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Originally published October 23, 2008 at 2:06 PM | Page modified October 23, 2008 at 2:06 PM

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Movie Review

"Ashes of Time" reworked into a visual treat

"Ashes of Time Redux," starring Maggie Cheung and the late Leslie Cheung, is Wong Kar Wai's extensively reworked version of his only martial-arts movie. Music, editing and Christopher Doyle's cinematography have all been revised, and the images are very nearly everything.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Tony Leung Chiu Wai plays "Blind Swordsman" in "Ashes of Time Redux."

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LAU WAI KEUNG & CHAN YUEN KAI

Tony Leung Chiu Wai plays "Blind Swordsman" in "Ashes of Time Redux."

Movie review 2.5 stars

"Ashes of Time Redux," with Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Tony Leung Ka-Fai. Written and directed by Wong Kar Wai. 93 minutes. Rated R for some violence. In Mandarin and Cantonese, with English subtitles. Varsity.

Wong Kar Wai's only martial-arts movie — the rarely shown, 14-year-old box-office flop "Ashes of Time" — has now been extensively reworked by its writer-director.

Music, editing and Christopher Doyle's cinematography have all been revised, although the running time is just a few minutes shorter. Doyle shot several of Wong's most praised movies, including "In the Mood for Love" and "Chung King Express," and once more the images are very nearly everything. A sandstorm becomes poetry in their hands.

The dreamy opening frames and pounding music suggest a sun-blasted fairy tale, set in an everlasting desert that seems lit from within. The scenery, which changes with the seasons, tempts the audience to see what's on the other side. Just another desert, as one character suggests? Or does something else beckon us?

Described by one critic as "Hong Kong's premiere cinematic iconoclast," Wong maintains a sense of mystery throughout the film, partly by telling his story in a roundabout way. The narration isn't shy about spinning off into philosophical asides about unrequited love and the nature of memory ("the root of man's troubles").

Although "Ashes of Time Redux" looks and sounds new, it's inevitably haunted by the fact that its star, Leslie Cheung, killed himself in 2003. Only 46 when he died, Cheung remains the central character: a master swordsman who hires bounty hunters and carries a torch for a woman who marries his brother.

The all-star cast includes Maggie Cheung as the woman who spurns him and Tony Leung Ka-Fai as his best friend from childhood, who claims to be able to wipe out bad memories by drinking a magic wine.

The movie may have failed to connect the first time around because the battle sequences rarely generate suspense or identification with the characters. The mayhem, underlined by slow-motion and other time-altering effects, is often so abstract that it's difficult to tell who's winning or losing.

The original "Ashes of Time" probably paved the way for such box-office smashes as "Hero" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which broke all kinds of records for foreign-language films presented at American multiplexes. The reworked version is a visual feast, even if the human dimension seems somewhat shortchanged.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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