First, I have not seen the 1994 release of 'Ashes of Time' so I won't be able to make direct comparisons between the two versions to explain what changes Wong Kar Wai has made. But then it seems that very few people have seen it. Wong Kar Wai explained that now was the right time to re-release for the film for various reasons. One was that the film existed in numerous versions; some authorised, some unauthorised. This release should now be considered the definitive version. Wong Kar Wai is notorious for struggling with his final cuts of films. When 2046 was presented at Cannes in 2004, it was reported that it was unfinished and rushed specifically for that festival. Another was that the technology now existed to make various technical changes. Indeed, Wong Kar Wai regrets that he could not make the film now, believing it would be better with the technology now available. The cynical amongst us might suggest that Wong Kar Wai had one eye on the commercial success of recent wuxia films ('Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon', 'Hero', 'House of Flying Daggers') and wanted to cash in on it. Whatever the reasons for good or ill, it's great news that an important film by one of the greatest contemporary film makers can now be seen by a wider audience.
If one is expecting a wuxia film in the Zhang Yimou form, then expect to be disappointed. 'Ashes of Time' couldn't be any more different. Essentially, it's a regular Wong Kar Wai film, exploring the usual themes, but it has a historical setting and uses the wuxia novels of Louis Cha as its context. I should add though that all Wong Kar Wai uses is the characters, completely discarding the plot of the novels. The film's central character is Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), a middleman that one goes to if one needs someone killed. He lives alone in the desert having abandoned his hometown for reasons we only discover later. His only interaction is with those requiring his services and it becomes apparent that all those who seek his services are all inextricably linked in some way. Although this gives the impression that this is a film about revenge, 'Ashes of Time' is more a treatise on love. The characters have all suffered because of love and their hurt encourages their feelings of vengeance. The constant voiceover of Ouyang Feng gives him scope to ruminate on love, as does his interaction with his clients, dispensing such advice as "the best way to avoid rejection is to reject others". His advice is born from his own suffering, which we later discover. Born under a total eclipse, for Ouyang Feng love is destined to be out of reach - look how he enviously looks upon the swordsman with the nagging wife. These themes could have emerged from any Wong Kar Wai film. The cast includes Tony Leung Ka Fai, Maggie Cheung, Jacky Cheung, Carina Lau, who all starred in Wong Kar Wai's previous film 'Days of Being Wild', and I'm sure certain parallels can be drawn between the two films as well as any of Wong Kar Wai's subsequent films.
It almost becomes a cliché when looking at films where Christopher Doyle is the DoP to admire the cinematography, but naturally I do. 'Chungking Express' was made the same year, and despite the complete differences between the films, it's intriguing to note the similarities in the ways the films have been shot. Both films favour a blurry and jerky visual style. The action scenes in 'Ashes of Time' just whizz by in a matter of seconds in a very frantic and frenetic fashion. Note too how Doyle captures the impending blindness of Tony Leung Ka Fai's swordsman. If you compare Doyle's work here with his work on 'Hero', superficially similar films, there's a vast difference in how the action is shot. In ways though, it does look like a dry run for 'Hero' - the emphasis on colour coding for each character's outfits, the often brilliant colour photography for the locations (look how scorching the desert is - a bright yellow) etc. Apparently one change of the film is cleaning up the narrative so that it's less confusing than the original version was, placing more emphasis on the Ouyang Feng character, though perhaps this undersells the talents of the rest of the cast. That said, even now it's still somewhat hard to follow. But then Wong Kar Wai's films have always been character driven rather than plot driven. 'Ashes of Time' is a fascinating film with an excellent cast, considered Wong Kar Wai's most under-appreciated film and that idea has much merit. Thankfully we now have a widely available definitive version. 4/5