It’s never a good sign for a film’s narrative coherence when a critic rushes to the press notes to decipher exactly what transpired on the screen. Such is the case with Wong Kar Wai’s “Ashes of Time Redux.” Though visually striking, it is virtually impossible to follow.
“Ashes of Time” is based on a famous Chinese martial-arts novel, “The Eagle-Shooting Heroes.” In this saga, there are two martial-arts masters, the Lord of the East, and the Lord of the West. Mr. Wong decided he didn’t want to adapt that work. Instead, he wanted to show what transpired before its story begins, when the lords were younger men.
Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) is a sword for hire, willing to kill, but only if the price is right. He lives in self-imposed exile in the desert, fleeing the memory of the woman he loves - his brother’s wife. Feng eventually will become Lord of the West.
Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka Fai), meanwhile, is Feng’s best friend. Also a master swordsman, Yaoshi roams the land breaking hearts, including that of Murong Yin (Brigitte Lin). In response, her brother Murong Yang (also Miss Lin) contracts Feng to take out Yaoshi, who goes on to become Lord of the East.
Other characters include the Blind Swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and shoeless contract killer Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung), both of whom pop into Feng’s world for a short period of time.
There’s little in the way of narrative structure; the story is obfuscatingly elliptical, and the plot’s progression is often interrupted by cuts to unknown places and times. The larger theme - that memory informs who we are and what we do - comes through with slightly greater clarity.
Another curious feature of “Ashes” is its fight sequences: They’re filmed using camera movements that make them virtually impossible to follow. What’s the point of staging an elaborate fight sequence involving dozens of people if you can’t see what they’re doing?
That being said, the imagery in “Ashes of Time Redux” is striking. Mr. Wong’s color palette reflects the barren life Feng has chosen to live, and shots linger longer than probably is needed, creating an effect of still-life portraits brought to life. It’s too bad it’s so difficult to understand what, exactly, those portraits are trying to convey.
It’s hard to recommend a film as frustratingly inaccessible as this one, but if you go into the theater expecting less a cinematic experience than, say, a trip to an art gallery, you might be pleasantly surprised.
TITLE: “Ashes of Time Redux”
RATING: R (Some violence)
CREDITS: Directed and written by Wong Kar Wai
RUNNING TIME: 93 Minutes
WEB SITE: https://www.sonyclassics.com/ashesoftimeredux/
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS