Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Mongolian Beef

Omigod! Omigod! Omigod!  Who knew?  

I mean, really.  Like, who fucking knew?

Before seeing War Kong Wai's Ashes of Time Redux I had no idea that a man would abandon his wife before he would abandon his camel.  

I had no idea that a left-handed swordsman had a better chance of slitting someone's neck with one stroke than two.  

I had no idea that you can stand in the middle of the Gobi Desert and then turn around and see the ocean (was Sarah Palin a geographical consultant for this film?).

I had no idea that a mother would leave her daughter a donkey as a dowry and expect her to make do with some duck eggs and her honor (is this film supposed to be One Mule for Sister Sarah?).

I had no idea that a home-made wine could magically cause people to lose their memory.  Or that two sisters named Yin and Yang could drive a man crazy before they killed themselves.

Last, but not least, I had absolutely no idea there was that much angst to be found lurking in the sand dunes of Outer Mongolia.

But now I know.  And as a result I'm just, like, totally, ferklempt!

All kidding aside, Ashes of Time Redux is not the easiest movie to sit through.  There are many moments of pretentious posturing backed by portentous polyphony.  There are far too many scenes in which Wong Kar Wai and his cinematographer (Christopher Doyle) busy themselves with trying to film through textured patterns of lighting. Whether shooting through a rotating bamboo cage or the shadows of flickering flames, this effect rapidly becomes a boring, overindulgent trick that wears thin.

If the quality of photography differs vastly from one shot to the next, that might be because the film was originally made in 1992.  The 2008 version is a compilation in which footage was culled from various authorized and unauthorized prints.  The 16-year difference in cinematography between some of the scenes is obvious -- later shots have a much more profound artistic vision, with today's technology lending an other-worldly beauty to many scenes.

Set in the mythical martial arts world of jianghu, War Kong Wai's film embodies a universe in which the only absolute is the law of the sword.  There are fight scenes which have been so touched up and blurred in semi-still action that it becomes useless to try to figure out who's killing who.  And then there are moments of rare dialogue which focus on enigmatic faces of Asian-style martial arts cowboys.  

I'm not exactly sure how to describe this genre, which is part Mongolian Western, part period costume martial arts epic.  Ashes of Time Redux also offers audiences a meditative look at how the seasons change in the desert with a bit of contemplative Asian beefcake on the side. There can be little doubt that watching Tony Leung Ka Fai's brooding, sexy portrayal of Huang Yaoshi is the finger-lickin' good and dark-haired Asian equivalent of having Fabio jump out at you from one of those supermarket magazines. 

Should we call this genre Rice-A-Pony? 

The best way to get through Ashes of Time Redux is to simply sit back, ignore a lot of its macho silliness and wallow in some breathtaking visuals.  Some work, some don't.  The good ones will almost knock you out of your chair.  The plot does its best to get in the way (since so little of the film makes much sense).  However, there is great beauty to be found in paranomic desert vistas filled with mustard-colored sand, the reflective stillness of a lake cast in robin's egg blue, or a lonely camel looking up at the sky.

This trailer doesn't give a hint of the film's visual strengths, cinematic beauty, and inspired artistry.  But, hey, it's only a trailer.

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