Ashes of Time Redux
A few years ago at the Vancouver Film Festival I watched a Taiwanese film called "Goodbye Dragon Inn," about the last night of an old movie theatre which was showing a classic, old martial-arts film. In fact, they had been showing that film and only that film for the past year or more. The theatre itself was almost empty, and in the course of the film I remember only two things actually happening: one was a very slow move by an apparently gay man sitting in one section of the theatre on what appeared to be a voyage in order to sit next to another gay man. The second was a very long walk by the box-office lady up to the projection booth with a sandwich for the projectionist; when she got there the booth was empty, and so she went back down again. End of film.
At the festival was a programmer named Tony Rayns, a well-known critic and expert on Asian films, who had chosen "Goodbye Dragon Inn" for the festival. The next morning at breakfast I asked him to explain just what it was about the film that had intrigued him. Maybe it was the way I said it, but I don't think so; in any case I was not to learn his criteria for selections. Instead he gave me a tongue-lashing like I haven't had since I was late turning in a paper on Henry James. He ended by telling me I was a typical American studio-movie lover, that I probably thought Steven Spielberg was a great director, and walked away, never to be seen again.
I tell you all this because Wong Kar-Wai's film "Ashes of Time Redux" baffled me with the same questions I'd had of "Goodbye Dragon Inn." I had absolutely no idea what Wong had in mind. And he's a well-known filmmaker, whose work includes "Chungking Express," "In the Mood for Love," "2046." "My Blueberry Nights" and others. "Ashes of Time" was originally made in 1994, and this year he decided to make it a bit different, perhaps more accessible, perhaps not, which is why it's now called 'redux.'
Redux or not, the film involves a hermit-like man who lives out on the western desert, where he can arrange to have people killed for a small consideration. He's visited each year by another man, a swordsman who's actually blind except in bright sun but manages, I believe - you'll have to trust me on this - to kill about fifty thugs who come riding up on horseback to kill him. Then a woman comes to stay with him; she wants someone killed but can only pay him in eggs. No dice. Then either that woman or another one marries someone, I believe it's the brother of the hermit but don't put money on it, then everyone dies, then the film is over.
I've tried to be kind to "Ashes of Time Redux," knowing it was shot by the great Hong Kong cinematographer Christopher Doyle, but there again I was stymied: The original was shot in 35mm, like most features, but this print looks as though it was run through about a dozen early video printers and then transferred to film. It's so grainy that even the shots of the desert landscape look out of focus. Where's Tony Rayns when you need him?