Ashes of Time Redux (1994/2008, Hong Kong) dir: Wong Kar-wai
Wong Kar-wai released his sole martial arts film in 1994. Of course, it was more of a meditation on memory and regret than an action film, and the fight scenes (though choreographed by Sammo Hung) were shot in the familiar impressionistic visual style that Christopher Doyle developed while working with Wong (blurry imagery, stuttery skip-frame action) and edited in fragmentary glimpses. But Wong reportedly rushed the film out to make the New Year release deadline and was not satisfied with the finished film. And not necessarily because it was almost impossible to follow the story (or rather, stories) of a mercenary “middleman” (Leslie Cheung as Ouyang Feng) and his former best friend turn nemesis (Tony Leung Ka Fai as Huang Yaoshi), who recall past loves and betrayals while dealing with clients who want to hire swordsmen and young swords looking for work, all in a narrative that slips back and forth in time and shifts between narrators. Their stories are found in the echoes of those they meet: a veteran swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) on the verge of going blind who is looking for one last job before he goes home, an impulsive, undiscplined young warrior (Jacky Cheung) more interested in flaunting his talent than making money, a yin and yang of brother and sister (both played by Brigitte Lin) who each hire Ouyangto kill the other. The all-star cast of nineties Hong Kong glamor also features Carina Lau, Charlie Yeung and Maggie Cheung.The swirl of flashbacks and remembrances left audiences confused, but that elusive quality was also part of its beauty, a film built on emotion more than narrative.
More than a decade later, Wong returns to the film, but from what I see, it’s less about completing the film as he imagined it then than reworking it in the style he’s been following in recent years. Cheung’s Ouyang Feng dominates this version as the narrator. “I solve problems,” he says by way of introduction, and he’s a middleman in all things, including life: he watches the lives of clients and contractors as they drift into his desert home and then drift away to carry on the lives that they put on hold in his orbit. Redux is actually shorter and certainly easy to follow, organized by seasons and chapter markings, with shifts in narratoris made clear with direct visual cues. But he’s also completely worked over the footage from the original cut, digitally manipulating Doyle’s original imagery so completely it verges on vandalism. (Could their very public professional break have anything to do with Wong’s distortion of Doyle’s vivid photography?) Wong has digitally thrown a light haze over the film, as if looking through the gauze of memory, and pushed the colors into unreal hues, like he’s abstracting the image from any worldly, physical roots. And if anything, it’s even less a martial arts movie film than before, with fewer action scenes and more abstracted versions of the ones that are left.
It has a new score featuring melancholy solos by Yo-Yo Ma and fewer (and more abstracted) action scenes, and Wong digitally mucks with Christopher Doyle’s photography. He oversaturated some washes of color and puts a haze over the entire film, as if seeing it through the gauze of memory. Or a sandstorm. It’s a little visually precious and obscure but still a marvelously wistful film of regret and retreat, in which even the magic wine of forgetfulness erases only the memories, not the pain.
I don’t know that the it’s necessarily better – I like the confusion of narrators and the murky timeline of the original. Whether it was intentional or not, the narrative abstraction creates a sense of dislocation that matches the emotional disconnection of Ouyang Feng and the sense of gnawing regret of Huang Yaoshi, narrators who have removed themselves from the world and now look on as one big memory of swirled stories. Wong structured the original film and the stories withing stories in circles, ending up where they began, the characters trapped by their fates, doomed to repeat their mistakes. Or are they second (failed) chances?
Read the review in the Seattle P-I here.
Pride and Glory dir: Gavin O’Connor
It’s hard to tell just whose story Gavin O’Connor is trying to tell in his busy but dramatically listless police drama of an Irish cop-family clan torn by a police corruption scandal ignited by one of their own. Is it
Edward Norton is pensive brother Ray, pulled out of his personal and professional withdrawal after four officers are killed in what looks like a routine drug bust. Noah Emmerich is responsible elder brother Frannie, the commanding officer whose career gets caught in the complications when the investigation leads back to officers in the precinct.
Colin Farrell, meanwhile, plays it straight ahead as their out-of-control brother-in-law, Jimmy: a doting, warm family man when he’s at home, a practical schemer on the streets and ruthless killer when his little scheme is on the line.
You can feel the debt to Sidney Lumet’s ’70s studies in police corruption and cop brotherhood, but O’Connor never captures the edge of danger, anger and moral stands being ground up in compromise. These guys (apart from Jimmy) aren’t as conflicted as they are confounded victims of circumstance.
Read the complete review in the P-I here.