Ashes of Time (Redux)
China, Hong Kong 2008 (1994)
Directed by Wong Kar-wai
Running time: 93 minutes
There is a melancholic inventiveness that ripples throughout Wong Kar-Wai’s troubled third feature. And as troubles sometimes do, Wong’s had auspicious beginnings. With an epic $5.5m budget, he cast a veritable constellation of stellar Hongkongers: Leslie Cheung, Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia, Tony Leung Kar-fai, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Maggie Cheung and Jacky Cheung. One byproduct of this accumulated star power was a production calendar saturated with outside commitments. So, in ‘92, Wong paused the shoot which began a year earlier. During the break, he wrote, shot and edited CHUNKING EXPRESS (1994) – the film that, with a typical alley-oop pass from cinematic emissary, Quentin Tarantino, would first familiarize American audiences with the Hong Kong new wave. ASHES OF TIME starts:
“It is written in the Buddhist canon, ‘The flag is still, the wind is calm. It is the heart of man that is in turmoil.’ It is the year of a total eclipse. Drought sweeps the land. Drought means problems. Problems mean good business.”
And while this sage advice may hold for deadly fixers like Leslie Cheung’s assassin-at-a-distance, it didn’t hold for Wong who recovered less than a quarter of his budget. Still, his work is chock full of innovative, eclectic technique that we can suppose was afforded him by the time and space of his immodest budget.
Many of the stylistic conventions Wong (and his go-to lensers, Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping Bin) employs here make appearances throughout his oeuvre. There’s the double- printing technique which results in a kind of systematic and jerky slow motion. It was first employed in his debut, AS TEARS GO BY (1988), and features prominently in his recent THE GRANDMASTER (2013). The technique draws our attention to the site where the real magic of cinema resides: the inter-frame gaps where a spectator conjures images that render sequences into an uninterrupted arc of motion. The elliptical way Wong captures Sammo Hung’s fight choreography seems to double down on this notion. Action spews forth – always having happened and never happening. Our eyes settle on the still moments in a series of graceful poses that leave us wondering what alarming feat of agility delivered us unto this unlikely present. Then there are the kaleidoscopic effects delivered by spinning lanterns and sapling-wrought bird cages. Trippy lights pierce these ornamented foregrounds, animating the desert as if it were a wuxia discotheque – a lattice of yolky yellow, irreal green and saffron shadow. Wong’s camera angles capture a universe where gravity’s vector is multiplicitous, falling at every angle concurrently in a torsion of uprightness. And the wind. The wind is anything but still. Flags whipper in the violent gusts like so many gaping flesh wounds.
19 September 2013