Director Wong Kar Wai's Ashes of Time Redux showcases blind swordsmen, bounty hunters and courtesans in ancient China who display superhuman, gravity-defying martial arts feats. That said, it's best not to think of it as one of those "wire-fu" action movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar Wai specializes in sensual mood pieces over conventional narrative films. Ashes of Time Redux has much more in common with the director's lush but enigmatic present-day narratives such as In the Mood for Love or My Blueberry Nights than any Jet Li popcorn movie.
The "Redux" part of the title comes from Wong's decision to re-edit his 1994 film Ashes of Time, which has a cult following despite never being released in the United States. The new version features a shorter running time and new digital color tinting, which gives the cinematography the quality of spun gold in some scenes. The late Leslie Cheung narrates the film as Ouyang, a broker of swords-for-hire who lives at the edge of a vast desert. Wong shows the precision of a painter in matching the inhospitable climate to the cynical character's emotional desolation. Similarly, close-ups of a woman embracing a horse's neck have the heady, tactile quality of Wong's best work.
Ouyang relates his own story and recounts episodes featuring other characters, including a farm girl who tries to buy a swordsman's services with a basket of eggs. Many films of the genre lay out straightforward battles of good and evil, but Wong builds a labyrinth of murky plots and motivations. One bounty hunter finds himself hired by two characters, named "Yin" and "Yang" (both played by Brigitte Lin), who each want him to kill the other. Are they really brother and sister, as they claim? Or are they the same person, running an elaborate deception? The ambiguity isn't the problem so much as the suspicion that it doesn't really matter who they are or what they want.
Ashes of Time Redux builds to one remarkable fight scene in which a swordsman with weak eyesight battles waves of assailants, hoping to kill them before the daylight fails. Otherwise, the filmmaker withholds such kinetic pleasures from the viewer, and instead emphasizes conversations that go in circles, with little deviation from previous dialogue scenes.
Fans of the director's heady films like 2046 may enjoy unpacking Ashes of Time Redux and soaking up its atmosphere, but other audiences should heed the warning that the film's not nearly as much fun as it initially looks. It's like Wong's hired killers would rather talk one another to death rather than bring out their swords.