Wong Kar-wai's 1994 swordsman spectacular "Ashes of Time" obeyed no particular narrative law or emotional logic. The Hong Kong director had more or less made a Chinese martial-arts movie, with flashy disregard for the genre's requirements of plot, action, and linearity. The shoot lasted a year and a half, and the movie was regarded at the time as something of a commercial failure.
Like the heartsick lovers in any of his other pictures, Wong has returned to the movie, and created what he called a "definitive" version, an intriguing term since Wong's brilliance lies in his films' lack of artistic and emotional closure. Nothing is definitive. Nonetheless, he now has "Ashes of Time Redux," which isn't so much an improvement as a clarification.
The film has been remastered and reordered. But the story, such as it is, remains secondary to Wong's sensibility. Even in violence, the movie billows and lilts. Most of it is set in and around the ancient Chinese desert. For all the physicality and sumptuous casting, it may as well have taken place in a comic-book thought bubble.
Released in the United States in 1996, the film is very loosely adapted from Louis Cha's "The Eagle-Shooting
Complications arise when a hot-blooded stranger, Murong Yang (Brigitte Lin), commissions Ouyang for a killing. She wants him to kill Huang for jilting her meek sister, Murong Yin (Lin, again). The other Tony Leung - Chiu Wai - arrives as a swordsman going blind who wants to see his wife (Carina Lau) before, of course, he can't. His sad face, even in battle, provides some of the most affecting human images in the film.
Sight and perception remain major motifs in "Ashes of Time Redux" - namely sightlessness and double-vision (see Yang and Yin) - and, accordingly, at various points it's still hard to trust that what you're watching has a beginning or an end. It definitely contains a middle whose scenes are plumped as much with ponderousness as with pulchritude. There are inventively distorted vignettes of epic combat, intimate chitchat, masterly shotmaking, or wherever Lin is concerned, thrilling theatrics. The overall effect is intoxicating. Every movie should have a shot of blue sky filmed through a wide slit in a tent.
"Ashes of Time" was always more a work of philosophy than pure entertainment, and a decade and a half later it still is. But befitting Wong's taste for romantic nostalgia, the entire lovelorn affair also blooms wonderfully in the memory.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.