My familiarity with the renowned author Louis Cha's novels stem primarily from the 80s Hong Kong TVB series, where regulars such as Felix Wong, Andy Lau and Tony Leung Chiu Wai even taking on the various heroic roles in television adaptation of the author's rich stories, which have been made countless of times by various TV stations, both at home and abroad, to varying degrees of success. Reading the novels though is somewhat daunting given my not-so-good command of the written language, and Cha himself had recently been tinkering with his storylines ala what George Lucas did with his Star Wars saga.
That being said, he's magnanimous enough for his characters to go take on different spins, and stories even under various filmmakers, and to be honest there is absolutely no way anyone can make a single film to encompass the entire storyline of any single book. What can happen is either to super-summarize certain portions of it, like Kung Fu Cult Master based on Heavenly Sword and Dragon Sabre (the literal translation of the title), directed by Wong Jing and starring Jet Li (which had only 1 part of its planned 2 parter filmed), or to take the established characters and create completely different stories, be it the easy way out with comedic spoofs, or drama-laden ones which was what Wong Kar-wai did with Ashes of Time.
I would give the writer-director top marks for being able to fuse his own storytelling flavour and created something that worked extremely well into a well loved and established saga and characters. It takes a lot of courage to be able to spin something out from readily known, and treasured characters, without so much of a hint of disrespect to the original source, and to fans. It's extremely easy to screw it all up, but Wong avoided all the pitfalls, and included enough elements here to show familiarity, and respect for the original material, yet providing fans a plausible pre-story if you'd like, to the entire Condor Heroes trilogy.
I have not had the good opportunity to have watched the original cut from start to end, only portions of it many years back, so this review isn't one to compare the differences between the Redux version and its predecessor. Copies of the original are also not reproduced in a respectable manner on home video, hence any copy you can find out there, is something that's poor in quality that will certainly mar a viewing experience. The remastered and Redux version had its visuals cleaned up although there are still sections of it being grainy, and Wong Kar-wai had reportedly re-edited the film so that it's now supposedly easier to understand and follow.
To that effect, I will say yes, as it's primarily following a linear narrative rather than a fractured one, moving in accordance with the seasons starting off with Leslie Cheung's Ouyang Feng who decided to descent the White Camel Mountain after an inexplicable incident with regards to his loved one (Maggie Cheung) who had decided to marry his brother. Stricken with guilt from an early incident which we'll get to know about based on the narration by Huang Yaoshi (played by Tony Leung Kar-Fai) for this episode only, Ouyang Feng decides to base himself in the desert, being the middle man amongst mercenaries, and those who come to seek his help to bump off their enemies, who often turn out to be their loved ones. It's the ultimate crimes of passion waiting to be committed.
Wong Kar-wai decided to focus on the early lives of the famous trio of Dong Xie (Huang Yao Shi), Xi Du (Ouyang Feng) and Bei Gai (Hong Qi), leaving out Nan Ti the Emperor since the backstory about his youth has already been documented quite clearly by Louis Cha himself, which coincidentally also had romance strongly intertwined. Here, WKW gives his own spin on the younger selves of the fore mentioned trio, and managed to craft a believable, inter-twining tale of love, and the psychological effect love have had on their friendships, complete with his brand of romance philosophy filled with beautifully memorable lines.
Based heavily on the theme of memory and how it becomes the root cause of man's misery, WKW's tale touches on unrequited love for the most parts, of how people come to fall in love with others, only for others to play them out, or not love them back. I particularly enjoyed WKW's tale on the eventual emergence of probably the most skilled swordsman in the Louis Cha martial arts universe in Dugu Qiubai (Lonely, Seeking Defeat) as someone who fell hard from being tricked by the promise of a potential romance, only to fly off the handle, and unwittingly hones his craft because of the hurt that philosophizes to being alone, and to be sparring with oneself rather than with others mastering both the Yin and the Yang aspects, in his route to martial arts supremacy.
