Wise Man Wong Wows With Wistful Desert Walk

Ashes of Time Redux
Running time 93 minutes
Written and
directed ByWong Kar-wai
Starring Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-wai

Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time Redux, from his own screenplay (in Cantonese and Mandarin with English subtitles), is based on the novel by Louis Cha. It combines a martial-arts background with a fatalistic meditation in the foreground on lost loves and the vagaries of memories. One feels the passionate intensity of the filmmaker in every strand of his luminously intricate narrative. In a year in which Max Ophüls’ 1995 Lola Montès is being revived for the third time at the New York Film Festival, and rereleased at Film Forum, Wong Kar-wai suddenly strikes me the Asian Max Ophüls, and I can think of no higher praise.

The director explains the genesis of Ashes of Time Redux in the film’s production notes: “In the winter of 1992, someone suggested that I make a film adaptation of Louis Cha’s famous martial-arts novel The Eagle-Shooting Heroes—I reread all four volumes of it and finally decided not to do an adaptation but instead to develop a new story about the early years of two of its main characters, Dongxie (Lord of the East) and Xida (Lord of the West). In the book, both of them appear only in old age. I chose these two because they have exactly opposite personalities; you could think of one as the antithesis of the other.”

Wong Kar-wai made an earlier version of Ashes of Time about 14 years ago, but it was never distributed in the United States. He reshot most of the scenes, and commissioned a new score that includes solos by the celebrated Chinese cellist Yo Yo Ma. This dynamic new score is a crucial element of the film’s rapturous sweep through time and memory. Mr. Wong’s regular cinematographer, the Australian Christopher Doyle, is on hand again to supply the desert canvases evoking the alternate universe of the martial-arts genre.

Still, despite a very helpful narration expressing the inner thoughts of Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), I found the narrative a bit hard to follow. Ouyang has lived a reclusive life in the western desert ever since the woman he loved jilted him to marry his brother. He now makes his living by hiring skilled swordsmen to carry out arranged contract killings.

He is visited every year by Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-fai). In their youth, Huang and Ouyang were the two best swordsmen of their generation. On his latest visit, Huang offers Ouyang a new beverage that is guaranteed to eliminate all prior memories. Ouyang declines the drink, but Huang imbibes it so freely that he wakes up the next morning with a terrible hangover, though his own memories remain intact. Yet unbeknownst to Ouyang, Huang returns every year from his visits to Ouyang to the village where the now regretful woman who once spurned Ouyang, but now longs for him, resides. Yet she will never acknowledge her true feelings to her former lover.

In what amounts to a final aria of renunciation, the woman (Maggie Cheung) expresses in a lingering close-up the fatalistic philosophy of the filmmaker. It is encapsulated in an old Buddhist saying: “The flag is still, the wind is calm. It is the heart of man that is in turmoil.”

This turmoil is repeatedly projected not only by the three major characters, but also by a succession of intrusive invaders of Ouyang’s solitude, beginning with a sibling conflict between a brother and sister, Murong Yin and Murong Yang (played by the same actress, Brigitte Lin). After Yin asks Ouyang to arrange the murder of a man who walked out of an engagement to his sister, Yang asks Ouyang just as malignantly to kill her own brother for refusing to allow her to marry the beloved suitor because of Yin’s own passionate possessiveness of her. Ouyang quickly intuits that the souls of Yin and Yang are mirror images of each other. A legend then arises of Muran, a skilled swordsman, battling his own reflected image in a lake.

Then there is a swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) who is rapidly losing his sight, who wants to go home to Peach Blossom Village to see “peach blossoms” one last time. A woman coincidentally called “Peach Blossom” turns out to be the only peach blossom to be seen in the village. Also, she is the blind swordsman’s wife .

There is also a poor peasant girl (Charlie Young) who wishes a swordsman to avenge her brother’s death. But all she can pay for the service is a mule set aside for her dowry and a basket of eggs. Ouyang advises her to go home, because she cannot afford the price of a contract killing, but she chooses to remain with her mule and basket of eggs, obdurate in her objective.

Finally, there is Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung) a swordsman on a camel, hungry and shoeless, seeking a life of adventure. Ouyang gives him a pair of boots, and a commission from the villagers to help them drive off a band of horse thieves. Hong Qi also agrees to avenge the murder of the peasant girl’s brother. But when Hong Qi is at last ready to leave the village, his wife (Bai Li) refuses to be left behind from what he imagined at the outset to be a solitary quest for glory.

The recurring mass sword fights are rendered in an almost cartoonishly abstract visual style. No matter. Their outcome is not what Ashes of Time Redux is all about. Instead, it is about men and women, their lost love and their conjoined struggle to forget and yet remember what time has deliberately destroyed. Cherchez la femme and all that. It is Wong Kar-wai’s great achievement to make us and his characters exult in their despair. How else can they know that they are truly human? As I mourn Manny Farber and Paul Newman and many of my other contemporaries in the far from merry game of life, I receive more than a little consolation from the cinematic epiphanies of Max Ophüls and Wong Kar-wai and so many other masters of my chosen medium. In this respect Lola Montès and Ashes of Time Redux are films for the ages.

asarris@observer.com