The temptation of artists to fiddle with their earlier works brings predictably mixed results in “Ashes of Time: Redux,” helmer Wong Kar-wai’s revisitation of his 1994 swordplay movie that competed at that year’s Venice fest to connoisseur plaudits but general bemusement. For a long time not widely available on ancillary, and with the original negatives and sound materials imperilled, pic has now been restored in a version that more than captures the strikingly vivid, super-forced color palette of Christopher Doyle’s lensing. “Redux” goes out Stateside via Sony Pictures Classics in September.
New version of Wong’s genre-bender runs two minutes shorter than the Venice print and five minutes shorter than the Hong Kong version. (Latter was bookended by swordplay montages to increase the action quotient, as there’s relatively little fighting in the very philosophical, talky film.) But apart from a few dialogue excisions, added intertitles denoting various Chinese solar terms, and Taiwanese actress Brigitte Lin now speaking her own dialogue in Mandarin, it’s basically the same densely plotted movie that played Venice.
With two exceptions. Completely new main and end titles, in color, replace the original’s stark black-on-white ones and the original music score by Frankie Chan and Roel A. Garcia has been almost entirely replaced by new material and re-arrangements by Beijing-born Wu Tong, including cello solos by frequent Wu collaborator Yo-Yo Ma.
Both decisions have the effect of taking the pic out of the period in which it was made and giving it a look and feel that was largely alien to Hong Kong cinema of the mid-’90s, as well as separating it from the territory’s pop-culture tradition. Wong has essentially rewritten his own auteurist history, re-positioning the pic among his output from “In the Mood for Love” onwards.
Chan and Garcia’s lyrical synth-based score, with its breathy woodwind, rousing main theme and even other-worldly vocals, has been replaced by a much heavier, darker, more classical-Western score, which makes the whole viewing experience even more claustrophobic, in line with Wong’s past three features.
Movie is still an amazingly bold take on an established genre — as bold visually and structurally for its time as “Hero” (also lensed by Doyle) was to be eight years later. But it’s now a picture divored from its true cultural and temporal roots.