Ashes of Time’ Resurrects Martial Arts Masterpiece
When I first watched Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai’s “Ashes of Time” at the now-defunct Biograph in Georgetown, I was so awestruck that I returned the next day to watch it two more times. It was that beautiful of a film — not to mention the fact that I needed the additional viewings to figure out what exactly was happening in the plot. There were times when I’d refer to this obscure martial arts gem as my favorite film of all time. It’s not quite at the top of my list anymore, but it’s still up there.
Since then, I have watched it two more times, including the new “Redux” version. “Ashes of Time Redux” provides very slight tweaks to the original film, plus a new score by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The first time around, “Ashes of Time” was barely distributed in U.S. theaters — the way it was meant to be seen. And the DVD import is infamous for its poor transfer — definitely the worst quality DVD I’ve ever seen. So “Ashes of Time Redux” presents the first opportunity for many to truly see a very important work by Wong Kar-wai.
It’s a martial arts flick in the wuxia genre (which blends the Chinese philosophy of honor or ethics, often in the form of a knight or swordsman). But it’s nothing like other Hong Kong wuxia films you’ve seen (with possibly a couple of exceptions such as Tsui Hark’s later-made “The Blade,” which must have been inspired at least in part by “Ashes of Time”).
This is an art-house film contemplating identity, truth and memories — very Proustian stuff. It’s also a stylish, impressionistic painting shot by legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Wong’s regular director of photography.
Surrounded by desert, Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) serves as a broker for hired assassins. Every year, Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka Fai) comes to visit, a pretext for him to bring Ouyang news of The Woman (Maggie Cheung), who spurned Ouyang to marry his brother.
Meanwhile, Murong Yang (Brigitte Lin) seeks a contract to kill Huang, who jilted her sister Yin (also played by Lin) at the altar a year ago. A Blind Swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) seeks to return home to see “peach blossoms” one last time, really meaning his wife Peach Blossom (Carina Lau). And Hong Ki (Jacky Cheung) plays a shoeless swordsman seeking adventure who helps a Girl (Charlie Yeung) avenge her brother for the payment of an egg.
Granted, all the characters — played by a star-studded cast — and plot complications are not easy to follow, so “Ashes of Time Redux” is not for the lazy viewer. But it is worth the effort to watch an often-missed martial arts classic, even it is the second — or third or fourth — time around.
Ashes of Time Redux (Dung Che Sai Duk) (Cantonese with subtitles; 93 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema
4.5 out of 5 stars
‘Happy-Go-Lucky’ Character Study
British filmmaker Mike Leigh (“Naked,” “Secrets and Lies”) isn’t always known for having the most lighthearted material (though some of his fare, such as “Topsy-Turvy,” approaches that description). For example, “Vera Drake” was a fabulous film about an abortionist — not the most cheery of material. It’s a refreshing change then to see the talented director make what could almost be called a breezy movie.
The title of his latest film, “Happy-Go-Lucky,” describes its heroine, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a perpetually optimistic woman. She speaks very loudly, smiles very broadly, and dresses rather colorfully, even when on the job as a primary school teacher. Despite being a 30-year-old singleton, she’s always positive, unlike other women in her age group (think “Bridget Jones’s Diary”). Poppy has lived with her best friend Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) for the past 10 years, and she loves being with her friends, who go binge-drinking together.
Other episodes in the life of Poppy include learning flamenco, going to the chiropractor, visiting her pregnant sister in the sub-urbs, helping a problematic student, and entering a budding relationship with a social worker. To some though, particularly her angry driving instructor (Eddie Marsan), her lack of seriousness can be maddening.
Like the driving teacher, the audience might find Poppy grating as well, particularly at first. But that passes as we gain more ex-posure to Poppy and learn more about her.
Really, “Happy-Go-Lucky” is not about plot. Leigh’s method is to develop the characters along with the actors through im-provisation, and like all his films, “Happy-Go-Lucky” is really a character study. And it succeeds largely because of fine acting by Hawkins, who delivers a breakthrough performance, one of the year’s best, in her first lead role on the big screen. In the end, Hawkins and Leigh make the audience happy to watch this fascinating eternal optimist.
Happy-Go-Lucky (English; 118 min.) Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema
4 out of 5 stars
Hell on Earth
Director Gini Reticker’s “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” premiered in 2008 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, where it won Best Documentary, and locally at AFI Silverdocs, where it won the Witness Award. Using interviews and archival and contemporary footage, it tells the rather amazing story of ordinary women-turned-activists in Liberia. Sick and tired of the drag-ging peace process after two brutal civil wars, they literally forced male politicians to make peace in 2003.
Liberia was given as a homeland to freed black slaves from the United States. Its history has been tumultuous, particularly under the reign of the autocratic, corrupt Charles Taylor. (The International Court later charged him with war crimes.) Meanwhile, warlords rebelled violently, wreaking havoc on civilians alike. Limbs lost to machetes and savage rape became commonplace, as did abducting young boys to be used as child soldiers. An estimated 200,000 people were killed in the civil wars (1989-1996, 1999-2003), which also decimated the economy.
A group of both Muslim and Christian women, which grew to more than 2,500 over time, decided to do something about it. Many denied sex to their husbands until peace arrived. They went to the fish market to plead their case for peace. They went on the road to spread the message in African cities outside of Liberia. And when peace talks stalled in Ghana in 2003, the women used their bodies as human barricades to keep the negotiators inside until a deal with done. When faced with being thrown out, the women threatened to take their clothes off.
The negotiations concluded with an agreement for peace, supported by 15,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops, and Taylor going into exile in Nigeria. In 2005, Harvard-educated economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf — Liberia’s “Iron Lady” — was elected president, becoming the first female elected head of state in Africa.
Desmond Tutu, the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner, may have said it best of Liberia’s lesser-known iron ladies: “The film is in-spiring, uplifting, and a call to action for us all…. It eloquently captures the power each of us innately has within our souls to make this world a far better, safer, more peaceful place.”
Pray the Devil Back to Hell (English; 72 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema Opens Fri., Nov. 14
4 out of 5 stars
Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.
Please see International FilmClips for detailed listings available at press time.
AFI Silver Theatre The always popular EU Film Showcase, organized by area European Union embassies, features 35 films from 27 countries – including winners from the Cannes, Berlin and Venice film festivals. (301) 495-6700, www.afi.com/Silver
Freer Gallery of Art “Presentation of Roads to the Interior: Another Side of Japanese Cinema” (Nov. 7-23) includes a sidebar showcasing three films (Nov. 7-9) by director Satoshi Miki, who appears in person Nov. 8 and 9. Also, “Documentaries from Iran” screens Nov. 13 and 20. (202) 357-2700, www.asia.si.edu/events/films.asp
Goethe-Institut “Between Fiction and Reality: Films by Rainer Simon” (through Nov. 10) presents the acclaimed East German director’s work. Most films are recently subtitled and thereby receiving U.S. premieres. (202) 289-1200, www.goethe.de/ins/us/was/kue/flm/enindex.htm
National Gallery of Art “Josef von Sternberg: Master of Mood” (Nov. 8-Dec. 14) focuses on the Vienna-born director’s early work, which “established his reputation as a poet of setting and mood,” according to the gallery. Meanwhile, the highlight of “Roman Ruins Rebuilt” (Nov. 15, 23) is 1913’s “Antony and Cleopatra” (Nov. 15), which includes the original American score played by James Doering on piano. George Mason University classics scholar Martin Winkler introduces the films. (202) 842-6799, www.nga.gov/programs/film
About the Author
Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.