Monday, October 11, 2010

The Most Exquisite Lament for Lost Love in Cinema: Maggie Cheung in ASHES OF TIME REDUX

ASHES OF TIME REDUX (2008, director Wong Kar-wai) is set in ancient times in China. The narrator and main character is Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), described as "a fallen swordsman driven by greed and heartless to both friend and foe." A mysterious personal disaster has forced him away from normal humans, as though he had some rabies of the soul. He's festering with hate in a hut in a remote desert. There he operates his peculiar business: he's a middleman who hires famous assassins to commit murders. He does this on the dime of rich people with grudges.

Very early in the film Ouyang Feng explains his business to us in terms so stark and icy we're chilled to the bone. He's a handsome young man, and yet it's as though a monster or a skull were speaking to us, so little human feeling does he show. But we sense he was not always this way. And we become obsessed by solving the puzzle: what loss distorted his mind and scorched his heart to this shard?

There are slight hints in the next hour, flashbacks which show Ouyang Feng struggling with a beautiful girl in red, dimly seen swordfights, suggestions of disgrace, flight and exile. But there is not a full explanation until the end of the movie. Then we meet Ouyang Feng's sister-in-law (Maggie Cheung). We are not given this woman's name; but to Ouyang Feng she will always be the only She. He hasn't seen her for ten years. Because of pride and custom, he will never see her again. She will never see him again. And we find out that the terrifying wonder is, their feelings have never changed. Nobody else exists for them or ever will.

The woman (Maggie Cheung) has a remarkable monologue that explains everything we need to know. We can see from her exquisite clothes and refined surroundings that she has a comfortably wealthy marriage and what anyone would call a happy life. Moreover she's very beautiful, with translucent skin and almond eyes. She's wearing red robes, which to Asian eyes denote good fortune. She has a son, which again to Asians would be the height of happiness. And then she speaks, slowly, without gesture, in a quiet voice.She is speaking to a friend of Ouyang Feng's. And what she tells is like a tragic poem:

"We were young. Ouyang Feng never told me how much he wanted me.
It's what I needed to hear.
He was too proud to say it.
He took it for granted I would marry him.
He never imagined that out of spite I would marry his brother.
On my wedding night he wanted me to run away with him,
but I refused.
Why did he want me only when he couldn't have me?
Nothing really matters anymore.
I used to think words were so important,
that once spoken they'd last a lifetime.
But looking back, they make no difference.
What is important changes.
I was so sure I won, that the triumph was mine,
until one day I looked in the mirror.
During the best years of my life
the person I love was not by my side.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could go back
into the past...?"

Then she says to Ouyang Feng's friend, very quietly,
"Why didn't you ever tell him
where I was?"
The man replies, "I promised you that I wouldn't."
She says, with a smile more tragic than tears,
"You were too honest."

Then this radiant, still-young creature withdraws into the shadows,
with slow broken movements, like a wounded animal.
And she bows her proud head, and weeps.

Heart-breaking. Terrible. But--wonderful.