In the mood for samurais: Ashes of Time

Won Kar-Wai has been hailed, blatantly ripped off and artistically borrowed by some of the largest names in cinema today, including Martin Scorsese, Spike Jonze, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Sam Rami. And much like Fellini, Godard, Cassavetes and other innovators in film, the signatures in his work have been absorbed in modern moviemaking. Starting Nov. 19, the Northwest Film Center presents “The Films Of Won Kar-Wai,” a one-month retrospective of the director, showcasing all the feature films Wong completed prior to this year’s “2046.”

One of the films being shown is the mythical martial arts epic “Ashes of Time.” Set in a desert inn run by lonely and aging Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), an agent for young, penniless men looking to make a dollar as assassins, “Ashes of Time” is a dramatic glance at desperation and desire.

As Wong’s only real stab at the Hong-Kong action genre, “Ashes of Time” is very impressive, thanks in large part to legendary action choreographer Sammo Hung (“Enter the Dragon,” “Once Upon a Time in China”). And while the concept of combining one of Hong Kong’s best art directors with Hong Kong’s premier movie genre is an appealing one, I encourage you to stop for a moment and consider the consequences of the union – Wong Kar-Wai and samurai action? Can it really work? The action in “Ashes of Time” is relatively sparse when compared to Kar-Wai’s signature long, slow motion pans, often overlaid with a dramatic crescendo of music.

The film starts off strong and intriguing, but tapers off to long segments ruminating on loneliness, leaving you wanting more. I think that, given the opportunity and desire, Wong Kar-Wai could make an outstanding martial arts film to rival the very best. Unfortunately, it just does not happen here.

Perhaps I’m being rash. It could be that this film was not intended to be a true Hong Kong martial arts piece at all. Perhaps Wong made his ideal film with “Ashes of Time.” As John Cage once said, “They seem to be doing happy things sadly, or maybe they are doing sad things happily.” I think Wong would agree. Love his work (an enormous amount of people do) or leave it, you have to admit Wong knows how to hire a crew, and his films are unmistakably unique.