Then there are others such as Tony Leung Chiu Wai's soon to be blind swordsman whose wife Peach Blossom (Carina Lau) has fallen for someone else, thus in one fell swoop touching on how love once was can be lost forever, and the pain in dealing with wondering whether such an affection was something real to begin with, not forgetting the tie-in with Huang Yaoshi's obsession with the Peach Blossom flower when he christened the island he settles in with the same namesake.
There's a different type of love displayed with Jacky Cheung's role as Hong Qi before he became the leader of the Beggar Sect, such as his insatiable appetite for food given a small hint here in his honourable willingness to help a young girl (Charlie Yeung) against a band of bandits, and again to tie in with his loss of his pinky, plus an episode involving touching on Ouyang Feng's nephew which of course has a revelation (for those not in the know) later on in the Louis Cha novels. I suppose all these elements were done to keep the Louis Cha fans happy, when required to sit through the many emotional moments which they're not used to, since they are introduced into the Condor Heroes story as very formidable martial arts exponents from the onset, and in this tale, can also be beset by affairs of the heart.
As a kungfu film, the fight sequences here are few and far between. One of the reasons why I decided to watch this now, is because of Wong Kar-wai's upcoming bio-pic on Ip Man starring Tony Leung as the Wing Chun master. The only time I'll ever get to see the helmer direct a martial arts film with the same lead actor in it, will be Ashes of Time. However, Sammo Hung served as the martial arts choreographer in this film and in Wilson Yip's Ip Man, so I suppose he probably won't serve in WKW's biopic in designing the action sequences.
Don't expect gorgeously designed action where you can see the combatants duke it out with clarity. The editing here ensures that jump cuts are used to accentuate the mayhem of a swordfighting brawl, before bookending those with plenty of poseur moments for the swordsman to strike contemplating looks to decide if they should unsheathe their weapons. Battles are incredibly fast, too fast if you ask me, with the camera slowing down to a standstill when capturing the vast landscapes and highlighting stark differences between heaven and earth so loved by Christopher Doyle here. The Redux soundtrack however didn't stand out, and is hardly noticeable, being seemingly absent when the need arose without stamping its mark on the film.
Probably one of Wong Kar-wai's most under-appreciated works, and something that lovers of the usual martial arts film will find fault against its moody, talky atmosphere instead of using their fists to confront their misery. But it's an emotional film filled with plenty of relationship angst to make you ponder about, reflect and perhaps identify with some aspects of it since it more or less covered an entire spectrum of woeful feelings. Not forgetting too that this film has one generation of talented stars all featured in it, thus making this something of a must-watch for all fans of Hong Kong cinema, under the hands of her famous auteur.
The Region Free special edition DVD comes with a number of extras, starting with a A4 sized photo book containing gorgeous stills from the film. The DVD comes inside a large cardboard box that's designed to look as if a kungfu manual is hidden within, and the most valuable portion of the packaging, is the 3-frame cell from the film reel. Mine happens to capture Brigitte Lin in all 3, so I suppose all her fans will be envious upon reading this!
Presented in anamorphic widescreen format with language tracks in either Mandarin or Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1, subtitles are available in English, Traditional and Simplified Mandarin. Scene selection is split into 10 sections.
The Bonus Features available on the DVD are Two Theatrical Trailers (4:02) presented in a letterbox format, as well as a behind the scenes and interviews feature titled Born From Ashes - The Making of Ashes of Time Redux (14:00) which comes only with Chinese subtitles. Well, in actual fact only very limited time is devoted to that sneak peek in the making-of, with time devoted instead to interviews with cast and crew over different time periods at different locations as well. Bookended by the trailers see in the separate section, the interviews with Wong Kar-wai, Christopher Doyle, Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Charlie Yeung are in English, Sammo Hung in Cantonese and Carina Lau in Mandarin, talking about topics ranging from Sammo Hung's martial arts lineage, the fighting techniques created for the various characters, music, the director himself, and even about the venue they shot the film in as well as the director's decision for the Redux version to have chapters based on the Chinese almanac. It's quite insightful listening to them speak, but alas it's a really short documentary.