The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents July 2009 Return to Table of Contents
Public Enemies
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
DVD Playback
An American in Paris
Ashes of Time Redux
ASC Close-Up
Ashes of Time Redux (1994/2008)
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, $28.96

When Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai formed his own production company in the early 1990s, he decided to launch the venture with a wuxia pian, a martial-arts movie. The wuxia pian is China’s most enduring indigenous film genre, and Wong’s decision to adapt the classic adventure novel The Eagle-Shooting Heroes initially appeared to be a step in a more commercial direction, following his idiosyncratic, early features. Yet the resultant film, Ashes of Time, proved to be as unconventional as anything else in Wong’s career and a high point in his fruitful collaboration with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, HKSC. It was also one of the director’s most difficult shoots; it took so long to finish Wong and Doyle prepped, shot and completed another feature, Chungking Express, in the midst of shooting Ashes.
In keeping with his obsession with memory and longing, Wong scrapped much of his source material in favor of a story that examined the characters’ pasts. Ashes follows Ouyang Feng, an agent for hired assassins who lives in a constant state of regret over losing a woman. Each year, a friend, Huang Yaoshi, visits Feng in the desert, and he has his own connection with Feng’s lost love. He also refuses the advances of a woman whose brother hires Feng to kill Yaoshi; the sister then tries to hire Feng to kill the interfering brother. The brother and sister turn out to be two personalities inhabiting the same body, and that is just the beginning of a dizzying accumulation of melodramatic plot developments. The movie also features a swordsman who is going blind (a perceptual shift Doyle accentuates by shooting his fight scenes in slow motion), a girl so poor she tries to pay an assassin with eggs, and warriors who populate large-scale action sequences out of a King Hu or Kurosawa epic.
Ashes of Time has enough plot for a dozen soap operas, but, ultimately, it is not about plot (or even action) at all. There is stunning martial-arts swordplay, but Wong subverts the genre at almost every opportunity, obliterating traditional notions of heroism in favor of moral ambiguity. Even when the filmmakers utilize conventions of the martial-arts epic, they do so in an unorthodox manner. For example, the gorgeous landscape photography is used not to generate epic sweep or pictorial beauty, but to provide a contrast with the characters’ inner states. The wide shots of the desert emphasize the heroes’ emotional isolation, commenting on the constricted lives they lead.
Memory and regret define the characters, but the memories are vague and elusive, a point Doyle makes by framing many shots through mosquito nets, ragged tarpaulins and intricately designed birdcages. Light is constantly refracted and diffused, casting shadows and a hazy glow on the emotionally confused characters. Ashes of Time is a period piece totally lacking in nostalgia; there is no sense of a glorious past in which values and emotions were simpler or easier to comprehend, as in so many earlier martial-arts films.
Ashes of Time premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1994, but Wong haggled with the original distributor over the final cut. As a result, the film never received a proper release in the West, and even in Asia, it existed in a number of versions, none of them authoritative. Last year, Wong was able to reclaim his rights to the film and recut, restore and remix it to reflect his original intentions. Ashes of Time Redux played theatrically to great acclaim and was recently released on DVD.The new transfer is exemplary, particularly compared to the many inferior imports and bootlegs of the film fans have had to endure over the years. Doyle’s grainy, saturated photography is beautifully presented. The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix is solid though unremarkable; its most impressive facet is the lush new score cellist Yo-Yo Ma recorded specifically for Redux.
The supplements comprise a theatrical trailer; “Born From Ashes,” a 14-minute making-of documentary that includes interviews with Doyle, Wong, Ma, fight choreographer Sammo Hung and actors Tony Leung, Carina Lau and Charlie Young; and a 41-minute conversation between Wong and Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman.

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