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.
The movie takes place in a desert, where a lone swordfighter (Leslie Cheung) subcontracts hits ordered by a number of lovelorn individuals. Meanwhile, a mysterious bottle of wine reputed to wipe away memory blurs past and present, real and imaginary, and sometimes even one character with another. In its own oblique way, Ashes does what the American thriller Memento does, forcing its audience to experience disorientation akin to that of its characters.
The cast includes Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Kai Fai, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, and Maggie Cheung—all wonderful—but the real star is cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Doyle’s meticulously composed photography and luminous colors are most associated with Wong’s movies (notably Chungking Express and the impossibly gorgeous In the Mood for Love), but he also worked on such films as Phillip Noyce’s The Quiet American and Zhang Yimou’s Hero, and his cinematography is invariably striking and vivid and lovely.
Ashes is full of images that are literally breathtaking to behold. In one of my favorites, a hanging birdcage casts shadows on Leslie Cheung’s contemplative face. Doyle’s photography casts the desert in an arid, burnished gold and makes flashbacks (?) to other locales feel dark and verdant and dank. Beams of light are perfectly rendered, like those in medieval religious icons, and faces are lit with tender attention. The lighting, the angles—it’s all ridiculously artificial, yet through Doyle’s lens, it doesn’t feel contrived. Doyle creates a new world with his own rules, and it’s too exquisite for the pedantry of realism.
I couldn’t tell you exactly what happens in Ashes—and for some, no doubt, that’s a deal-breaker—but narrative is beside the point in Wong’s elegiac film. What’s important is the mood it creates: a sense of slipping memories and buried trauma, a palpable feeling of regret and loss. The empty desert horizon—and all it connotates—seeps into the skin with almost unsettling emotional power. Like music, Ashes creates impressions without plot. Like a tone poem, it lingers in the memory, rejecting all need for pillars, defying gravity.