Pros: Leslie Cheung and other HK stars, Chris Doyle's cinematography, bonus Q&A
Cons: very hard to follow even for a Wong Kar-Wai movie
To me, “director’s cut” is generally doublespeak, really meaning “director restores footage he liked but was cut in the original release,” for example Milos Foman’s director’s cut of “Amadeus” or Francis Ford Coppola’s of “Apocalypse Now.” Occasionally, the second version is really cut and shorter, John Cassevete’s “Killing of a Chinese Bookie,” for example.
Though a commercial failure, Wong Kar-Wai’s 1994 "Dung che sai” (Ashes of Time; "Dong xie xi du" in pinyin romanization) won a number of awards, including best film, best director, best actor (Leslie Cheung), and best screenplay (Wong) Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards; best art direction (William Chang, who also produced the movie), cinematography (Chris Doyle), costume design (also William Chang) Hong Kong Film Awards, etc.
The original American DVD release was, in a word, atrocious Chris Doyle’s award-winning cinematography (which also won a Golden Horse and the Venice Film Festival prizes) was (a) muddy, and (b) the bottom third was blacked out. Simplified Chinese characters and English subtitles that were puzzling and ungrammatical even in comparison to those on other Hong Kong movies were on the blacked out bottom third. The sound was also substandard with a very inept synthesizer score. I’m amazed that some early epinionators were able to see something of value through these obstacles.
The warehouse in which the original prints and negatives were stored was about to be seized by creditors. Wong (and company) retrieved them and discovered they were in bad shape. Borrowing stock from all over the world, a digital restoration was undertaken. It took more than four years. Wong removed some scenes (not many) and narration about the future. Believe me, it is difficult enough to sort out what happened in the past and is happening in the present of the movie and which is which without any consideration of what will happen! The movie is very untypical of Wong Kar-Wai films in being set in the distant past (the waning years of the Song dynasty), deep in the (desert) countryside, and including a great deal of telling: I’d estimate more that there’s more telling than showing in the movie, in contrast to hardly any in most other Wong films. (I’ll get to the main continuity, indeed leitmotif of Wong Kar-Wai’s oeuvre.)
It is unclear how much of the speaking was redubbed. Maybe all. Leslie Cheung was dead and could not record his lines, either dialogue or the extensive voice-overs. Frankie Chan and Roel A. García provided a new musical score with yearning cello solos recorded by Ma Yo-Yo, perhaps inspired by the success of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and his musical contribution to it.
Taking a very deep breath,
Once upon a time (just before the Mongols overran the Song Dynasty and established the Yuan dynasty, that is in the time of Genghis Khan) there was a swordsman turned entrepreneur (an ancient Murder, Incorporated) Feng Ouyang (Leslie Cheung) who had retreated to the desert after the woman he loved (Maggie Cheung) married his brother. Feng does not kill people (which he says is easy). He contracts swordsmen (for defensive purposes) and murderers. Any wuxia idealism he feels, he suppresses and only arranges killers for cash.
The movie is divided (now with intertitles specifying different seasons) into five parts. Feng Ouyang is the constant. The different parts have different clients and different targets (one is defensive, the others vengeful), and Feng’s regret at not having told the love of his life that he loved her colors all of them.
Regret about failures of love, usually involving inhibitions about expressing love, is the leitmotif of Wong Kar-Wai’s cinema, and Leslie Cheung was the embodiment of romantic despair (as in Wong’s “Happy Together,” Chen Kaige’s “Farewell, My Concubine” and "Temptress Moon," Ronny Yu's "The Phantom Lover").
I will not synopsize what I think happens in the various episodes. The first one remains very confusing. Brigitte Lin (The East Is Red) was at the peak of her popularity for gender-bending martial arts movies in 1994. (It was her participation that got the movie financed.) She plays both a woman trying to hire Feng and her brother also trying to hire Feng: Murong Yin and Murong Yang. Just when I realized that one was supposed to be a man (I should have figured this out from the cap), Feng’s voice-over recollection suggests that rather than the princess disguising herself as her brother by conscious design, she was schizophrenic. If this sounds confusing, watching the segment is quanta more confusing!
