Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Goddess: Ashes of Time Redux

Ouyang Feng is an agent for freelance swordsmen looking for some dirty work.  You could call him a cutthroat’s cutthroat.  Likewise, when it comes to love, he is a cynic’s cynic.  If you suppose a woman was the cause of his hardened heart, you would be correct.  It is a logical guess, considering Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time Redux (trailer here) screens this Friday as part of the Asia Society’s film series Goddess: Chinese Women on Screen.

Instead of adapting Louis Cha’s epic novel The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, Wong conceived of an original pseudo-prequel that can be fully appreciated without prior familiarity with its inspiration.  Every year, the swashbuckler Huang Yaoshi pays a visit to his friend Ouyang’s desert home.  Both are men with complicated pasts.  For his latest visit, Huang brings a bottle of supposedly enchanted wine that is said to induce forgetfulness.  Huang imbibes.  Ouyang does not.

After Huang disappears, apparently under the effects of the potent drink, Ouyang carries on with business.  However, his next clients are somehow involved with his soul-sick friend.  Clan leader Murong Yang recruits Ouyang to murder Huang in retribution for spurning his sister, Murong Yin.  Soon thereafter, the sister tries to hire Ouyang to murder her compulsively controlling brother.  In a hallucinatory evening (which is par for the course in Ashes), Ouyang realizes Yin and Yang are the same divided person.

The seasons pass, but it is hard judge time in the desert.  Ouyang recruits a wandering swordsman to defend the village from a band of outlaws.  His skills are formidable, but he is rapidly losing his sight.  The man’s one desire is to see his native land once again before going completely blind.  Eventually, Ouyang also yearns for home, where the woman he once loved lives as his brother’s wife.

Redux is the restored and reworked de facto director’s cut of Ashes Wong oversaw when he realized how many dubious copies of the film were in circulation.  Featuring fight choreography by Sammo Hung, it is quite stylistically daring by martial art film standards, bordering on the outright experimental.  There is indeed a fair amount of combat, but the action is rendered impressionistically blurred, almost like a series of freeze frames.

As promised, there are also several divas, including Brigitte Lin in sort of a dual role as the Murongs.  Although she is always recognizable, Lin brings a conviction to both personas that keeps the audience off-balance.  Yet, it is Maggie Cheung who really lowers the diva boom as the woman from Ouyang’s past.  Emotionally devastating but never indulgent or showy, it might represent the best second for second cameo ever.  As a bonus, Charlie Young is a genuinely haunting presence as the peasant girl out to avenge her brother.

While the film’s color palette reportedly varies depending on its various editions, any retrospective of cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s work ought to start or finish with Ashes.  The golds and burnt-umbers of Redux are absolutely striking.  Frankly, Ashes Redux is a daring classic of the genre that might be new to a lot of people who might think they have seen it already (like a wuxia Bladerunner).  Highly recommended, Ashes of Time Redux screens this Friday (12/7) at the Asia Society.