Ashes of Time Redux (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Martha P. Nochimson
Written and directed by Wong Kar-wai; cinematography by Christopher Doyle; produced by William Chang Suk Ping; music by Frankie Chan, Roel Garcia. Starring Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Jackie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, and Carina Lau. DVD, color. 93 min. Distributed by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
Among all of Wong Kar-wai’s films, Ashes of Time, originally distributed in 1994 and restored and subtly reedited in 2009, is one of his least known, and (until now) least accessible films. It is also his most overt testament to his interest in China’s long history of art and thought—a passion almost invisible in his best known, most celebrated cinema. Loosely based on Louis Cha’s modern adaptation of Eagle-Shooting Heroes, an ancient series of Chinese martial-arts tales, Ashes substantially refashions Cha’s narratives in ways that reflect Wong’s poetic imagination and his point of view about the relevance of the ancient to the modern world. The 2009 DVD of Ashes of Time Redux, a newly remastered, rescored, color- corrected version of the 1994 original, makes it possible for a large spectatorship to become acquainted with its cinematic beauty, as well as its ingenious narrative use of the classical Chinese approach to history and time.
The film and the revealing Q&A between Wong and Jim Hoberman of The Village Voice, the disc’s principal extra, offer a unique opportunity to peer into Wong’s artistry. Wong’s lucid explanation of his work practices and his attitude toward film also gives aficionados the chance to rethink the surprising number of commentaries by Western critics who insist there is an overt politics in his films, such as David Bordwell’s assertion that all Hong Kong movies immediately preceding England’s 1997 handover of Hong Kong to Communist China should be understood as expressing anxiety about this unsettling change in political status. Close consideration of Ashes and Wong’s very candid comments to Hoberman suggest the opposite. Ashes of Time, like all of Wong’s films, contains no explicit political messages about anything. But it might be said to have a political life of sorts as a revelation of the futility of the atrocities committed by the Red Guard to eliminate the philosophy and art of precommunist China.
Given the harsh suppression by Mao of all things connected with the thousands of years of Chinese civilization before the Communist Revolution—particularly during the 1960s and early 1970s, when his Red Guard engaged in the savage destruction of traditional works of art and architecture, as well as people with expertise that could be traced to precommunist traditions—a film that cherishes those traditions, or some of them, may well be considered a de facto political act. This seems a particularly apt description of Ashes, since although it was the first Hong Kong film to be shot on the Chinese mainland, it exhibits no caution with respect to things still forbidden to mainland directors, such as the mysticism of the Chinese Almanac, a central influence on Ashes. The very nonconforming beauty of Wong’s images, inspired by the Almanac’s linkage of nature and human destiny, can be seen, by virtue of the film’s circumstances, as a bold enterprise of some interest to China watchers as well as to Wong’s admirers.
Set in ancient China, Ashes is a picaresque film that traces the many vicissitudes in the lives of a pantheon of martial-arts heroes through their correspondences to the seasons as set forth in the ancient Chinese Almanac, the earliest version of which was written in 132 B.C. A practical guide to living based on the natural cycle, the Almanac is also a visionary text that augurs the most auspicious moments for taking on enterprises by associating the rise and fall of human energies with the points of the compass and with its own symbolic table of natural elements. Part of the film’s force is that in its emphasis on the fraught, ever changing relationships between heroic conduct and the global mapping of the universe by the Almanac, its fatalistic perspective is necessarily a challenge to the dominant beliefs in both mainland China and the pragmatic West. Another source of its fascination is as an exception both among martial-arts films and the works of Wong Kar-wai.
Certainly, Ashes is an exception as a martial-arts film, most of which depend on an almost hagiographic adulation of a single martial-arts hero, whose development as a warrior is chronicled. The typical martial-arts hero earns his spurs as a result of the spectacular discipline he learns through lessons from a master, enabling his victory over any or all of the following: unethical martial artists and their practices; an invading would-be conqueror; and/or a deviant Chinese cult. By contrast, Ashes, depicting scenes from the lives of several fully mature warriors, is not primarily about their ability to vanquish opponents, but rather is a fatalistic vision of their existence as small specks in an immense universe, moved by cosmic patterns of nature, time, and destiny much larger than themselves.
