Tuesday, September 9, 2008

TIFF 2008 reviews: Ashes of Time Redux

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Wong Kar Wai and the glory that was his mid-nineties output, so I won’t rehash here. This special presentation is the recut (pared down by ten minutes or so) and rescored version of his bizarre wu xia pan Ashes of Time and I can say that I did pretty much understand what was going on this time. I had seen the original version three or four times before, though the last time was well over a decade ago so maybe I just wasn’t as swift back then (if anything, I think the opposite may be true) or maybe Wong actually did tighten up the narration into coherence. For me, part of the attraction was to see Brigitte Lin on the big screen one more time. Lin Ching Hsia was, IMHO, one of the greatest screen sirens of all time, with a screen presence in the tradition of the Asumpta Sernas, Anouk Aimées and Arsinée Khanjians of the film world, an utterly hypnotic scene-stealer who consumed the lens. She retired and vanished from public life after making a pair of movies with Wong Kar Wai, each of which summed up her career and her iconic status in the Hong Kong new wave and movie history in the long term in diametrically opposite ways. In Chungking Express she was every film noire femme fatale brought to Taiwanese life for a final farewell (her stage-right freeze frame after finally dropping the blonde wig has got to be one of the greatest cinematic sendoffs in history), and in Ashes her role’s a comment on and deconstruction of all the androgynous sorceress swordswomen she had brought to life in the previous five or ten years.

In fact, as Wong alluded in his Q&A, Ashes of Time Redux is a veritable time capsule of a certain era in HK cinema, starring as it does so many of the best and biggest dramatic stars of back in the day: Jacky Cheung, the late Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau, Big Tony, Little Tony, Charlie Yeung. Although I guess by that logic Eagle Shooting Heroes, the parody of Ashes that made it to the screens before the source material did because of the long post-production period and which starred all the above actors plus Joey Wong whose part had been cut from Ashes, is also a time capsule, though the scene where Brigitte is chased through flat-floored Star Trek caves by a guy in a gorilla suit would tend to give the lie to that notion. Hmmm? Oh, right, back to the movie. Anyway, therein lies my only problem with the screening (besides an oddly grainy print), namely that I remember Ashes being much more affecting than it was. Maybe it’s a simple case of “you can’t go home again” or maybe it’s that Yo-Yo Ma’s cello doesn’t quite fit Maggie’s monolog the way Frankie Chan’s synths did but Ashes of Time seems much more the odd man out in Wong’s filmography, a noble experiment that has moments of transcendence but is more a curiosity piece that freed up his muse to make such masterpieces as Chungking Express and Fallen Angels.

Seeing as how my next movie was also at Ryerson and I didn’t need to race across downtown, I stuck around for the brief Q&A, which was quite rewarding. Wong Kar Wai’s English is better than most HK directors, and I asked a question for the first time at the festival, namely if the actors had seen the new version and what were their reactions. Apparently Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Carina Lau saw it at Cannes, and less than two weeks ago he’d arranged a private screening for the now-reclusive Brigitte Lin, and they all loved it and were glad they’d made the film in the first place. Overall a good afternoon, and I’m even more curious to know how Wong’s going to follow up My Blueberry Nights if he’s got swordsmen on his mind again. (***1/2)

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