: I don't think it's as complicated as some have reported although one has to read subs and admire the gorgeous audiovisuals at the same time and that might simply overwhelm most viewers). Parsing the narrative is one of the major pleasures the film has to offer and I think providing a synopsis would deprive the reader of it. It would be different to answer specific questions from someone who has already seen it.

    Basically I think the Redux version is just as great as the old one. I love the fact that we'll have a version of the film in which the colors are not faded (this occurs to a certain extent in all existing home versions because the dvds used prints that had been around for several years before dvds of the film began to appear around 1999 or thereabouts). Otherwise I don't see anything that makes Redux SIGNIFICANTLY better or worse than the version I own on dvd. I am very happy that the new version retains the graininess of the stock that gives the film an impressionistic quality and that the narrative structure is maintained. If you love movies you owe it to yourself to go to your local theater and watch ASHES OF TIME as soon as you can (the film is not being heavily advertised and will be removed from theaters if folks don't show up). If I was to think of it as a 2008 film (I don't), it would be the best film of the year, as far as I'm concerned.

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    Experts will have to comb over all this to explain and elucidate and evaluate the differences.
    I'm quoting myself there. Well, the fine points still remain for the Wong specialists to elucidate, but you've given more specifics than I did--at the time I wrote most of the above, I had not watched an earlier version for some time.

    I sometimes wish your entries were more collegial, less solipsistic. You declared hautily to mouton that this is a discussion web site, but you more often dismiss or declare than discuss. You do not respond to my comments or acknowledge that this thread begins with them.
    Basically I think the Redux version is just as great as the old one.
    It's a shame that you go into detail about the differences, yet are so undiscriminating about crucial aesthetic points.

    I certainly agree with you that the inter-titles don't hurt a bit and the new music is mostly just at the beginning and end. (The music was arguably obtrusive already; it isn't any more so really. ) Given the nature of the film, it's a good idea that the action sequence at the beginning has been excised--which I also realized of course on rewatching a DVD--and for the reason you note as well. (I have the Mei Ah DVD too.) I'm not so crazy about the new opening and closing credit sequences (which I also became conscious of when watching the DVD recently), but at least they don't mess with the film itself.

    But I still definitely agree with h Doyle himself, who indicated at the NYFF Q&A that he does not like the visible pumping up of the color (not to mention the blanking out of detail in some desert shots), which he did not authorize. This was more, not less, noticeable when I saw Redux on a local smaller screen (in Berkeley) than when I saw Redux on the big screen at the Walter Reade Theater during the NYFF. Not all the color enhancement is objectionable. The shots of The Woman (Maggie Cheung) or unbelievably beautiful, and has no visible extraneous color added. But a lot of it is very visible and very artificial looking and excessive.

    This is a crucial point, since this "insanely beautiful" film is first and foremost about the visual. I wish there were something between the faded color of the old film versions and DVDs on the one hand, and the excessively pumped up and set in color of Redux, on the other. But time for Wong to move on to something new, if he can. And I certainly agree, and stated in my review at the outset, that it's "great" for new members of the public to see the film in theaters--but I wish the could see it with something closer to its original color.

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    I love ASHES OF TIME and I would be angry if WKW had done anything that significantly changes the experience of it. I consider the changes largely superficial and cosmetic. I am not being "undiscriminating". I simply don't think the film has been altered in any SIGNIFICANT way. I hate to have to repeat myself or have to state the obvious. But I feel I must when labels are hurled in my direction. Whenever I strongly agree or disagree with something written here, and whenever someone asks me a question, I manage to find the time to produce some type of a response. I'd be against my principles to attempt to suit the style or content of these responses to anyone's wishes or expectations.

    I hope to return to this thread with some commentary about the film's themes and the huge emotional rewards available to those who become engaged by the plight of the characters. At the moment I have a long list of required screenings and essay readings that will lamentably take my mind off ASHES. I hope that other members and readers will watch the film in the interim.

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    Thanks guys.
    This thread is a good read.
    Never seen this film

    :(
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    Johann, go to the CO Carlton Cinema in Toronto at your first opportunity to watch ASHES OF TIME.

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    I'd be against my principles to attempt to suit the style or content of these responses to anyone's wishes or expectations.
    Once again, the haughty air that is so unconducive to discussion--the suggestion that it would be beneath you to adjust your remarks to another person. It's hard to have a debate or discussion without making some adjustments or acknowledge that one is talking back and forth to someone else. What I'm suggesting is that you might just address your response to the person, and refer speficilally to the points the person has made. I was not "hurling labels" in your "direction." I was addressing your entries, not you.

    Our only point of difference on the film itself really is whether or not the color changes in Redux are superficial or cosmetic.

    Needless to say, I would go and see this film in its new form in any case, particularly if I hadn't seen it before. I've already seen it twice.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-01-2008 at 04:23 PM.

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    I think we all should be aware of an elemental fact:
    our identities in the present forum, who we are, is exclusively conveyed by means of our "entries". In this realm of human interaction, we are our entries. When making a reference regarding a person's "entries" rather than a single one (or ideally, a specific comment included in one post) you are making a reference about the person. To attempt to dictate or direct the style or content of a person's "entries" in general amounts to an infringement on the person's right to decide who they are or want to be within this realm.

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    You're on the ball Oscar.

