The best way to describe Wong Kar-wai’s moody, impressionistic wuxia epic is as a tone poem—a metaphor I particularly like. Tone poem isn’t just a pretty term; it refers specifically to a type of composition that emerged during the Romantic period. Before then, most orchestral works were symphonies, and symphonies followed rules, a specific architecture that outlined musical structure before a composer wrote a single note. The tone poem was a rejection of that architecture, an attempt to use the orchestra to convey something different: a story, a painting, a tableau, a feeling. Without the architecture, a tone poem can feel amorphous, but it can be beautifully evocative, too. Freed from symphonic strictures, the tone poem can find textures and flavors and colors so vibrant that the missing walls and roof hardly matter.
In Ashes of Time Redux, a reworking of his 1994 film Ashes of Time, Wong, like Liszt and Dvorák and Debussy before him, rejects the architecture of his medium. Ashes lacks a firm narrative and solidly defined characters. Even the swordplay that inevitably crops up in wuxia is vague and painterly here, conveying atmosphere without articulating details. It’s bewildering, even frustrating, until you stop trying to make sense of it, stop trying to find an A-leads-to-B-leads-to-C plot, and appreciate the haunting, mercurial, doleful enigma for what is.