One of my main reasons for skipping foreign films when they're onscreen is that I too often find myself missing things going on while I'm reading the subtitles. There's often a lot of great things happening on the screen besides the faces of the people who are talking. And even in the closeups, I might miss a facial expression or gesture while my eyes are busy following the dialogue at the bottom of the screen. But when I watch a DVD, I can pause or back up if I find myself wondering if something happened that I missed. Or I can watch it all again right then and there -- the 2002 movie Hero with Jet Li has some uses of color and light that just beg for repeat viewing, for example.
Had I seen Ashes of Time Redux -- famous Chinese director Wong Kar-Wai's 2008 re-edit of his 1994 movie Ashes of Time -- in a theater, I probably would have been ambivalent at best and more likely downright negative. Its elliptical storyline and stylized fight scenes leave a viewer saying, "Waitaminute. What just happened?" waaaaay too often for enjoyment in a theater that wouldn't oblige me by backing up and running it again.
Nearly every online entry I read about this movie explains the story differently, so here goes nothing as I try to sketch the plot. In ancient China, a semi-retired swordsman named Ouyang Feng acts as an agent for still-active sword-fighters. Ouyang is bitter, cynical and contemptuous of the people who hire his fighters' services and is no sweet source of light to his friends, either. The bounty hunters who work for him, from the Blind Swordsman to Hong Qi to his own friend Huang Yaoshi, all leave him as they find something they wish to love more than fighting and money, but Ouyang remains. The movie is set up so that the tale of how each swordsman finds meaning in his life is its own short story, although some elements of each narrative leak into the others.
Wong said Ashes of Time was based on the 1957 novel Legend of the Condor Heroes, even though nothing in his movie bears any resemblance to that book's story of two men on opposite sides of the conflict between the Song and Jin Dynasties. The Hong Kong movie industry prides itself on orderly, economical shoots, but Wong took two years and nearly 40 million dollars to finish Ashes of Time, and even managed to shoehorn another move, a parody of the Condor novel called Legend of the Eagle-Shooting Heroes, into the production schedule using the cast members of Ashes of Time.
Action-movie fans or people who follow what the Hong Kong studios call wuxia films, or stories of swordsmen and soldiers in ancient China, will probably not find a lot to like in Ashes of Time or its later re-edited cut. There's way too much talking, the battle scenes are stylized to the point they look like a series of blurred still images and the movie loops around itself too many times to follow easily. But Ouyang's stubborn resistance to seeing people, even hardened killers like himself, make connections with others and his continued rejection of that possibility is a pretty fascinating character study. If you do pick it up, keep that DVD remote handy so you can back up and catch a scene or two again and figure out just what happened. Or to press stop if it finally exhausts your patience.