Wong Kar-wai returns to his 1994 classic to produce a definite version – but is it really any better…?
When Wong Kar-wai first announced he was returning to his classic wu xia pian genre movie it was always going to ruffle a few feathers. The director’s notorious reputation for never being truly happy with his work – think about the stalls and re-editing his most recent films like 2046 and My Blueberry Nights have received, even after being released to festivals (if they hadn’t been pulled first) – seemed to have reached Ridley Scott proportions. (I mean what, yet another cut of Blade Runner?)
And here was a film beloved of fans, a rare step into a genre you’d rarely associate Kar-wai with. But is the Redux an improvement, or sacrilege, as some will maintain?
Back in 1994, the Ashes Of Time seemed a strange project for Wong Kar-wai. The first project for the production company he set up with fellow Hong Kong director Jeff Lau, Jet Tone, the thought of Kar-wai tackling a martial arts movie – at the very height of the wu xia genre’s popularity – may have been deemed inappropriate for a director already gaining recognition for his artistic merit. That the project should be an attempt to bring Louis Cha’s infamous Eagle Shooting Heroes novels (translated as Condor Heroes in the West) – a Chinese epic on a par with J. R. R. Tolkien’s Ring trilogy, and incidentally published around the same time – appeared ambitious in the extreme.
And yet it became a marriage made in heaven for Kar-wai and wu xia fans alike.
Rather than attempt to bring the complex novel to the screen, Kar-wai instead decided to take characters and elements suggested by it. Unsurprisingly for him, the film becomes much more a reflection on lost love and feelings left unspoken than it is on martial arts or so-called wire fu. He layers narrative with a typical disregard for the linear, interweaving his characters as they become as disconnected emotionally from life and loved ones as they are physically in the desert where our lead character presides.
And at the centre of it all is vagabond Ouyang Feng, superbly played by the late Leslie Cheung as the unsympathetic agent for a dangerous league of assassins and swordsmen. Long wounded by a love he neglected and lost, he’s become cold and cynical. Yet as seasons come and go, and friends and enemies with them, he begins to reflect on the origins of his self-imposed solitude.
Mixing the maturity and restraint of King Hu (Touch Of Zen) and some of the more esoteric cutaway style of Wang Hsing-Lei (Escorts Over Tiger Hills) the film takes on even more of a dreamlike quality for Kar-wai’s work, being so much further away from any contemporary reference.
With an all-star cast, the film oozes with class. Each performer excelling in their roles and, crucially, conveying the complex backstories without Kar-wai having to show them. From Tony Leung Ka-fai as Huang Yaoshi, the swordsman trying to forget his past; to Brigitte Lin as Muyong Yin/Yang, brilliantly playing up to her androgynous appearance as Asia The Invincible in Swordsman II and The East Is Red; from Tony Leung Chiu-wai as the swordsman slowly going blind; to Jacky Cheung as the shoeless beggar swordsman Hong Qigong; and then there’s Carina Lau, Charlie Yeung and the celestial beauty that is Maggie Cheung.
Let’s be clear about this, without such stunning performances Kar-wai would never have gotten away with showing us so little and implying so much. (And I’m sure he’d be the first to admit that.)
Despite the involvement of Sammo Hung as action choreographer, even the action sequences seem muted. (More so in the Redux, but we’ll come back to that.) Those expecting the clever to-and-fro of a Ching Siu-tung or Yuen Woo-ping sequence, so typical of the wire fu or the time, may be sorely disappointed. Fancy footwork is definitely the order of the day, as Kar-wai’s focus forces the action to be filmed in an unconventional way. And with plenty of slow motion. We’re not talking John Woo slo-mo here, or even his mentor Zhang Che’s, highlighting poignant moments of fast action. No, nearly all of it is in slow motion, turning the action into poetical, and often confusing, movements. Indeed, one of the more impactful moments, when Tony Leung Chiu-wai’s swordsman finally goes blind and meets his end, is a thinly disguised Lone Wolf And Cub reference from the manga and first live-action film.
Much more a precursor to Hero than the less subjective Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: in fact Kar-wai’s favourite cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who worked on both Ashes and Hero, claims the later could never existed without the former. And not just because of the gruelling location shoots in China, then very unheard of in Hong Kong filmmaking, now a basis for most productions (though mainly due to the financial benefit of Chinese co-productions).
It’s also an important turning point in how such genre movies were considered, suddenly filmmakers remembered that a wu xia movie could also be an art film, for the first time since King Hu’s Touch Of Zen. (An over-exaggeration, admittedly, but even great movies like The Bride With White Hair still focused on the spectacle of cinema.) The genre may have died out within a year or so, till Crouching Tiger revived it, but if you really want to know where wu xia got so serious, this is the defining moment. Which is easy to say with hindsight, but at the time the overrunning shooting schedule in China, which dragged on for over a year, caused the film to be a commercial flop.
