‘Ashes Of Time’ screens at the University of Chicago’s Doc Films on Wednesday, February 6th at 7:00 and 9:00 p.m.
I must admit, in not having seen Wong Kar Wei’s period swordsman epic Ashes Of Time (東邪西毒, Dōng Xié Xi Dú) (Hong Kong, 1994, 2008) for quite a few years, all I could really recall were the smeary, swooshy, abstracted swordfights and Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia’s batshit crazy role as the same person living as both her own brother and his own sister. (It works, I promise…) But upon viewing it again recently, I couldn’t help but notice that the wuxia swordsmanship takes up surprisingly little of the film’s running time. Like most of Wong’s films, Ashes Of Time is a meditation on love, memory and the pull of the past.
“Someone I met recently gave me this bottle of wine. She said this wine is magic. One cup and you’ll forget your past. I thought it was nonsense. How could such a wine exist? She said the root of man’s problems is memory. Without a past, every day would be a new beginning. Wouldn’t that be great?”
A travelling free-lance swordsman, Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) tells that story to his host, Ouyang Feng, and if there’s one passage from a script of Wong’s that describes the M.O. of most of his film work, it’s that. Wong’s films are almost always populated with people who Can’t Go Home Again, and are struggling to find some kind of clarity or balance or love, again, in their present life. Huang’s companion here, Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), is himself a retired swordsman / assassin who is content to remain in his little secluded desert inn and simply refer other travelling swordsmen, or their potential clients, to each other. He’s not in that line of work anymore.
So the film is a series of travelers’ stopovers, delineated by Wong according to the seasons, even though the seasons are pretty indistinguishable in this sandy, dusty, middle-of-nowhere refuge and outpost. ‘Spring’ introduces us to that swordsman, Huang, who visits at the same time every year. On this trip, he makes the acquaintance of Murong Yang (Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia) , a humorless, serious-minded swordsman who reveals his devotion to his sister, Murong Yin (also Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia). Huang drunkenly asserts that if his sister is anything like Yang says she is, he’ll marry her. Yang accepts the offer, and arranges for Yin to meet Huang a few days later. But Huang stands her up, and Yin’s heart is irretrievably broken. Yang returns to hire Ouyang to kill Huang for dishonoring his sister, and Yin wants Ouyang to kill Yang to free her from his control and bad decisions. Ouyang refuses them both, since, by now, he, and we, both realize that Yang and Yin are the same person. (Hey, gimme a break, I didn’t name these characters…sheesh…).
Brigitte Lin, as a matter of fact, tended to specialize in these transgender roles. She wore exclusively male wardrobes in Tsui Hark’s great Peking Opera Blues (1986) (set in the early 1900s, and, trust me, that woman knows how to wear a suit!)and in New Dragon Gate Inn (1992), (where she’s a general’s lover, but also a commander in his army, and wears her fellow soldiers’ male garb). In the Jet Li vehicle Swordsman II (1992) she plays Invincible Asia, a male sorcerer who has castrated himself to become both male and female. In real life, Brigitte retired after this film to devote herself to her family. She has two daughters – she had the first when she was 41 years old, her second at 46. Impressive. But I digress…
Summer brings another visitor, a swordsman who is slowly going blind (Tony Leung Ka-fai, one of Wong’s most frequent actors). He hopes Ouyang can refer him to a job that will pay his way back home since he wants to return to see it, and his former love, while he still can. A penniless young girl (the actress and pop singer Charlie Yeung) also arrives hoping to find a swordsman who can avenge the death of her innocent brother at the hands of some bandits, but all she can pay with is her mule and a basket of eggs. Meanwhile, another group of bandits are due to return on a separate quest of vengeance, and the swordsman decides that he will take them on when they return, hoping that the nearby villagers will reward him for his protection.
Autumn brings Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung), a rustic and bedraggled swordfighter who wants to make a name for himself. He’s been hanging around the territory for a bit, but now Ouyang has work for him. Hong succeeds in brilliant fashion, and is now flush. But, unbeknownst to Ouyang, Hong has a wife who has tracked him down to here. Hong loves her, but fears no real swordsman can afford to drag a wife along with him in his travels. And also unbeknownst to Ouyang is the fact that Hong has decided to kill the poor girl’s bandits for the bargain price of one egg.
Winter doesn't so much bring a new story as revisit the other three in deeper fashion. But it’s here that Wong expands upon the stories of Ouyang, Huang and the blind swordsman against the backdrop of Hong’s fate, giving us a fuller measure of what they've left behind in their past, and how their choices ripple across their present and potential futures.
Wong Kar Wei’s films are rightly celebrated for their unique visual richness. In some ways, I suspect most audiences weren't ready to see a martial arts epic told in such an abstract expressionist style, and, unconsciously, blended Wong’s many narrative threads into the same hallucinatory wash that the visuals seem to express. But he, and the great cinematographer Christopher Doyle, deliver an extraordinary feast for the eyes, owing debts to such far-flung influences as David Lean, the early Lars Von Trier, and the eye-candy shorthand of the music video world. And, in my own case, re-watching the film opened up all sorts of specific things I hadn't noticed before, or given the script and characters credit for. (I believe the proper critics’ phrase is ‘Rewards Multiple Viewings.’)
The particular version that’s shown these days is actually a ‘recut’ of the original version. Wong discovered, in 2007, that amongst the many distributors and exhibitors who had handled prints of the film from hand-to-hand, there had been so many snips and cuts and abridgments for numerous reasons, that actual-print full versions were getting few and far between. Thinking it wise to reconstruct a new master, he discovered that the original negatives had been distressingly compromised as well (after less than fifteen years! Hey…!!). Wong created his new restored master prints in 2008. I don’t believe he altered the film in any major way – some sequences may be slightly re-ordered, with some bits of footage replaced or augmented, and he did a little soundtrack rescoring – but my impression is it’s essentially the same film, albeit in gorgeous, sterling prints. It’s sometimes referred to as Ashes Of Time Redux, but I’ll let the academics fuss over the details. (As they should. Francis Ford Coppola is notorious for tacking ‘Redux’ onto the end of his titles [The Godfather, Apocalypse Now], and he tends to do savage, almost irreparable damage to his own original negatives.) To everyone else, I unreservedly recommend this thoughtful and thrilling film, and, trust me, Christmas Has Come Early if you get a chance to see this on the big screen. Go!