The films of Wong Kar-wai, with their beautiful images, disposable narratives and glacial pacing, are the most rarefied of acquired cinematic tastes; and this picture demonstrates that not even a genre exercise like a martial arts movie can make him move to the more conventional center. But actually “Ashes of Time” isn’t a new Wong at all; it’s a director’s re-cut of a little-seen 1994 film that was in danger of disappearing through neglect until he decided to rescue the elements and restore it to match his original vision. His supporters will rejoice; but everybody else will probably feel that the effort was unwarranted. Martial-arts fans in particular will be bewildered if they go to it expecting something they might enjoy.
It’s a typically dense and enigmatic picture that has something to do with a fellow who arranges hit-men for various customers. The man drones on about the philosophical issues of assassination and recalls several examples of cases in which he arranges for swordsmen to meet the needs of particular customers. Some fight sequences ensue, but they’re shot in deliberately blurry, hallucinatory imagery that make them look rather like impressionist paintings. And the stories behind them are presented in so elliptical and arty a style that it’s unlikely you’ll be able to understand them. As is usual in Wong’s pictures, the performances are basically functional, with the actors little more than movable bits of furniture in the director’s carefully composed scenes.
There are lovely moments in “Ashes of Time”—it could hardly be otherwise in a film shot by Christopher Doyle—but its effect never goes beyond the visual. It’s like watching paint dry—which isn’t very exciting, however pretty the colors.