Leave it to Wong Kar Wai to take a straightforward martial arts tale and weave its characters into one of his movies about soul-searching, love, isolation, and longing. That's what happened when he made his third feature film, Ashes of Time, originally released in 1994. The source material The Legend of the Condor Heroes, by Louis Cha -- aka Jin Yong -- is a famous wuxia novel, an action/adventure that may seem a most unlikely source for one of Wong's brooding pieces, so it's to Wong's credit the movie ends up being as enrapturing as it is.
I must admit, though, seeing this film for the first time after having already experienced several of Wong's later works certainly helps in its reception. I can only imagine how confusing it might have been to view it back when it came out, especially if you heard it was a martial arts movie. The film is episodic, with a character named Ouyang Feng (the late Leslie Cheung) at its center, mostly narrating the vignettes about either wandering fighters who gain employment through his agency (he takes care of "trouble") or potential patrons looking for his services. However, rather than concentrate on scenes where sword-slinging hitmen attack the local bandits (which does happen sparingly, although depicted in an artsy style of blurred, stuttering visuals), Wong focuses on the thoughts and unrest of these sad people.
The characters are played by an all-star Hong Kong cast, and they all have relationship issues, naturally. Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka Fai) is a friend of Ouyang Feng who wants to forget his past. A blind swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) gets separated from his wife and takes a job to help fund his way back home. A pair of siblings, one a deadly fighter and the other a betrothed woman (both played by Brigitte Lin), carry on a feud based on their relationships to Huang Yaoshi. And a penniless swordsman (pop singer Jacky Cheung) struggles to reconcile his inherent nobility and heart with the detached, lone ways of his profession. Later, Maggie Cheung also makes an appearance as someone who made a foolish choice in love.
As Ouyang Feng waxes philosophical about each of these characters in turn (while also allowing some of them to wax philosophical on their own as well), Ashes of Time becomes a collage of lost hearts, revealing threads of opportunities missed or squandered, and the mood becomes one of purveying wistful introspection. Back when the film was released, it must've felt like a revelation and breath of fresh air (or, to many I'm certain, a frustrating bit of art house self-indulgence). These days, it simply feels like Wong -- his movies (I've now seen six of nine) feel like a continuing extension on the same subject of both thematic and aesthetic exploration. It doesn't matter if his characters are novelists, cops, or swordsmen -- they are all human and subject to the source of much human misery: the fickleness of timing and its effect on relationships (especially in love) and self-maturing, and the resulting burden of memory. If you like Wong's other movies, Ashes of Time will fit right into your soul.
And speaking of seeing it after possibly viewing his other, later works, Ashes of Time Redux arrives now (in late 2008) in order to give those who missed the film the first time or have only seen it on video a chance to catch it on the big screen (it never got a proper theatrical release in the U.S. the first time around). Redux is pretty much the same movie with a new soundtrack, minimal selective editing, and a great-looking cleaned-up print. Not much has significantly changed, but Wong's tweaks feel akin to what Richard Kelly did to the director's cut of Donnie Darko -- there are some titles now separating the sections distinctly under the different seasons, as if to somehow better organize what was once a flowing clutter. Like Donnie Darko's computer graphic insertions, the titles feel like an unnecessary addition to help "explain" certain aspects of the story, but they don't get in the way of what was already so appealing about the movie.
Some of the cuts are a bit baffling (especially the one involving Jacky Cheung's character and his wife), and only Wong could say why he thought they were necessary. His interests ostensibly remain the same. In the case of Ashes of Time, here are established characters from established fiction. Wong creatively imagines what their lives might've been like before they went on to more famous deeds, and what might be a driving force behind their later actions. He must believe all men and women who've encountered love must've lost its battles the first time (or first few times) around, and that many of our characters are forged out of such trials. A like-minded audience should have no trouble, then, navigating the amorphous, dreamy threads of either version of Ashes of Time.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated "R" for some violence.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.