Jonathan Rosenbaum rightly described Jim Jarmusch's 1995 film Dead Man as an "acid western," but I wonder if he had known that Wong Kar-wai beat Jarmusch to the punch in 1994 with his acid wuxia, Ashes of Time. Re-cut and restored finally in a Redux re-release, Wong's film is his most singular statement and is finally available in a beautiful print, properly subtitled for the first time for Western audiences.
At once a mirage that vaporizes in undulated waves of saturated color and stuttered movement before you can grasp it, and a definitive version of the filmmaker's paeans to lost love and resigned memory, Ashes of Time Redux is Wong's most important film and his first masterpiece. Known so much for rooting his love stories in constrictive urban spaces, Wong's epic is as abstract as a love story, let alone a chivalric martial arts film, can be. Structured into sections named after the four seasons, each rhymed with the greatest swordsmen from the four points of the compass, Ashes of Time doubles, triples its lost memories. Swordsmen see one woman in another, a wandering fighter sees the second woman in the first, a woman (the fantastic Brigitte Lin, in the film's best performance) plays twin brother and sisters, both obsessed with each other and both obsessed with the same sword-fighter. With the land nothing but a vast desert ("Beyond the desert? More desert") the martial heroes and their memories of love cross one another not in space but in time, spinning shadows of a whirling birdcage carving a sense of criss-crossing, looping time rather than casting shadows to carve out space in Leslie Cheung's inn at the crossroads of time .
In the film's most glorious gesture, an epilogue tangent says that Brigitte Lin's twin sister would later duel only her own reflection in water, as there was no greater match for her skills. Wong has never taken his stories of lost love to such hallucinatory, oneiric heights, grounded, if only just barely, not by an urban Hong Kong setting but by conventions of the wuxia world and dialog pulled from the film's source novel. Here is the matrix of melancholy, before it is rooted in society, before it becomes associated with the 1960s, or Shanghai, of pre-1997 Hong Kong, or the future. Here it is closest to Alain Resnais, a filmmaker Wong has always had a great deal in common with thematically but only in Ashes of Time and its crypto-remake 2046 has the filmmaker challenged film form to tackle memory and longing through pure neo-expressionism. Messy, intoxicatingly insular and obsessive, and painfully tortured by a kind of ecstatic regret, Ashes of Time has re-emerged as one of cinema's greatest films.