Ashes is equally incongruous as a part of Wong’s filmography. All of his other films are about modern-day Hong Kong and America, depicting the tensions between human nature and man-made technologies, the adverse affects of which are compounded by a rigid, hypocritical set of bourgeois moral and ethical constraints and limitations. At the heart of Wong’s contemporary films is the fact of an indelible human nature, but this fact is always obstructed by the artifices of modernity. Wong’s modern stories demonstrate the way Westernized Hong Kong and the American technocracy impact negatively on a smorgasbord of mixed elemental traits, both desirable and undesirable, in his characters: the lyrical tenacity of love, the beauty of the unadorned human form, greed, violence, vengefulness, and the unvarnished impishness of human perversity.Ashes displays those same traits as the essence of human baggage, but in a world that is relentlessly organic. In this, the most beautiful martial-arts film ever made, perhaps the most beautiful film period, Wong studies his characters, without the distractions of plastic clothing; onrushing trains, planes, and cars; the glare of electric light; the relentless repetitions of escalators and recorded music; and processed and mass distributed food measured to the specifications of aluminum cans and glass bottles.
Tormented by modernity, the characters in Wong’s contemporary tales lose and misrecognize their soul mates and often die of artificiality. In Ashes, the martial-arts warriors of long ago are innocent of today’s technology, but they testify to the unchanging suffering of the human soul as they too often live loveless lives despite the nontechnological purity of their natural bodies, swathed in flowing fabrics and topped by untonsured and unstyled masses of hair. They live in shelters hewn from rock and wood, festooned with fabric worn by time and the elements into shreds that move with the ebb and flow of the seasons instead of rigidly standing in opposition to them as Wong’s modern settings do. They are surrounded by animals with whose grace and visceral presence they blend. They move through space either on foot or on horseback, merging with the rhythms of the hours and the natural expanses, instead of cutting and denying them in vehicles moving at excessive speed. The lights and shadows around them are made up of the brilliant and muted colors of nature and the flickering of sun through organic materials, not the chemically produced hues of neon. Yet, even in this unmediated state, these souls are vehicles for Wong to reveal to us, not a golden age before the Fall of the human race into modernity, but the innate capacity of people for denying themselves their happiness even when there is no constricting technological culture to bedevil them. Wong evokes the flaw in human hard wiring by juxtaposing it to the structure of the universe as described by the Almanac.
At the 2008 New York Film Festival press screening of Ashes, press kits were distributed that gave a cursory description of the Chinese Almanac’s schematics of the seasons and the meaning of metals, woods, and the four elements. Further inquiry has revealed to me how immensely complex the Almanac is, making it as impossible to give a simple interpretation of the implications for the characters of the wind rising in the West, or the insects returning to life, as it is to interpret a dream in a great work of art. The best the newcomer to the Almanac can do is to become aware of the cosmic layers of meaning in Wong’s narrative, and of how little is reserved in the actions of his warriors for free will and personal preference. The Almanac schematics also serve to make us aware that what there is of free will tends to result in human perversity and dissatisfaction. This theme is announced in the first line of the film. Amidst a display of stunning natural images juxtaposed to images of martial artists in combat and at rest, the following words appear on the screen: “It is written in the Buddhist canon, the flag is still, the wind is calm. It is the heart of man that is in turmoil.”
The characters in Ashes are as contrary as the characters in Wong’s modern films, but we see more clearly what is driving them. Unobstructed by the irrelevant distractions of modern life, they can reveal with clarity their fraught, out-of-sync relationships to cosmic patterns. The central character, Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), supports himself by preying on the cowardice and vengefulness of the average person. A man who chose the freedom of the open road over the love of a woman, the loss of whom he has never recovered from, Ouyang is not the great martial arts warrior he once wanted to be, but a kind of parasite, who acts as an agent for warriors who will kill for hire, much as we see in the main characters of Fallen Angels (1995), a Wong Kar-wai film about emotional starvation with a modern accent. While in Fallen Angels we cannot perceive why a killer and his agent are so hell bent on lives full of murder and destruction, in Ashes we can clearly see Ouyang’s clients and changing staff of swordsmen and women, as a who’s what of human refusal to go with the flow of nature and destiny that inevitably leads to regret, violence, and melancholy death.
