Ashes of Time Redux

Ashes of Time (1994) movie poster

(1994) dir. Wong Kar-Wai
viewed: 08/20/09

There was a time, not too long ago, that Wong Kar-Wai was one of my favorite living directors.  From Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express (1994), Ashes of Time (pre-Redux) (1994), and Fallen Angels (1995), he managed, with some aesthetic direction from frequent collaborator, cinematographer Christopher Doyle, to create a strange mixture of urban loneliness and longing, amidst the glowing neon of nighttime, and a somewhat French New Wave influenced sense of abstraction while adhering to his stories.

And honestly, Ashes of Time was perhaps my personal favorite, though perhaps Days of Being Wild is now.  I liked the transposition of his characters and tonality into a period film, a sword-fighting film, which was something that I was also enjoying.  In many ways, it was quite anomalous in his films, as he is so urban.  But in other ways, it tied back, with assassins, lost loves, long stretches of yearning, and even centered around a restaurant of sorts.

The story with the “Redux” was that the original negative had been damaged or lost or something, and Wong Kaw-Wai had long wished to have either re-edited or represented his film.  So, this version, I think, is more than a tad modified, but is essentially the same film.  It had been so long, I couldn’t really say.

I had been drawn to the film with its themes of memory and forgetting and its stellar cast featuring both Tony Leungs, Jacky Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, and the late Leslie Cheung.  And the film is still a visual pleasure, mixing strange color tintings and interesting juxtapositions of close-ups and items like birdcages.  And the film does still evoke its mood, of people lost and mixed-up from their obligations and loves, strewn out across the world in a somewhat existential nowhere.

But it didn’t speak to me as strongly as it had in the past, and I don’t know if that is due to the new edit, or more likely just to my changing person.  It’s still an interesting film, still probably one of his most interesting.  Yet Wong Kar-Wai, perhaps, by not having really evolved deeply in the meantime, even his older, more thought-provoking work, seems a retread of itself.  A redux, if you will.

As Tears Go By

As Tears Go By (1988) movie poster

(1988) dir Wong Kar-wai
viewed: 09/03/08

Back in the early 1990’s I got into Hong Kong film, which was a great time to get into it, a true heydey of cinema, a modern studio-system packed with directoral, writing, producing talent and a cavalcade of genuine movie stars.  This era in Hong Kong actually seemed to have started in the early 1980’s and was certainly petered out by the end of the 1990’s, but it left behind an excellent catalogue of great films and established talent that still continue to develop and evolve, not just within Hong Kong, but in world cinema.  And its influence continues to pervade.

That said, director Wong Kar-wai never really fit into the system exactly.  His films typically walked a different line from many of those contemporaries, seeming more influenced by the French New Wave in aesthetics, far less concerned with constructing linear narratives, and ultimately shooting for aesthetic, developing mood and tone, visually and emotionally, while lingering extensively on love and the longing and lonely.

I’ve seen almost all of Wong Kar-wai’s films, some more extensively than others with few exceptions.  As Tears Go By, for some reason, is one that I had never gotten around to seeing.  His first film, it is actually much more akin to the films and genre staples in Hong Kong of its period.  Starring Andy Lau and Jackie Cheung and the ever-beautiful Maggie Cheung, the story follows Lau, a pretty cool-as-a-cucumber lower tier criminal who is only starting to realize that his life hasn’t amounted to anything.  Jackie Cheung, his out-of-control wannabe sidekick, is bringing him down, full of pride, but helplessly small potatoes.  And when Lau meets Maggie Cheung, a good girl from outside of Hong Kong, he begins to understand what life could be for him.  Of course, things don’t necessarily turn out well.

It’s easy to see some early flashes of Wong Kar-wai’s style here, using popular music (a Canto-Pop version of “Take My Breath Away” and the title of the film which seems to have been taken from a Rolling Stones song), interesting visuals and compositions that are more arty than standard production fare, and a tale of love and longing.  But the film is much more a traditional Hong Kong crime film with its romantic leanings, the brotherhood of Jackie Cheung and Lau, the romanticized sensibility of “being a hero for one day”, the thug life portrayed.  While by his next film, Days of Being Wild (1990), Wong Kar-Wai will have come much more into his own, this film is a solid, successful picture on its own merits, more conventional than one expects from Wong Kar-wai, but quite a stand-out on its own.

