In 1994, Wong Kar-Wai made a film called Ashes of Time: a movie of much greater budget than he'd ever been given before, in a genre (wuxia, martial arts) previously unknown to him, with a cast comprising some of the biggest names in Hong Kong cinema at the time. The project became an infamous boondoggle, so benighted in post-production that Wong found time to write, direct, edit and release an entire motion picture - the magnificent Chungking Express - in the time spent noodling around with the Ashes footage. Eventually, it was released in a version that the director found only borderline acceptable, and its general reputation among his partisans would confirm that it is, indeed, not quite what you'd expect from a Wong Kar-Wai picture
Artists being artists, Wong never quite got over his frustrations with the project, which led to the premiere at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival of a heavily rejiggered, seven-minute shorter version of the footage, a definitive final cut which was meant not just to replace the original in his canon but also to provide the film with its first US theatrical release. And whatever else may be true, that version - titled Ashes of Time Redux - cannot possibly be mistaken for anything but quintessential Wong Kar-Wai.
I've never seen the lon 1994 cut, and so I can't really say how different the two are, whether they share essentially the same plot or emotional beats. I do know that the new version has had extensive new color timing applied during the corrupted footage's restoration, to such a degree that the film's cinematographer Chris Doyle has registered some complaints about the final project. Here is something else I know: it's not well to idly piss off Chris Doyle. But however far from the DP's original intent the new Ashes of Time might be, it is unfathomably gorgeous; perhaps even the most gorgeous film Wong has yet made, which is not a bit of praise I hand out lightly. Filled top to bottom with garish colors, all skewed heavily to the yellow end of the spectrum, the film doesn't look anything like reality, but purely as an abstract blend of hues it's like nothing else in theaters, comparable in recent memory only to Tarsem's The Fall, which was released in the US over this past summer.
Okay, so it's a sublimely beautiful Wong Kar-Wai picture. What can I tell you that you didn't already know? It might also be the director's hardest film as a narrative, which is also not something to say lightly. This is after all the man behind the inscrutable 2046. Here's what I'm comfortable saying: there is a man named Ouyang Feng (the late, lamented Leslie Cheung), who abandoned his home at White Camel Mountain to set up a business of sorts in the desert, brokering deals for people who need to find a great swordsman to commit assassinations. He has a good friend named Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-Fai, the one from 2005's Election), who visits him yearly in the spring to tell of his adventures. Over the course of one year, divided into the five seasons of the Chinese almanac, Ouyang receives a commision from two siblings, Murong Yin and Murong Yang (both played by Brigitte Lin), whose attempts to screw each other over hide an increasingly dense nest of secrets; he meets a swordsman losing his eyesight (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, the one from 2002's Infernal Affairs), whom Ouyang once knew, and who has a vendetta against Huang, but meets his doom in a battle against an army of bandits; he then meets another swordsman, Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung) looking for adventure, followed by his wife (Bai Li), looking to join her husband in whatever adventures he might find; and eventually he journeys to Peach Blossom Village to find the blind swordsman's widow (Carina Lau). At this same time, Huang recalls the times he spent visiting Ouyang's former lover (Maggie Cheung). Eventually, both Ouyang and Huang strike off into lands unknown, to fulfill their destinies and become the Lord of the West and Lord of the East - the circumstance in which the find themselves in Louis Cha's novel The Eagle-Shooting Horses, which in a very loose way serves as the film's basis.
Even in that form, it doesn't look like much happens in a strict plot sort of way, and guess what? I've made it a lot clearer than it is in the film. But it's fairly evident that Wong's goal isn't to tell a straightforward martial arts story. In a lot of ways - and I think this might be why it was so frustrating for him back in 1994 - Ashes of Time is more like his later films, with their emphasis on emotion and feeling over plot: In the Mood for Love, 2046, My Blueberry Nights. It's the work of Wong Kar-Wai in his mad Romantic guise, the one who wasn't fully formed yet in the mid-'90s, when his films had a stronger emphasis on style and setting. The film opens with Huang giving Ouyang a bottle of magic wine that will make the drinker forget his past, and from that moment on the film verily basks in nostalgia and remembrance; most of what makes it so difficult is that we're often given little clue as to whether any particular moment is what's happening right then, or if it's someone's memory of a time long past. The two main characters are trapped between their history and their destiny, looking in both directions so intently that their present becomes almost an afterthought.
In other words, it's not much like any other wuxia out there, and except for one wildly stylised sequence at the end of the second chapter, "Xiazhi" (loosely, "Summer"), there's nothing that could legitimately be called an action sequence. The cynic might call this an example of the director chickening out in the face of something new and challenging, but I prefer to think of it thus: Wong looked at the book, figured out what interested him, and made the movie he wanted to make, and to hell with generic conventions. The result is a fantastic Wong Kar-Wai movie, although the gap between "a fantastic Wong Kar-Wai movie" and "a sensible, good movie" is probably best left to the individual's tastes. At any rate, I can't say that Ashes of Time is where I'd start somebody out if I wanted to turn them into a fan of the director's work.
Because make no mistake: it's confusing and it's hard, and it's so incredibly stylish that half the time you can't even figure out what's going on physically in space. I loved it, but I am a fanboy. And to see the first flush of what would turn out so wonderfully when he would revisit it in 2046, ten years later, as reworked from the perspective of four years later than that movie, this to me is a rare and wonderful treat. It's not one of his masterpieces, but it's dazzling and overwhelming nonetheless.