Consider, for example, Murong Yin (Brigitte Lin), a high-born princess of the Murong clan who has a male alter ego, Murong Yang (Lin again), who is actually a fragment of her own personality that she calls “her brother.” Murong Yang approaches Ouyang to arrange for the death of a man who has insulted “his sister;” almost immediately after Yang leaves, Murong Yin approaches Ouyang to kill “her brother” for seeking the death of the man she loves most in the world. Ouyang refuses the job because, as he says wryly, there’s no way that he can get paid by either client. Yes, even without OxyContin and modern machines that go too fast, human beings in their most organic state drag defeat from the jaws of the plenitude they might experience if they gave themselves over to the rhythms of the time and place they inhabit instead of clinging to convoluted, self-destructive, willful desires.
Wong balances episodes of self destruction with episodes in which by chance, luck, or sudden insight, some of his characters stumble into a happy harmony with the flow of life. We learn from Ouyang that Murong Yin/Yang ultimately becomes a great martial artist by demonstrating proficiency with her sword against her own image in water. This knowledge is accompanied by dazzling images of her, as, with her new relationship to the split in her personality, her life takes a turn for the better. Instead of seeking her own death, she, in harmony with nature, inspires the water to cascade majestically around her, as she faces off against herself in a series of classical martial arts positions. Later, after Ouyang gains insight into the damage he caused by refusing love for reasons he doesn’t fully understand, he too finds a better way, ending his career as a money obsessed agent for assassins and entering into his true destiny as a great warrior.
Not that Wong is, at least on this DVD, so direct about his purposes. Rather, the extras—“Born From the Ashes,” a kind of “Making of Ashes of Time Redux” featurette, and the extensive Q&A between Wong and Hoberman—turn our attention to the importance Wong attaches to the textures of his films, and the necessity he feels to vary his approaches to keep his work fresh. Wong explodes simplistic rumors about his supposed practice of working without a script and reveals how the personalities and histories of his actors are part of the materials with which he works when he creates their roles. For example, Murong Yin/Yang is Wong’s invention. Not in any of the stories Cha translates from the ancient texts, Murong Yin/Yang grew out of Wong’s interest in the talents of and the previous roles played by Brigitte Lin, who had all but been confined to (very successfully) playing male martial artists. Wong explains that the contradiction of Lin’s ultrafemininity—the standard of Chinese beauty, he says—and her type casting “as a guy,” fascinated him and led to his creation of this gender bending character. Wong’s humor and intelligence, and his diplomatic impatience with clichés, are vividly conveyed by his responses to Hoberman’s questions and comments. When, for example, Hoberman speaks of Ashes as insanely gorgeous, Wong chimes in humorously, “gorgeously insane.”
Like all great sensual and visionary artists, Wong honors the importance of direct experience of his cinema, which cannot fully be translated into words. This is not the usual delivery system for thoughts political. Nor is it necessarily easy for an American audience to appreciate Wong’s perspective once it is grasped, since fatalism is not high on the list of American enthusiasms. However, elsewhere, for example at Lincoln Center, he has spoken in an edgy manner about his seriousness in using the Chinese Almanac as a framing device in Ashes. If some will want to reduce Ashes to the trivial level of newspaper horoscopes because of this, others will recognize that Wong’s dedication to the unspoken, the oblique, and the miraculous—all of which is facilitated by his use of the venerable Almanac—rather than to the programmatic, the rote, and the theoretical, has produced a film that stands intriguingly as an oppositional cultural document.
To buy Ashes of Time Redux click here.
Martha P. Nochimson, a Cineaste Associate, is the author of The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood and, most recently, Dying to Belong: Gangster Movies in Hong Kong and Hollywood.
Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXV, No. 1