Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Ashes of Time

Earlier today, I watched Wong Kar-Wai's film, Ashes of Time. Anyone who's hung out with me in the past six months or so has probably already heard me extorting the virtues of Wong Kar-Wai, and by the end of last year, I had seen all of his films. I loved them all, with the exception of As Tears Go By, his really weak first film, and Ashes of Time, his wuxia Kung-Fu movie, which I liked, but was very, very confused by. I've seen so many movies, I'm able to follow most of them, but this one was just perplexing. It didn't help that it was one of the worst DVDs I'd ever watched, with sub-VHS quality, making it difficult to tell who was who. Anyway, I got another DVD version a while back, but I hadn't watched the film, I think I was a little intimidated, not quite ready to go back to the confusing world that WKW had created, but tonight I finally did, and what I saw was stunning.

The first time I saw Ashes of Time, I was so confused, I couldn't really enjoy it. This time I was paying attention very closely, keeping track of character names and trying to place things in chronological order, not an easy task in this film. But, I did follow the film, and I was amazed at how great it was, and how well it fits into WKW's overall canon. This film prefigures a lot of the stuff he talks about in 2046, particularly with the mystery wine.

The film has three basic plot segments, all involving Leslie Chung as Ouyang. In the first segment, he runs into Evil East, played by Tony Leung Kar-Fai. This is not the Tony Leung of 2046 or Chungking Express, it's another, who I shall henceforth refer to as Kar-Fai. Anyway, the opening of the film jumps all over, in an almost Lynchian way, blending time and memory, in a way that is confusing at first, but nicely sets the tone for the film. Evil East is being pursued by a dual personality woman, known as Yin, or Yang when she is dressed as a man. In the second, Ouyang commissions people to defend a town from a gang of horse thieves, and in the third, he reflects on his own life.

All of WKW's films neglect traditional ideas of narrative, but this might be his most abstract. He does a great job of just capturing feelings, rather than telling a traditional story. In the first segment, there's an amazing scene where Ouyang and Yin/Yang are in bed together, and each is fantasizing about the person they really love. It's the sort of thing that's confusing on first viewing, but once you know the basic character conflicts, it's amazing, because it places you in both of their minds. In the film, and all of WKW's work, most characters feel a longing for something else, another time or place. This scene prefigures the plot of 2046, in which Tony Leung sleeps with a bunch of women, all the while seeking to recapture the feeling he had with Maggie Cheung back in In the Mood For Love.

The film is a series of love triangles, in which people long for that which they can't have, and the people who do have love are somehow separated from the people they love. WKW does a great job of showing this visually, such as in the gorgeous scene where Kar-Fai goes to a cave where Peach Blossom, Tony Leung's wife is waiting for him. Her sensual ties to the water and the horse prefigure the similar scenes with the hitwoman in Fallen Angels throwing herself onto the jukebox in the bar.

The characters in this film are forced to choose between love and fighting. Leslie chooses to fight, and ends up regretting it, because he has become nothing more than a shell, asking people the same questions and continually watching his friends either die or move on, while he stays the same. He is a prisoner of his past, torn by his memories of Maggie Cheung. The scene between Kar-Fai and Maggie Cheung is heartbreaking, such that when watching the film the first time, I wasn't really sure what was happening, but I got the emotion. Having followed the story, it's even more effective, and in ten minutes, Maggie steals the entire movie. The fate she has here is probably the same one that befalls her character from In the Mood For Love.

The magic wine, which erases ones memory is thematically quite similar to the whole idea of 2046. WKW's films are frequently about people tormented by memories and past loves, unable to move on. In his films set in the present day, the people frequently do get over it. Takeshi in Chungking gets over Mae, and by the end of Fallen Angels, it seems like the agent has gotten over the hitman. Similarly in Happy Together, where for the first time, we see Tony Leung free of worry and doubt. In his films set in the past, the weight of memory seems more inescapable. Here, Ouyang finds himself crippled by his memories of Maggie, unable to move on, and unable to face her again. He is caught in a stasis, much like the one that Chow has in 2046.

The magic wine is seen as the solution to all the character's problems, because it just makes the memories go away. But, that doesn't work, Ouyang is still drawn to his hometown, where he knew Maggie. In 2046, the train represents the opportunity for a do-over, rather than forgetting the past, it's a chance to recapture and do it right, to never lose the emotional ties that have become a curse. In both films, love is a prison, presenting characters from moving on, and alienating those around them. It's heartbreaking to know that Maggie and Ouyang both love each other, but neither has the guts to go after that love.

Besides the thematic ties, the work uses the style that WKW developed in Chungking and Fallen Angels, and applies it to the wuxia genre. It's notable that this is a Wong Kar-Wai film that happens to be in the kung-fu genre, rather than a kung-fu film that happens to be directed by Wong Kar-Wai. It uses the conventions of the genre, but more notably uses the themes and style of Kar-Wai. During fight scenes, he uses the low shutter speed 'Chungking' effect, and absurdly quick cutting. The fight scenes are more about showcasing the editing than showcasing the fighting, and the fighting itself isn't particularly impressive. The really bizarre fight scenes are the ones involving Brigitte Lin that just involve huge torrents of water exploding into the sky.

I still don't have a great DVD, but even without great quality, the film is still visually dazzling. The cave sequence, the Maggie sequences, the desert vistas, I still prefer WKW's urban films, but this is a good looking piece. The thing I love about the film is that WKW makes these mythic figures real people. Even in a great martial arts film, like Hero, the characters are mythologized, as they are in most films set in the past. This is one of the few historical films where the characters feel painfully real, and have relatable conflicts rather than these sort of mythic ones about honor and loyalty. That's my primary problem with period films, the characters speak and behave in an artificial way, but WKW's people have the same problems as modern characters, they are just filtered through the lens of this past society.

So, this isn't an easy film, but it's one that's definitely worth checking out. It's full of the great images and style you'd expect with WKW, and it's interesting to see how he takes his usual themes and applies them to a different genre. I'm going to have to see this a couple of more times, and hopefully a better DVD, with the proper language track, and some quality bonus material will be released soon.

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