Starting tonight, one of my favorite movies is playing at the Century Riverside in Reno. It’s “Ashes of Time,” directed by Wong Kar-Wai. I originally saw it a while ago, at the 4-Star Theater in San Francisco. The 4-Star was showing a seemingly endless supply of Hong Kong martial arts films, riding on the coattails of the success of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” The owner of the theater was able to get his hands on all sorts of obscure prints, and I couldn’t get enough of the stuff — most of what I saw was visually inventive, nonsensically plotted, and full of terrifically charismatic actors. Even the duds were weird enough, and had enough comically inept subtitling (“Why must you kill so wantonly!”), to keep me thoroughly entertained.
One of the real highlights of that run (alongside the opportunity to see a bunch of films by Ching Siu-Tung, who was just as deserving as John Woo and Tsui Hark to cross over into the US market — though looking at the results of the Woo and Tsui crossovers, maybe it’s just as well it never really happened for him) was “Ashes of Time.” The print that the 4-Star had access to was a little pinkish around the edges of the frame, but even so, the thing was gorgeous — moody, gauzy, drunk on light (the cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, is one of the greats). This is a movie that realy aches to be seen on the big screen.
Wong Kar-Wai made his name, in the West at least, with films that seemed strikingly contemporary, of the moment — “Chunking Express” was his international breakthrough, and it seems to float through the projector on the surface-tension of the “now.” “Ashes of Time,” in contrast, plays around in the genre of the martial arts wuxia film — but in the same radical manner that Peckinpah re-cast the western in “The Wild Bunch” and Welles bent the shadows of noir in “Touch of Evil.” “Ashes” wears the conventions and tropes of historical fantasy, but the story is populated by the kind of dreamy, regretful romantics that can be seen in his other films. It’s fun to see these mythic, heroic characters saddled with a stuttering heartbreak and neurosis that feels quintessentially “modern.” The action scenes manage to be both abstracted and genuinely exciting, and it’s stuffed to the gills with mid-90s HK talent: Leslie Cheung, Brigitte Lin — and Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, who would go on to make such a memorable duo in Zhang Yimou’s “Hero.” If there’s another film with such a surfeit of gorgeous faces and soulful eyes, it’s not coming to mind.
There’s a review from the Village Voice that captures some the film’s qualities. If you have a weakness for the kind of movies that get described as “pure cinema,” you owe it to yourself to catch this while it’s being projected large and loud.