Ashes of Time, the story goes, was such an unwieldy production that its stressed-out director, Wong Kar-wai, took time off from the protracted editing process and wrote and directed Chungking Express just to clear his mind. Indeed, the slicing continues 14 years later, as Ashes of Time Redux finds Wong still nipping and tucking at his oneiric wuxia epic. Despite minor revisions (mostly visual, as Christopher Doyle’s colors look infinitely more vibrant now than in previously available prints), the film remains as ravishingly impenetrable as ever. As dense as smoke, the plot pivots on Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), a lovelorn killer-for-hire whose desert hut doubles as a rendezvous spot for a gallery of avengers and dreamers. A vengeful noblewoman (Brigitte Lin) dons male drag to track down her sister’s suitor, a swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) defends a village before losing his sight, and a young bounty hunter (Jackie Cheung) seeks redemption by accepting a poor girl’s (Charlie Yeung) offer. Betrayals and duels swirl around him, but Ouyang is too busy brooding over his lost love (Maggie Cheung) to pick up a sword.
Ashes of Time doesn’t starve for hyperkinetic genre calisthenics: In an early sequence, a warrior (Tony Leung Ka Fai), his mane and robes flowing for the tilted camera, slashes the air with his sword and precipitates an earthquake that vanquishes an army of horsemen. Wong heightens action tropes the way Sergio Leone found arias in western showdowns, though in his version of the Hong Kong martial-arts netherworld the mandatory melees play second fiddle to the characters’ melancholic languor. Asked to deliver a sword-fighting extravaganza, Wong perversely blurs, fractures and pixilates the choreography while having his all-star cast lounge around in overlapping reveries, soaking in the director’s themes of memory, being and love. (The “tumult of the heart” referenced in the opening Buddhist crawl is the focus.) No less than the romantics of his later films, Wong’s ancient warriors are obsessed with time and passion; icons out of old Shaw Brothers movies, they find the rigidity of their archetypal roles gradually eroded by the transience of their emotions. Radically (almost maddeningly) disjointed but never less than intoxicating, Wong’s most obscure film is a trance worth falling into.