Tuesday, November 25, 2008
"Memory is man's greatest burden," sighs the drunken swordsman. "Without it, every day would be a new beginning." Now there's a tune we've heard before. For Wong Kar-Wai, that starry-eyed daydreamer of the Far East, the pitch may change, but the song remains the same. You can't escape the past. One of cinema's master lamenters, Wong's spent the better part of two decades singing the broken-hearted blues, giving euphoric voice to the little doubts and regrets and private agonies suffered in the neon chaos of the Big City. And it seems as though his characters—those articulate mopes and poetic sad-sacks, drowning their romantic discontent in booze and soliloquy—are always grappling with some painful past, with ghosts and demons of another time, with an affair that never was or The One That Got Away or that lonely, alluring stranger that once pressed past them in the night. These poor bastards can no sooner shed their emotional baggage than Wong can resist inflating it, painting it bold and colorful across a gloriously melancholic skyline.
Wong Kar-Wai's malaise is a distinctly urban one, clinging as it does to the glass and steel and glow and filth of metropolitan life. He’s a city filmmaker, through and through. That’s why it’s more than a little jarring when, at the hazy onset of Ashes of Time, re-cut and resurrected some fourteen years after its initial release, the writer-director plops us down not in some tangled urban jungle, but in the sweltering, vast, barren expanses of the Chinese desert. We’re not in Kansas anymore—or, more pointedly, in fast, crowded Hong Kong either—but in some ancient world, far removed from our own, as much dreamt up as remembered. And the anguished loners that burn away their lives in this mirage kingdom are not Wong’s usual band of sullen businessmen, jilted housewives, or harried police officers. They’re dazzling swordsmen, warriors and assassins, mythical figures bound by a grand destiny, a fate bigger than themselves.
On paper, that sounds like the making of a radical detour, the type of bold and potentially disastrous experiment that would stick out like a sore thumb in Wong’s modestly scaled oeuvre. Certainly, that’s the reputation it’s accrued over the years. This is the “lost” Wong Kar-Wai film, an infamously troubled production that bore, in its lengthy starts and stops, his quintessential and kinetic odes to modern romance, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels. But while I can’t speak for the original, hard-to-track-down cut of Ashes of Time, one need spend no more than a few minutes with the re-configured, re-assembled version to instantly recognize the mark of its idiosyncratic maker. Auteur theorists take note: concerned, as all of his sumptuous mood pieces are, with time and memory, heartache and recovery, this Redux fits so snugly into Wong’s collective body of work that it feels like something of a warped, fever-dream reflection of it.
When we first meet Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), the film’s taciturn, lone wolf anti-hero, he’s making his case to a prospective client, selling his deadly expertise to the highest bidder. “It’s really easy to kill a person,” Feng solemnly declares, and, for just a moment, we might well be watching the set-up to a brazenly conventional kung-fu/samurai/gunslinger saga. But rather than getting down to badass business, to littering the streets with the bodies of his disposable adversaries, Feng then retreats deep into the desert, holing up in a dilapidated shack, lingering in a state of contemplative near-inactivity. Epic only in its lavish backgrounds and panoramas—most of them glimpsed in fleeting, scorched-earth overexposure, like nightmarishly vivid acid flashbacks—Ashes of Time confines most of its action to this secluded outpost, and if those walls could talk, they’d whisper the same disheartening words as Apartment 2046. You can’t escape the past. Consequently, the film plays not unlike a strange, fractured-glass variation on 2046: a motley band of damaged souls drift into Feng’s life, looking to hire him, burden him with their tales of tortured melodrama, or both. They might be fearsome, professional swordsmen straight out of the wuxia handbook—one of them is even blind, Zatoichi style—but in temperament, in their precise hang-ups and obsessions and oh-so-eloquent turmoil, these self-reflective downers are nearly identical to Wong’s usual rouge’s gallery of lovelorn misfits. Apparently even highly trained, legendary assassins have girl problems. (Or, in the case of a who’s-fooling-who, cross-dressing fatale, some very complicated boy problems.)
Allegedly more comprehensible and linear in its current form, Ashes of Time remains, nevertheless, a maddening muddle. Based, ever so loosely, on a famous novel by Louis Cha, it’s a genre movie stripped of its genre potential, a martial arts picture devoid of plot, suspense, and all but the scarcest hints of actual swords-play. There are no pressing narrative concerns here. Characters slide in and out of the film with but a moment’s notice, their conflicts left on loop, loudly voiced but tragically unresolved. It’s not story but a thick and billowing cloud of emotion that fuels this glorious mess of a work. Monologues bleed into metaphors, and striking images—the ominous silhouette of a spinning birdcage, a warrior doing battle with his own reflection—speak louder than the most grandiose of speeches. Wong directs the moody proceedings like a lovesick fool on an all-night, drugs-and-liquor bender. Who but this oddball romantic would hire famed fight choreographer Sammo Hung to stage his frenzied skirmishes, have Christopher Doyle shoot them like blurry daydreams, and then slice and dice and edit them into jagged near-incoherence? What few battles we see in Ashes of Time unfold in a flurry of smeared color and frantic motion, a tangled pile-up of limbs and steel. They’re like abstract expressions of the characters’ inner torment, kinetic recreations of the little wars being fought in their hearts and minds. Wong seems to regard the combat as a mandatory burden, the pandering payoff he hurriedly and impatiently delivers before steering the film back into its ravishing, shattered-heart torpor. This may be the first and only martial arts movie to treat its life-or-death showdowns like mere afterthought.
Then again, maybe it’s a mistake to even approach this lost and found curiosity like a martial arts movie. That’s just the genre prism that Wong filters his familiar conceits through, the particular attire he’s dressing his trademark melancholia in this time around. There’s a surreal sense of dislocation to the movie’s burnt-and-desolate locale, an almost deliberate artifice to the period piece trappings, as though what we were witnessing were simply the gonzo reveries of some drunk and disillusioned poet, another of Wong’s morose everymen. (This is the novel Mr. Chow would write if his interests lay less in cyber-punk sci-fi and more in ancient Chinese mythology.) Its plot a convoluted clutter, its connections tenuous, its characters linked not by straight-line narrative but by metaphoric parallel and literary allusion—Ashes of Time is a tough nut to crack. Piercing through the confounding miasma is that same ol’ sentiment, no less dispiriting but still mighty universal in its appeal. You can’t escape the past. Tinkering and toying with an old effort, breathing new life into a misunderstood and nearly forgotten half-folly, Wong has a troubled history of his own to grapple with. At least he’s found something of a constructive solution: if you really can’t escape the mistakes of the past, you can still do everything in your power to correct them. I eagerly await My Blueberry Nights Redux, due sometime in 2022.