Ashes of Time Redux, again and forever



Recently I got a chance to see the 35mm again. If I had known the Doc would screen it, I would have bothered to go all the way up to music box. Considering the fact that I saw the print (older version of course) only last year (he rented, the professor proudly announced, the best copy of it in North America), this makes three times on print, which is rare to me, especially when I am not a fan!

The most radical change that Wong made in the redux version (in Chinese it becomes “ultimate”) is not its narrative structure—though he does eliminate some fight scenes (Bordwell made a fuss on this) and organize the events into four slots, guided by those titles that traditionally associated with the agriculture but now we see more and more in contemporary Chinese cinema. What he did is a sort of standard practice these days—color grading. People still have qualms about this procedure, as if it damaged the authenticity of the film, as if it were cheating. But the visual quality of this film already varies constantly in its original status, partly due to the fact that shooting of different days look differently, partly due to that some of the footage are rescued (see below Wong’s own account of the situation that he discovers those prints in the basements of Chinatown theaters), whose quality is deteriorating. Digital processing is powerful; it changes the overall visual impression of the film (which is what he intended), but there is a limit of what you do can here. It is fairly obvious that some sequences that are crystal clear; and there are sequences that look like they suffer from heavy post-processing, like the result you get from insufficient exposure and remedy by digital means. And there is quality grades dispersed on the whole spectrum. This by itself is an interesting expressivity. But I doubt that its deployment in this film bears any narrative significance. Of course if you wish, you can make an interpretation. For example, flashbacks of women, especially of Taohua and the horse, are extremely sharp. Exterior scenes, especially those of the desert, the fight, those of Leslie standing there looking at the desert, are extremely grainy. What can you make of that?

I went to the film initially because of the so-called “newly composed” soundtrack. It did not give me any surprise in general, pleasant or unpleasant. And I did not discover much new material either (of course I could be wrong). Some synthesizer pieces are replaced by orchestra and Yoyo Ma’s interpretation brings in a classical feel. But I don’t necessarily think it fares better than what it already had. It also appears to me that new stuff was only used toward the end, when Lichun (spring) comes.


(Curiously, I don't remember seeing this.)

The more I see this film, the more I understand what it is about. People would say of course. But what I mean by this is that, like many Chinese who know the book & characters by heart, I take the novel as a point of departure for the film. Therefore I used to think Wang revises the genre. Wang’s statement curiously confirms this. And this is what we normally do when an adaptation is concerned. But actually the film is better understood with no previous knowledge of the martial arts tradition at all; it is effectively the same kind of film Wang made in Hong Kong, where his loosely connected stories take place. The film originates from a perversely amorphous form of desire which generates, by coupling with its own reflection, a multitude of gestures. Then we have the characters that would actualize these gestures. Then we have the time and space, along with every bit of its concrete detail, where these characters emerge. Seriously, these stories take place at nowhere. If we divide what we see in cinema by the skin of people: the internal and the external. It should go from inside to outside. And I see Wang truly accomplishes this idea; he frees his ideas from any concrete setting. What he borrows from the martial art tradition is only what he sees fit: the costume, the always heroic presentation, the stage. But the kernel remains his. I wonder what would Bazin said to this—oh where is my piece of humanist reality?

Wang’s own words:

As we launched into the work, we discovered that the original negatives and sound materials were in danger: the laboratory in Hong Kong where they were stored was suddenly shut down, without warning. We retrieved as much as we could, but the negatives were in pieces. As if we were searching for a long-lost family, we began looking for duplicate materials from various distributors and even the storage vaults of overseas Chinatown cinemas. As this went on, we came to realize that there are hundreds of prints locked up in Chinatown warehouses in those cities which used to show Hong Kong movies. Looking through all this material felt like uncovering the saga of the ups and downs of Hong Kong cinema in the last few decades. And this history, of course, included ASHES OF TIME.

P.S. the fact that Bridgett Lin speaks mandarin and all the others speak Cantonese seem to have bothered no one. This shows that, as I have seen many times in Chinese cinema, spontaneity overrides linguistic authenticity. On the other hand, Hongqi's wife, the only non-star in the cast, does speak dialect.  


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