It’s interesting to look at because Wong Kar-wai has seemingly developed into a creative rut of sorts as I noted when I wrote about his most recent film, My Blueberry Nights (2007).  And while his latest new feature film, a re-make of Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai seems to have a later release date than when I last looked, I am excited to see that he is re-releasing Ashes of Time (1994), one of my favorite of his films, a restored version.  That is cool news indeed.

My Blueberry Nights

My Blueberry Nights (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Wong Kar-Wai
viewed: 04/20/08 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

I used to really like Wong Kar-Wai films.  I still have great fondness for Days of Being Wild (1991), Ashes of Time (1994), and Fallen Angels (1995).  And though Wong Kar-Wai has not been as much a part of the Hong Kong film industry as much as kind of a maverick in that and most worlds, his work has taken a change with the change of that industry.  Somehow, though he typically mines similar emotional territory: longing, unrequited love, loneliness, urban isolation, he has been finding new ways of rediscovering it.

Though I’ve still never seen his 2000 film In the Mood for Love, I did see his pseudo-sequel, 2046 (2004), it started to seem that he was in somewhat of a rut.

So, when he decided to do his first English-language film in with non-actress, singer Norah Jones in the lead and several other name Hollywood actors: Jude Law, Natalie Portman, and Rachel Weisz, it was sort of like “what?”  And his next film is a re-make of Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1947)…so who knows?  His early work is his early work.

In My Blueberry Nights, Wong Kar-Wai co-scripted with crime writer Lawrence Block, channelling the worlds of Sam Shepard, as Jones, a spurned lover, hits middle America in search of…I don’t even know if she knows what she’s in search of.  She modifies her name Elizabeth in each situation she is in, playing, trying new personas, while really being much more of a cipher than a character as she plays witness to human dramas in Nashville and Las Vegas.

Though Wong Kar-Wai has always had some affection or interest in people in the food service (it’s true — go back and see), his characters of Jude Law’s cafe owner and Norah Jones, waitress to the world, are the kind of characters out of a first year film student’s notebook.  Their worlds are all a little too poetic and their issues seem detached from a world that they never seem to inhabit.  The camera stays in or around Law’s cafe, spying on them.  But outside of shots of passing streetcars, we could be anywhere.

I have to say that Rachel Weisz and David Strathairn and even Natalie Portman deport themselves well enough.  Norah Jones is fine, too.  Some of this carries the film.  But some of the other aspects really didn’t deliver verity, per se.  While all this maybe worked better from an outsider view of his other work, a Hong Kong, a people, a language, a culture separating me from the narrative more, perhaps.  The melodrama seemed apt enough.

I can’t tell you why I wasn’t so excited by this film.  Oddly, I think I know folks who would enjoy it.  I do wonder what other long-time followers of Wong Kar-Wai’s work think of this.

2046

2046 (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. Wong Kar Wai
viewed: 01/02/06 / diary entry: 01/05/06

I had been meaning to see 2046 for some time and I am sorry that I didn’t catch it in the cinema. The cinematography and art design of Wong Kar Wai’s films is always stunning and certainly exudes more power on the big screen. His films also typically move fairly slowly, so watching in the theater tends to be more engrossing. 2046 is, in some ways, a reprise of Tony Leung’s character from In the Mood for Love (2000), which I have never gotten around to seeing. I can imagine that watching that film could inflect itself on this one. His character’s attitude toward women is chaotic, from distant functional sexual relationships to deep longing and love. He is lost, due to the happenings in the prior film in a fractured world from which he seeks escape.

The escapist narrative is an oddly futuristic “place” or lack of “place”. It’s neither time nor place in a sense. It’s a train, populated by no one but the protagonist and a beautiful automoton played by Faye Wong. Again, the protagonist’s dream of love is refuted ambiguously by the woman. Is it due to her delayed reaction? Or is it her previous engagements?

In Wong Kar Wai’s films, characters are always failing to connect, helplessly caught in some longing, yet unable to resolve the need for themselves or others. It’s a tone and mood that pervades his work and is heavily present in this film as well. In some ways, the tone feels tired, as though we have been through this all before. But something in the secondary narrative, maybe its parallel commentary on the main narrative provides more insight to the characters’ states of being more than in other of his films.

His films have a feeling of the avant-garde, while in many ways echoing an outdated mode of the avant-garde. Maybe that makes sense in some post-post-modernist modernity. His films are also always beautifully shot, and 2046 is no exception. It looks great and it’s pretty intriguing. Wong Kar Wai is still one of the most interesting directors out there, in my opinion.