Ashes of Time opens Friday in select theaters

I had the good fortune to live in New York City during the boom years of the Hong Kong cinema, a time when cinephiles lined up at double-bills of films by the likes of John Woo, Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam, and worshiped at the altar of Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-Fat and Maggie Cheung. Among the highlights of those years was getting to see Cheung in person (!) when she showed up unexpectedly at Film Forum on Houston Street to introduce Irma Vep, a French film she was in that took inspiration from the rage for Hong Kong.

Cheung is one member of the mid-’90s pantheon of HK superstars on view in Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time Redux, a re-release of a martial arts film in the wuxia style that was filmed in the early 1990s and shown erratically around the world thereafter, in various unapproved forms. (Although the film never got an official release in America, I managed to see it in a Manhattan art house.)

Those who have never seen Ashes of Time will be familiar with the better-known films that later achieved far greater success, especially Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Even those familiar with Wong may not know Ashes, made before the films that would establish his reputation in the West, notably Chungking Express and Happy Together.

Ashes of Time was Wong’s idiosyncratic approach to a celebrated work in the Chinese literary genre known as jianghustories of mythical heroes that take place in a fictional, idealized world. But Wong, whose other films are invariably about lonely hearts lost in the modern city, couldn’t resist his impulses. He refocused the source material to the restlessness of youth, imagining the earlier lives of the characters before they became heroes. His cast includes such HK film icons as Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin and both Tony Leungs, and they’re photographed in all their beautifully brooding glory by Wong’s longtime shooter Christopher Doyle.

The episodic story is barely sensible, but it takes place in a remote desert over the five seasons of the Chinese calendar, with vignettes concerning an assassin (Leslie Cheung) and his myriad friends, lovers and employers. The film’s lasting value lies in its riotous aesthetic: Doyle’s hypersaturated greens, blues and yellows, William Chang’s art direction and, not least, the music, with new cello work from Yo-Yo Mawhich plays the same operatic role as Ennio Morricone’s scores for Sergio Leone. More than a decade later, Ashes of Time is a record of a glorious, bygone time when Hong Kong’s fearless, rule-breaking artists were making the pop movies that mattered.