    I read an interview with Wong Kar-Wai in the paper today.
    He said the original print of his film had scratches and other marrings and he felt the need to re-cut and restore it.
    He also had the music re-done.

    I feel compelled to check out the film. Will do my best to get there soon.
    Last edited by Johann; 02-03-2009 at 05:07 PM.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    Seeing this tomorrow night.
    Here's some excerpts from the interview I clipped out of the Globe and Mail:


    Wong Kar-Wai, now 50, wearing his trademark dark glasses and suit, spoke recently at the TIFF, where Ashes of Time Redux, his salvaged version of the 1994 film, made it's North American debut. He recalled the night in 1999 when he received a call saying the company that stored the negative for Ashes of Time was going bankrupt. He had one evening to collect his materials, but when he got them, he discovered to his horror that the print was in pieces, soaked in water and marred with scratches.

    Some of the film was too badly damaged to be saved.
    There were other versions of the film around- action-oriented edits for the Taiwan and South Korean markets, a festival version and an international cut- but none was definitive.
    Over the next few years, Wong started the job of restoring the film.
    Eventually, he cut 10 minutes from the original film and used alternative takes to bridge the narrative gaps.
    He decided it was also a good opportunity to re-record the score with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and restructure the film to give it more clarity by breaking it into chapters.

    Based on the hugely popular 4-volume Louis Cha martial arts epic The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, Ashes of Time was Wong's third film and first independent production with his new Jet Tone Films company.Because Cha's novel had been adapted for the screen before, Wong decided to create his own version, imagining a prequel to the novel, a decision that he says "was considered very controversial".

    By the time he and his crew had finished shooting, he says We realized if we could do this, we could do anything.

    With his typical awareness of time's remorseless march, Wong adds: It makes me think of the tagline to HEAVEN'S GATE:
    What one loves about life are the things that fade.
    Last edited by Johann; 11-04-2008 at 06:09 PM.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    Very curious about your response to the film, Johann.

    Currently thinking about the issue of best-of lists, which I deem essential in terms of reflecting what one considers to be the films that provide the most compelling rationale for all the time, energy and money one spends watching, studying and writing about movies; a forum to declare one's love and appreciation for what some movies teach us about life and about ourselves and the inherent pleasures involved.

    Most specifically, I'm thinking about the criteria for including older movies like The Exiles (1961) and Ashes of Time (1994). Both of these outstanding films have been screened before this year but it's hard to figure whether those screenings constitute a proper release or not. Another issue is whether or not the versions released in the present are sufficiently altered to consider the current "redux" or "restored" versions a diferent film. I consider the "redux" version of Apocalypse Now significantly altered by the addition of two long sequences whereas the "redux" version of Ashes of Time doesn't feel like a new movie to me. Last year I decided not to list Killer of Sheep based on research that indicates it had brief theatrical runs over the 30 years since its premiere. Sometimes I feel I should have listed it as a way to honor perhaps the best film I watched in 2007 even if it was a re-release.

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    Total Eclipse

    Ashes of Time

    I've never seen the original cut and I'm wondering how such a glorious work of art escaped my eyes.

    Isn't Maggie Cheung gorgeous?
    This film has images of such power and muted awe that I'm sure Stanley Kubrick would've loved it. I especially loved those shots of the sun or moon with fog/mist. The colors! The use of yellow and blue and green..breathtaking work by Christopher Doyle.
    Stunning camerawork. This is a Masterpiece of cinema.
    A definitive, without question Masterpiece.

    The swordfights are exercises in artistic gore, with frequent use of slow motion and Godard-like edits and jump cuts.
    Very very kinetic film.
    A film for movie lovers.
    I also loved the cuts to blue/green waves or such things as gorgeously colored desert scapes or dream sequences that involve the characters' lives.
    Gotta see this one more than once.
    It's only a little more than an hour and half in length but it has the weight and feel of an 8-hour epic poem.
    Lots to get lost in here, lots of rich, epic, absorbing ideas and themes.
    Fucking love it.
    The music is as great as you can get at the movies.
    The philosophies grab me as well.
    Thank you Wong Kar-Wai.
    Thank you for this Classic film that belongs in the pantheon.
    Last edited by Johann; 11-08-2008 at 07:08 PM.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    What I love about the best movies is the way they create a world, a landscape.
    Ashes of Time creates a landscape that lingers in the mind after you see it.
    I'm still thinking of images from the film: the way she layed on the horse, the torch falling to the floor, the way Wong shoots the sky, the way he captures nature: the winds, the storm, the rains, even sand. Simply beautiful captures of nature's wickedness.

    There is definitely some poetic cinematic action going on.
    From the gorgeous opening credits (I could watch those credits forever, over and over) to the haunting ending, this film has immortal aims. You believe that anything is possible within the cinematic realm when you watch this opus.
    Quentin Tarantino loves epic, dramatic, kinetic cinema such as this. True movie lovers love the primacy of the image and the marriage of appropriate music to it.
    It's all here.
    In one movie.
    Made in 1994.
    Pantheon Picture.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    Oh yeah! Pantheon Picture. That's right. Now you guys understand my disappointment when that WKW box came out and it didn't include his best film. Going back to the theater today for a third theatrical viewing of ASHES. Then to Little Havana for a rare screening of BIRDSONG, the new one from Albert Serra (Honor de Cavalleria).

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