This Sony Pictures DVD release represents the re-edited, re-scored, re-subtitled, and digitally re-mastered version of Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 wuxia masterpiece ASHES OF TIME, a visually stunning and complex romantic swordplay saga that takes several primary characters from author Louis Cha’s “The Legend of the Condor Heroes” and places them into an origin story of Wong’s invention. Put together by the director and re-released internationally in 2008 as ASHES OF TIME REDUX, this version provides superior audio and visual quality over past home video versions at the cost of minor changes to the original film that some may find either an improvement, negligible or unnecessary which would depend entirely upon the viewer’s familiarity and regard for the original cut.
One thing that should be understood is that Wong did not set out to redo this film the way George Lucas unnecessarily revised the original STAR WARS trilogy. The production company holding all of the master materials for the film went out of business and Wong was forced to recover them or risk losing any master with which to re-release the film at a future date. He found the material to be in poor condition with some of Leslie Cheung’s original dialogue already lost. The decision was made to restore the film with materials brought in from overseas distributors and even Chinatown theaters. Even so, this would require new editing and sound work. This led to Frankie Chan’s original score being re-worked into a new orchestral score with cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma.
I am of the mind that Wong has mildly improved on the original with this REDUX edition. Without changing the film’s original structure, he has applied a series of minor cuts and inserts that collectively create a slightly more seamless and clear narrative. As example, chapter title pages have been inserted to denote several seasonal shifts in the complex narrative that Wong intended to be representative of the Chinese calendar.
A brief and unnecessary preview montage of sword fighting that originally played at the beginning has been removed. There are a number of new inserts such as shots of a sky or reflective water that slow down the pace of the film’s original editing in a very subtle, complimentary way. It allows the viewer a few more seconds to take in the tone and mood that Wong is setting for a particular sequence. My only complaint about these is that one or two look too new in contrast to the grainy texture of the original film. There is also brief early use of some less-than-perfect CGI light effects that the film could have gone without.
The fight scenes haven’t changed much aside from an occasional insert here or there.
Some scenes have been trimmed down and others expanded. A sequence where Jacky Cheung’s wounded character is being spoon fed by his wife while swinging in a hammock was removed while the depiction of Ouyang Feng’s violent encounter with Maggie Cheung’s character has been lengthened slightly.
I was initially concerned about the fate of Frankie Chan’s original score. It’s all synthesizers but really fit the film for the most part. Wong still has that opinion apparently because it sounds like he kept all the best parts of the original score and very nicely layered in the new orchestral work to enhance rather than replace the original. If it could always be done this well I would love to hear a similar orchestral revision of other classic 1980s and ’90s Hong Kong films.
The only problem I hear is with some of the dialogue, notably some of Leslie Cheung’s dialogue. It sounds like raw, live recorded audio with slightly hollow ambient qualities. This may be related to the lost Leslie Cheung audio that Wong was referring to. He may have had to patch the scenes with inferior copies of the voice track that couldn’t quite be matched with the master.
Looking at the film’s visual quality, comparison to Mei Ah’s previous DVD edition is startling. The REDUX version has significantly more color and vibrancy. The color enhancement appears overdone though. Some scenes now take on an almost surreal quality in the boldness of color on display. Not helping matters is equally overdone light enhancement. If you look at the accompanying screenshots you’ll notice that in the scene where Jacky Cheung walks his camel in the water, many of the details in the clouds in the sky above him have been lost. Likewise, apart from being a little dingy looking, the original print has a more natural, earthy color that befits the mood of the film. However, there is no denying that the color enhancement has improved other scenes that were overly monochromatic, as evidenced in the second screenshot comparison featuring Brigitte Lin.
Something else you may notice by looking at the unedited screenshot comparisons is that the REDUX print has been slightly cropped on either side. So, we’ve lost some detail and part of the picture but what remains looks more colorful and bright. If not for Sony’s anamorphic transfer and improved English subtitles that are written more clearly, I’m not sure which version I would prefer when only taking visuals into consideration. Yet taking the entire package into consideration, this release is a worthy addition to any collector’s library. The anamorphic transfer and modest bonus material provide additional incentive. Purists may disagree but the alternative would have been seeing ASHES OF TIME go the way of so many other Hong Kong films that have succumbed to the ravages of time and neglect.
“Born from the Ashes” (14 minutes) - A brief “making of” video includes interviews from Cannes in 2008 with director Wong Kar-wai, cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and actors Tony Leung, Charlie Yeung and Carina Lau. Also included is a snippet from a 2004 interview with action director Sammo Hung and comments from cellist Yo-Yo Ma who contributed solos to the new soundtrack. Of particular interest, Wong describes the major theme of his film and how he highlighted it for international audiences, while also discussing how he approached the action with Sammo’s involvement.
“Q & A with Wong Kar Wai” (42 minutes) - New York-based film critic J. Hoberman hosts a Q&A with Wong Kar-wai, filmed in 2008. Wong explains his reason for revisiting ASHES OF TIME, his shooting style, approach to screenwriting, music, and directing actors. He discusses the logistical challenges of shooting in a remote part of China at a time when doing so was uncommon for Hong Kong filmmakers. What I found most interesting was Wong’s defense and explanation of his controversial arty approach to Louis Cha’s novel and the martial arts film genre in general, which at the time of release garnered more popular criticism than praise. He also describes how he played with the then popular image of screen beauty Brigitte Lin as an androgynous fighting character in most of her films in the 1990s.
Trailers - Included is a trailer for ASHES OF TIME REDUX and several trailers for other Sony Pictures releases.
Format: Region 1 NTSC DVD
Aspect Ratio: 16:9 Widescreen (1.78:1)
Audio: Cantonese 5.1, French 5.1
Length: 94 minutes
Release Date: March 3, 2009
Ashes of Time (1994) • Ashes of Time Redux (2008) • DVD • Louis Cha • Sammo Hung • Sony Pictures • swordplay • Tony Leung Chiu-wai • Wong Kar-wai