It’s easy to see its influence well beyond the obvious work of Doyle on Hero. Look at the grit on Tsui Hark’s Blade or Ringo Lam’s Burning Paradise, both filmed within a year. More recently look no further than Peter Chan’s The Warlords, Kim Sung-su’s Musa or John Woo’s Red Cliff – all direct descendents of Ashes Of Time.
Kar-wai seems to have held a passion for the martial arts novels he must have grown up with. Just a few years earlier he had co-written the script for Saviour Of The Soul with Jeff Lau. Itself an adaptation of Cha’s second novel in his Eagle series (the original Cantonese title literally translates as ’91 God-Eagle-Hero-Couple) it’s arguably an even looser revision of Cha’s work than even Ashes. Updating the action to the (then) present day, it seems a little incongruous with Kar-wai’s catalogue. The tone often clashes between slapstick and serious, violent action, but the end result is an iconic Hong Kong film, undeniable fun and surprisingly beautiful (The cinematography was by Peter Pau – who would go on to win an Oscar for his work on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and also worked on Ashes ‘sister’ movie The Eagle Shooting Heroes.) Now it just feels like a rare chance for him to let his hair down.
And the theme would recur in his films, like when the lead character from In The Mood For Love Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) is encouraged to follow his dream and write martial arts novels by the spouse of his neighbour So Lai-zhen (Maggie Cheung). So it’s obviously a film close to his heart, and it was his mission to create a ‘definite’ version of the film, away from the poor DVD versions available, that brought on this revisit.
So what about the Redux? How does it compare. Well for starters the title is a bit misleading. It brings to mind the Apocalypse Now Redux, where Coppola added an interesting but entirely unnecessary half hour. Instead, as you’ll probably already be aware, it’s shorter – Kar-wai has cut some five or six minutes from the running time.
According to Wong Kar-wai, it was less a case of cutting or ‘leaving out’ certain scenes than he could just not unearth a version in good enough condition to be used. That said, I believe that some of the omissions are less arbitrary. Most notable is the sequence right just after the opening face-off between Ouyang Feng and Huang Yaoshi, showing a future Ouyang fighting against the Beggar Clan, then Huang wiping out the bandits, all completely gone. It accounts for quite a chunk of time. Originally it had seemed too long, almost like an offering to those expecting an action-packed wu xia movie – which didn’t fool anyone at the time judging by the poor box office returns. Without it, though, we lose the poignancy of Ouyang’s clash with the Beggar Clan, revealed later. (Mind you, you’d probably have had to see the film a few times to get that, but that was part of the appeal.) We also lose the concluding montage, hinting at what happens to the main characters in the future. And that brings us back to the muting of the action, the focus on the film draws even more onto the drama and love stories within it.
Generally the cut has better pace. Sure, there are scenes left out. Like after the Blind Swordsman’s death we originally cut back to Huang to find him return to the inn where they used to meet – hoping he’d forgive him without realising (or perhaps wanting to realise) that he was dead. But often these scenes don’t quite fit with the flow of the film. That isn’t helped by the fact that distributors in South East Asia all released there own cuts, extending, adding or dropping as they saw fit. So chances are what we saw probably wasn’t what Kar-wai intended anyway. (Even if he wasn’t something of a fusspot!)
Added to the film are title cards to the seasons. Now I don’t agree with Kar-wai that the references to the Chinese almanac were lost on Western audiences, but their use again disciplines the cut somewhat, evening out the pace for each term over the film.
Much has been made of the digital manipulation throughout the film. I for one am not convinced that the deep saturation wasn’t what Chris Doyle had actually intended, so much of his work is about colour, and the version I’d previously seen are so washed out and grainy it’s impossible to tell. The digital meddling with the opening scene, however, seems to equal that of George Lucas in the ‘unnecessary’ category: new cutaways are made to an eclipse, later referenced; with lens glare effects added to the original footage.
I’m not, by the way, going to list all the differences here. There are new opening and closing titles, and a new score, mixing the original with replayed and expanded orchestral versions and performances by Yo-Yo Ma (again making reference to the new school of wu xia movies). There’s less obvious stuff too, but here we come to the tricky part, is it better, or just an excuse for Kar-wai to mess about with the film again?
Well, with no decent version of the film previously out there, this has to be a good thing. Sure, there are scenes I’d have to have been included, but this is an improvement, the pacing is far better. (Okay, so that might rub some ardent fans up the wrong way, but it’s true!)
This is still a classic! Perhaps even more so now…
Home media details
Distributor: Artificial Eye (UK)
With a fine transfer of the film on both DVD and Blu-ray, there are also plenty of interviews from director Kar-wai, cinematographer Doyle and many of the cast members (mainly from the Cannes premiere of the movie in 2008) to get your teeth into, There’s also a documentary about the making of the Redux version, though this shares footage from the interviews. It would have been nice if they’d gotten hold of original documentary footage on the making of the film, if it existed, if only for comparison in how it was received. (Especially considering the film was originally something of a flop!)
Omissions? Well, the aforementioned scenes from the original would have been nice – though are probably not in a condition to be used anywhere. Even better: the deleted scenes with Joey Wang?
This is still an excellent package for a film previously lacking any decent versions available.