Debuting at Cannes this year was Wong Kar Wai’s film Ashes of Time Redux. This is a surprise to just about everyone, as the director seems to plan his releases around some kind of Mayan star-calendar or something. After last year’s debut of My Blueberry Nights at the festival, I was expecting to see Quetzalcoatl before I saw something new from WKW. But of course, Ashes of Time is not exactly new.
The 1994 wuxia film is not very highly regarded. Martial art fans of the wuxia genre weren’t happy with the action sequences, which are shot in a messy, indistinct fashion. Apparently the fight choreographer, one Mr. Sammo Hung, also took the hump and fell out with the director over this. Much of the art house audience was also not impressed. A friend said the movie was much harder to follow than Last Year at Marienbad. Others have said it’s hard to enjoy a subversion if you aren’t familiar with what it is subverting, in this case the popular novel The Legend of the Eagle Shooting Heroes. The home-grown movie goers of the time didn’t exactly get what they bargained for out of this all star adaptation of a beloved book. The film was a financial disaster. Even among Wong Kar Wai fans, it’s most fondly remembered as the movie WKW was editing when he shot Chungking Express.
But you know what? All those points above? They can all get bent. Because I love it. That story puts the audience right in the position of the characters, with their memory erasing drink, where everything is being replayed, reset and rewritten. The wonderful cast, filled with some of the biggest names in Hong Kong of the 80s and 90s, all deliver great performances especially superstar Leslie Cheung, who tragically took his own life five years ago. The fight direction is atypical for a HK film, rather than sit at a safe stage-like distance, the camera is often plunged into the middle of the melee. Rather than pick out each move individually, the camera blurs and streaks with the speed and ferocity of the battle, only letting us catch important glimpses of what is going on. It’s the Bourne Ultimatum of wuxia fight direction.
It’s marvellous and probably the least seen of Wong Kar Wai’s movies. There are few things I’d support more than a new international release, the chance for so many more people to see the movie on the big screen. But then there’s that word! Redux! Oh, it puts shivers up my spine. It puts its piece in my porridge. Did WKW have to tie his film to Apocalypse Now Redux, where a post-Jack Francis Ford Coppola ‘reduxed’ one of his best films into something I can’t stand to watch? This whole process of directors cuts seems to be propped up these days on Ridley Scott, Blade Runner in particular, and Kingdom of Heaven to a lesser extent. Thanks to him, we had people preaching that Mark Steven Johnson was not a hack based on the DVD release of Daredevil, before Ghost Rider came along and chain-whipped the M&Ms out of their mouths.
Wong Kar Wai was the king of reordering footage. Despite his background as a writer, he seemed to work best in a jumble rather than in a straight line. Famously he gives dialogue on the day, shoots things without knowing where they’ll go in the film, mixes scenes and plots, then ties it up with a little voiceover work from Tony Leung Chiu Wai and an international film award. For a long time, this worked. Brilliantly even. But for me personally, 2046 was a stumble. He spent so long in production, became so covered in footage, CGI, stoppages, restarts, international casting, international financing, that he couldn’t quite manage to pull it all together at the end. And, if 2046 was a stumble, then Wong didn’t manage to catch himself on My Blueberry Nights. So at this stage, is WKW in a good position to reappraise the films his younger self made? Is he revisiting the movie because the original is not good, or because it is not popular?
Thankfully for me, there are not too many changes he can make to the original film and, 14 years on, it’s impossible to record anything at all with Leslie Cheung. I’m yet to see the new version, so I’m not sure how many changes have been made. From looking at the international trailer, it seems the film has been rescored at least. The reviews out of Cannes haven’t been very useful as many of the critics don’t seem to be familiar with the original version of the film. But the whole process just worries me. What happens to our theories and investigations when the directors go back and start dallying in their past, changing the material? And what happens to the fans and apologists for the original films like me, when a director like Wong Kar Wai says “Actually, you know what Adam? You know what I’ve just realised? You’re wrong. It is a bit shit after all!”