Eradicating bad memories of the moldy "My Blueberry Nights" in one fell swoop, Wong Kar-wai's gussied-up reissue of his 1994 "martial-arts action epic" (in quotes because it never actually feels like any of those things) is a reminder of why we fell in love with the Hong Kong auteur in the first place. Just as "Fallen Angels" is hardly a crime caper, "In the Mood for Love" is never quite able to blossom into the romance we expect and hope for, and "2046" only elegantly limns the edges of the science-fiction it intimates, "Ashes of Time" promises a wuxia saga that never quite arrives. ("Chungking Express," meanwhile, barely fits a genre template at all, but more than satisfies Wong's delight in sending us down blind alleyways).
It's quite remarkable how popular Wong Kar-wai has been for so long with audiences, considering that he's such a master of distraction -- and of course abstraction. Perhaps it's that constant sense of surprise, that idea that Wong's going to deliver something slightly off from what you thought you were getting, that made "Blueberry" such a disappointment: it fit too easily into a template, and the last thing we want from Wong is the expected.
"Ashes," meanwhile, couldn't have returned at a better time. Newly re-edited with a running time that's about ten minutes shy of the original version's, "Ashes of Time" should dazzle those who have only seen it on videotape, badly transferred DVD, or, gasp, bootleg. This is an experience for the big screen, especially for its thunderously remastered soundtrack, which is graced by a booming new score by Wu Tong, and its eye-blisteringly gorgeous orange and maroon tones, which make its western desert locations look as foreboding as some distant planet.
Not merely an encore presentation with restored picture and sound, though, "Ashes of Time Redux" is the result of a major reconstruction by Wong himself: it has been pieced together from negatives that had been floating around the world for the past decade, from laboratories in Hong Kong to Chinatown distributors in San Francisco, much of the footage old and rotting. Many have claimed this reconstruction as "more coherent" story-wise, but there's no question that Wong has maintained a sense of intense visual and narrative abstraction throughout.
As it remains, the strategies of "Ashes of Time" are not far afield from those in Wong's most recent triumph, "2046." Like that film, this one collapses time and memory into one man's unending spiral of regret, love, and loss. Whereas "2046"'s portrait of the artist in limbo was interrupted with fictive flash-forwards into a tear-stained future in which mentally tortured romantics exist in a super-city alongside glittering monorails and emotionally conflicted femme-bots, "Ashes of Time" is punctuated with martial-arts sequences that don't flow naturally out of the characters so much as come off like visual digressions or emotional flourishes.
This works brilliantly for a story in which the central character would rather live out his days alone than fight: "Killing isn't easy," Leslie Cheung's Ouyang Feng states near the beginning. And indeed, he mostly doesn't fight; instead he's something like a broker, hiring out assassins for those who visit him in his remote desert home.
The plot itself -- with its vignette-ish tales enacted by discrete groups of characters (played by Tony Leung Ka Fai, Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Carina Lau) who come in contact with Ouyang, and its outlandish, supernaturally tinged elements, such as a recurring "anti-memory potion" and farfetched gender-bending disguises -- is famously difficult to follow, but matters of narrative easily bend to dynamism and splendor, and the literal is washed away in a blurred, feverish haze. Wong gives us one astonishing vision after another: a sword slicing through a pool of water, creating enormous, gravity-defying waves; a scene shot through a spinning wicker cage, gradually coming in and out of focus; Lau embracing a gnarled tree, the camera rising above her stunning gargoyle pose. Their bodies and faces are more important than the grander action scenes, for this is a movie about people locked not in battle but in romantic stalemates.
Hair whips in the wind, skin blisters in the blazing sun - "Ashes of Time Redux" is furious, exhilarating, a tornado of desire as steeped in swoony sensuality and regret as "2046." He makes these ostensible action heroes "human," in other words, susceptible to memory and disappointment.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]