In the filmography of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, 1994's Ashes Of Time looks like the odd film out. An expensive martial arts movie with a cast of all-star Hong Kong actors, Ashes Of Time was so long-in-the-making that Wong shot Chungking Express during an editing break. That film—with its brisk pace, found visual poetry, alienated urbanites, and odd-angled love stories—would let him take center stage in world cinema and lay out the boundaries of his subsequent films. And while In The Mood For Love features characters who write martial arts serials, after Ashes, Wong left the kung-fu to others.
He's now returned, however temporarily, to offer a new, shorter cut of the movie for a re-release. (Or, in the case of American markets, a theatrical premiere.) Looked at again, it's not that odd a fit. For starters, Ashes remains a doggedly unusual kung-fu movie. Officially an adaptation of Louis Cha's novel The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, it throws out the book's plot, keeping only the characters. Its fight scenes—what few there are—are choreographed by the great Sammo Hung but reduced to the point of abstraction by Wong's editing and close-to-the-blade shot choices. The plot's almost equally abstract or, at the least, extremely confusing. The late Leslie Cheung plays a swordfighter who now arranges hits for paying customers. Among them: Brigitte Lin, playing a man upset that Tony Leung Kai Fai (not to be confused with Tony Leung Chiu Wai, who's also in the movie as a blind swordsman) has rejected his sister (also played by Lin). Other tales of heartbreak and murder spin out from there, none of them made any clearer by Wong's emotion-and-image-first storytelling. (The film's official site has a press kit with detailed plot synopses. Consider downloading it and brushing up in advance, as you would for an opera.)
Yet for all Ashes' frustrations, it's still a gorgeous piece of filmmaking. Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle create a desert wasteland landscape to match the characters' hollowed-out hearts. Vivid, forbidding colors fill the screen as they try to keep their pasts, with all its attendant desires and disappointments, at bay. In that they have much in common with the protagonists of the films Wong would make next. Those would prove more satisfying, but Ashes still provides a fascinating glimpse down a path perhaps advisedly not taken.