All of Wong Kar-wai’s films are movies out of time, but his big-budget wuxia epic Ashes of Time seemed particularly doomed to walk alone. Made in 1994, it arrived too late to capitalize on the mid-’90s crest of the Hong Kong action craze, too early to ride the whirlwind of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s blockbuster success — and truth be told, it’s too woozy, dreamy and elusive ever to connect with a mass audience.
But at least Wong won enough of a following (through movies such as In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express, shot with some of this film’s cast) that he could finally get distribution for this recut edition. Calling it more accessible than the first version is like saying a spell-checked Finnegans Wake is easier to read: It’s still a smeared watercolor of a movie, with the way station of a heartsick hired sword (Leslie Cheung) serving as the fixed point for rhyming stories of lovelorn assassins, brotherly betrayals and pining femmes fatales.
It remains as easy on the eyes as it is hard to follow — a portfolio of the most gorgeous stars in the Hong Kong firmament (including Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, Carina Lau and both Tony Leungs) at the height of their youthful bloom, shot by master cinematographer Christopher Doyle in a fever of longing and beauty-stricken awe. It’s as if Wong threw out the mythic story, kept its action-figure characters, and encased them in a chamber of romantic suffering where they would never age.
It sounds pretentious, and maybe it is — but to get lost in it you need little more than eyes, patience and the lingering pang of loving someone who didn’t love you back. In subtitled Mandarin and Cantonese, it wraps up The Belcourt’s “Wong Kar-Wednesdays” before his martial-arts epic The Grandmaster opens Aug. 30.