Back in 1994, six years before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon introduced wuxia (the Chinese chivalry/swordplay genre) to a large American audience, Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai set out to create a particularly ambitious and singular example of the form. Wong, who would go on to make such modern classics as Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love, cast virtually every major Hong Kong star—Leslie Cheung (now deceased), Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, both of the Tony Leungs—and used a revered novel, The Legend of the Eagle Shooting Heroes, as (very) loose inspiration. Production took so long that he shot Chungking Express during a break in filming. The result, Ashes of Time, was so gorgeously incomprehensible that it was barely released in the U.S., and thereafter fell into semi-obscurity, known only to buffs and cultists.
Hoping to correct that, Wong now presents Ashes of Time Redux, a fairly radical revision that adds cutting-edge digital effects and an entirely new score (performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma) to a more streamlined, less allusive edit of the original narrative. The basic story—to the extent that there even is one—remains the same: a series of tangentially related encounters between Leslie Cheung’s brooding loner, who works as a broker for assassins-for-hire and their clients, and the various folks who wander by seeking succor and/or revenge. But the Redux cut is a little shorter and a lot easier to follow, if only because it’s now much more evident that the plot is just an excuse for Wong to orchestrate one self-contained, visually ravishing set piece after another.
Still, for all its smeary, colorful grandeur, Ashes of Time isn’t the best introduction to Wong’s body of work. If you’re already a fan, you won’t want to miss it. If not, though, you might want to rent a few of his later, more accessible efforts—others include Happy Together and 2046—before tackling this poetic exercise in pure form, which is far more interested in the play of cross-hatched birdcage shadows on human faces than it is in human beings themselves.