I couldn't help thinking of that Boyz II Men song "4 Seasons of Loneliness" while watching Wong Kar Wai's "Ashes of Time Redux." Heck, that should be the name of the movie.
But first, some backstory: "Ashes," originally released in 1994, has been Wong's most epic -- andcalamitous -- project. The delays and over-budgeting in production were so widely reported that, while he was editing the movie, he made another film, his internationally acclaimed "Chungking Express," during a two-month break. (FYI: Criterion will be dropping a "Chungking" DVD at the end of the month.) He also produced his very own "Ashes" takeoff, "The Eagle Shooting Heroes," a parody of the novel "Ashes" is loosely based on, Louis Cha's "The Legend of the Condor Heroes," starring the same cast as "Ashes."
With all the drama he went through getting the movie done, it's not that surprising to find Wong going back to it, re-editing and re-releasing the movie 13 years later. While he's only shaved off a few minutes from its 100-minute length, he's made some substantial changes to make "Ashes" the coherent story of love, longing and -- indeed -- loneliness it's supposed to be.
The movie mostly revolves around Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), a cynical middleman who takes up residence out in the desert, employing swordsmen to carry out contract killings. A man whose love was spurned by a woman (Maggie Cheung) who would eventually marry his brother, Ouyang doesn't let simple things like emotion, compassion and sympathy cloud his decision-making. To him, it's all about getting the job done.
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As the movie takes place through a Chinese calendar year, from spring to spring, several people episodically enter Ouyang's life. There's the swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) who takes on one last battle before he loses his sight. There's another swordsman, a shoeless grunt (Jacky Cheung) who has an instinctual flair for combat (he takes on a job only for an egg) and a barely existent attachment to his wife. And we must not forget the brother (Brigitte Lin) who takes out a hit on a "magic wine"-carrying associate of Ouyang's (Tony Leung Ka Fai) for standing up his sister (also played by Lin). These people do share one thing in common: their knack for often thinking with their hearts.
Looking at "Ashes" 2.0, I found myself comparing it to Wong's last movie, "2046." Just like "Ashes," it follows a heartbroken cad who floats through his existence bumping into fresh lonely-hearts. Of course, you could say this is a running theme through many of Wong's films. Whether it's set in modern-day Hong Kong ("Chungking"), the Hong Kong of the '60s ("In the Mood for Love") or, just recently, right here in the ol' U.S. of A. ("My Blueberry Nights"), Wong has a thing for crafting dreamlike stories featuring hopeless romantics in a quest for a love they may not ever fully obtain. And even with its richly saturated cinematography and dusty wuxia fight scenes (which are off-the-chain, by the way), "Ashes" is no different.
I don't know if Wong is finally content with how "Ashes of Time" has turned out, but it definitely feels like a film only Wong Kar Wai could do.