Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Ashes of Time Redux

Being a fan of Wong Kar Wai, I saw the original cut of this movie ages ago, in an admittedly less than legal rip from the internet. I had no choice, the movie just plain didn't exist in this country, and until very recently it was not available here in any form. Truth be told, I couldn't make very much sense of it. It was clearly a story from feudal China, but I couldn't make heads or tail it.

After some research, it seems I wasn't alone. That cut took years to assemble, and was so long and frustrating to get pieced together that Kar Wai took a vacation mid-edit to make an entirely different movie that would be less of a pain. That movie, incidentally, was Chungking Express, which was fantastic and the reason California Dreaming can get stuck in my head at a moment's notice.

Evidently a glutton for punishment, Kar Wai decided to have another go at the film. Well, it could be that, or maybe it's that time and moving away from the stress has given some form of clarity well after the fact. In this cut, the movie makes perfect sense, and Kar Wai becomes the bizarro George Lucas, taking a movie that wasn't fantastic and making it great in a new edit.

This is the story of Ouyang Feng, played by Leslie Cheung, and Huang Yaoshi, played by Tony Leung Ka Fai (one of two Tony Leungs in the movie). Well, it's sort of the story of them and how they connect to several other stories, all connected by themes and the subtle effects of those two main characters and their actions. It is typical Kar Wai fare, tales of love, longing and loss shot in a stunningly beautiful manner.

It's an interesting looking film this. For one, it's grainier than a grain bin during harvest time belonging to a farmer with a bumper crop. Now, being picky about film stock, you might expect that to bother me. It doesn't, sometimes the grain is used to great effect. The action scenes are a formless blur of action and reaction. It's stunning to behold, distancing the audience and the characters from the presumed brutality of their actions. It's filmed instinct, separate from the over thinking that causes the characters such misery in their normal lives.

If you know Kar Wai, you know what to expect here. Nobody can capture the futility of human desire like he can, and there is no director that films a movie like he can. His frustrating swordplay adventure always seemed like something of a lost kitten in his oeuvre, hard to find, but making big noise in the influence of his later works. Now, that kitten has grown into a beautiful cat, and while this analogy is being stretched beyond the breaking point, I think it stands somewhere among the best he's made. Not bad for a movie I really couldn't get my head around on the first go.

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