The story behind Ashes of Time and its Redux release in 2008, 14 years after it was originally made, is a little complicated. Suffice to say that you don’t need to know it, or be aware of how the film compares to the rest of Wong Kar Wai’s oeuvre, to appreciate Ashes of Time Redux in and of itself. This film ostensibly centres upon Ou-yang Feng (Leslie Cheung), a man who acts as an intermediary between swordsmen and their clients, but the story onscreen requires patience to understand – something that definitely is worth trying to do.
Ashes of Time Redux is structured around the Chinese Almanac, divided up into seasons. This ties it into the natural world, the passage of time, and the inevitability of fate. The film was shot in an isolated desert area, which gives it a constant sense of liminality, its characters on the edge of existence, surrounded by inhospitable and indifferent landscapes. The seasons move in patterns that are unaffected by human passions and hopes.
The characters’ lives are at once impermanent and timeless. The past recurs with a power that diminishes the present; a man narrates his own death; we see a woman’s story long after she has died; and we are told in a brief caption, without emotion or context, that in years to come two of the people we have been watching will fight a fatal duel.
Although this is a wuxia film, the first fight scene occurs so late that it’s easy to forget the genre. As it happens, the scene is more psychological than physical, bound up in natural elements as well as one character’s divided soul. It’s an improbably beautiful moment and each subsequent fight scene, while not as powerful, is deeply concerned with emotion as well as action. Water, light, and earth all feel vital to these scenes. The characters are inseparable from their world.
Ashes of Time Redux is an intangible, restless film. Its beauty lingers but the hearts of its characters prove to be elusive as windborne sand. It’s one of Wong Kar Wai’s most little known works – but I’ve found that it’s not a bad one with which to start.