Wong Kar-Wai has consistently offered a distinct but learned approach to cinema. His work is among the most widely distributed of Hong Kong film, partly for its accessibility and appeal to Western audiences, but also for its background in the Chinese film tradition. Wong Kar-Wai straddles the line well, giving us an occasionally staid, occasionally erratic visual style indicative of both elements of his country’s cinema. In the Mood for Love (2000), for example, slows us down, forcing us into the deep pensiveness of his characters and cramming us in tiny flats in a gorgeous yet somber Hong Kong; Fallen Angels (1995) crams us too, but we move quickly and in spurts, jumping around the darkened city in a more stylized manner. Kar-Wai’s career has evolved from the high-strung grittiness of his earlier work to the more passive, stunning, and emotionally painful recent oeuvre. Meanwhile, Ashes of Time: Redux is a conversation, at least in concept, between the director’s two methods, in which, unfortunately, both voices compete for space.
The title, Ashes of Time: Redux, provocatively elicits a Hollywood action film. The redux suffix harkens back to an epic revisited (think Apocalypse Now Redux) and serves as a testament to Kar-Wai’s appeal to the West. Originally released in 1994, the filmmaker considered the first version of Ashes of Time incomplete. Multiple prints of the film floated around, and a “complete” version, if there is such a thing, never came to light. Kar-Wai has apparently felt the need to revisit the work, using artistic hindsight to deliver a definitive version, but, like any director’s post-mortem tinkering, it feels crude and devious. Kar-Wai’s decision to cobble together the various versions of Ashes of Time with the intent of punching up character motivations and the sequencing of scenes undermines the credibility and merit of any version of the original.
Treating entire movies like drafts may be permissible to some, but the filmmaker who started the project is not the filmmaker who finished it. Film is an archival medium, not just of action but of artistic growth and intent. To say that this is the true Ashes of Time, rather than the film of 1994, denies history, most painfully Wong Kar-Wai’s. Couple that with the disappointing end result, and Kar-Wai has most certainly let us down.
The story is, by all accounts, convoluted. Drawing on the director’s fascination with the passage of time and its lasting effects on his characters, Ashes of Time: Redux is best described as a film of themes. There is a swordsman, there are relationships, and there is a plot somewhere, but it is unnecessarily complicated and frustrating. Described quite aptly as “elliptical” and “drifty” by The New York Times' Manohla Dargis, Ashes of Time: Redux demands that we consider the context. In the Mood for Love and 2046 could be described in exactly those terms, yet the passage of time in those films, and their intangible plots, are far more effective.
When relationships and plot chronology are understood, and when one need not dedicate so much effort to comprehending the film's framework, the atmosphere and tone can cohere to the story. But these basic elements in Ashes of Time: Redux work against the movie, and all that is left is the aesthetic. Unfortunately, that aesthetic is of contemporary Kar-Wai -- that is to say, it's immensely beautiful and visually captivating, but it doesn't fit his older films. The movie isn't unwatchable or worthless in its new form, but it isn't a definitive take on the original, either. The saving grace of the film is in its meta-theme and narrative: the slow passage of time can be painful. Apparently, the past 14 years were so painful for Wong Kar-Wai that he just couldn’t let go.