Leslie Cheung’s costar in Wong’s (later) “Happy Together,” Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), plays a swordsman who is going blind, who contracts to defend a nearby (though never seen) village to make money to return home to see peach blossoms before going completely blind. He left home to yield his wife (Carina Lau, his off-screen partner) to his best friend, though (this being a Wong Kar-Wai movie, of course) he has not stopped loving her. Leung Chiu Wai is a great master of regret, and is the most recurrent Wong Kar-Wai lead (Days of Being Wild, Chunking Express, In the Mood for Love, Eros, 2046).
The “other” Tony Leung (Leung Ka-Fai) has a more flamboyant role as Huang Yaoshi, who visits Feng each year and brings a bottle of the wine of forgetfulness (which Feng refuses) before going off to visit another friend, forgetting why they are estranged.
Something close to comic relief is provided by Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung, As Tears Go By), a bumptious local who knows some sword techniques and who seeks fame, is not particularly interested in money, and has the love of his wife, thus, the antithesis of Feng Ouyang. He is the only major character not filled with regret. Indeed, without knowing the other stories, he is concerned not to live his life in ways he will later regret.
In a little more than an hour and a half, there are at least a dozen storylines (and Wong Kar-Wai did not become famous for his storytelling ability!), quotations from the Tung Shu (literally, the book of everything, glossed in the subtitles as “the almanac”), the season intertitles, very confusing fight scenes (choreographed by Sammo Hung but shot so close up that it is difficult to see who is attacking whom or doing what), and some striking panoramic vistas and other beautiful compositions shot by Chris Doyle.
The Redux DVD
Even with some simplification in the reconstruction/revision and with subtitles that make sense and do not eclipse a third of the screen, “Ashes of Times” is very difficult to follow in one viewing (having been totally confused by the earlier DVD version, I knew I had to pay keen attention and still didn’t understand many things).
I’m not sure that it’s worth the effort. Though the unmarked jumps back and forth in time in Wong Kar-Wai films generally frustrate me, they all have striking visual compositions and great performances (not just from Tony Leung Chiu Wai).
The Redux DVD has a trailer for the movie and for half a dozen others and a 41-minute video recording of Wong Kar-Wai answering questions from J. Hoberman (the very knowledgeable film critic of the Village Voice) and audience members at the 2008 New York Film Festival. Wong wears dark glasses (lest he seem insufficiently inscrutable?) but comes across (in unaccented English) as candid in discussing the logistical difficulties of the movie (the first Hong Kong martial arts movie shot in China, and far in the western desert next to Mongolia at that) and his collaboration across many films with cinematographer Chris Doyle and producer/designer/sometimes-editor William Chang.
Wong takes (mock perhaps) umbrage at the shibboleth that he shoots movies without scripts. He points out that he was a scriptwriter for ten years before starting to direct movies, and says there is always a script with the scenes specified and lines, but not specification of camera placement, etc. Doyle (a sailor rather than a soldier in Wong’s dichotomy of improvising vs. needing specific orders), he says, ignores scripts (and Hoberman suggests that maybe the oft-repeated claim of lack of scripts came from Doyle). Wong also stresses that he considers framing — choosing what to show and, as importantly, deciding what not to show — is director’s work. He also stresses the importance to their collaboration of Chang, whose mother tongue, like Wong’s is Shanghaiese. (Both went to Hong Kong as children. In that Chang went to film school in Vancouver, I assume he speaks English as well as Cantonese, but he avoids the limelight.)
The movie is “based” on the very popular The Legend of the Condor Heroes, first serialized in 1957 in the Hong Kong Commercial Daily, the first part of what became the Condor Trilogy by Louis Cha (pen name Jin Yong, who was born in Zhejiang in 1924 and moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong in 1947). Multiple screen adaptations of parts of the Condor Trilogy exist. Very little from this source material is included in “The Ashes of Times”: some character names (and the mercenariness of one) and the location in place and time, but none of the plot(s) or Genghis Khan’s household (or, indeed, any other Mongols), the Seven Freaks of Jiangnan, the Five Greats, the Seven Immortals of Quanzhen. the Dark Wind Twin Killers, the Iron Palm Sect… Frightening to think how much more complicated things migh thave been, considering how close to opaque the movie is! Fans of Cha were unhappy with the movie, and obviously, the movie is not the place for those interested in The Legend of the Condor Heroes to go.
Who should go there? Fans of Leslie Cheung, Chris Doyle, and/or Wong Kar-Wai. Those who are not committed to making sense as long as there are striking images. For sure, don’t expect a conventional martial arts action movie!
©2010, Stephen O. Murray