In his director's notes for "Ashes of Time Redux," Wong Kar Wai writes about the popularity of fictional martial arts stories during times of turmoil. Throughout Chinese history, people living through war and economic disaster find comfort in these tales of absolute values and of heroes who follow only the law of the sword.

It's appropriate then that Wong's film, first conceived and released during the recession of the early '90s, is getting re-edited and refurbished now as the world sinks into another bout of insecurity.

"Ashes of Time Redux," like the original edit, is a stirring and visually stunning piece of cinema that deserves to be seen larger-than-life on the big screen.

Plot-wise, it's a thicket of confusion. The story centers around Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), the middleman in a sword-for-hire operation in the desert. Spurned by his wife and embittered by life, he ekes out a living arranging revenge killings for an interconnected web of characters. He's a charismatic salesman and deft negotiator, but the work slowly eats away at him and occasionally forces a softer side of his personality to shine through.

Beyond that, the details of the plot are best taken as they come, for the thread that ties it all together is either frayed or lost. Still, it's a rich and dream-like tapestry of unrequited love, revenge, double identities and heart-stopping sword action. Adding a mythical edge, the story is set in Jianghu, the parallel universe in which most traditional Chinese martial arts fiction takes place.

Mostly, the "redux" version is a vast improvement. The original 1994 edit was clunky at times and full of outdated '80s production values, including cheesy guitar wails and a general straight-to-video look. Subtitles often contained haphazard capitalization and misspellings ("arrpears" for appears, and "aksed" for asked).

One of the better improvements is Wong's revised soundtrack. He enlisted cellist Yo-Yo Ma to fill in gorgeous solos to replace the guitar and synthesizer. The overall scene sequence is the same, although Wong has tweaked the beginning a bit to introduce the storyline to the viewer more clearly and has also divided the plot into five sections - each representing a solar term in the Chinese almanac.

But some of the additions to "Ashes of Time Redux" are less successful. The swelling orchestration sounds a little too Hollywoodized, especially in the beginning. A few unnecessary spurts of blood have been added. And sometimes I missed the awkward poetry of sloppy translation.

One of the most striking aspects of both the original and redux versions is the electrifying sensuality that Wong captures so subtly. Under the gaze of his eye, a hand feeling its way across a blanket or kneading the neck of a horse looks more carnal than full-on explicit sex. He brings that same eye for sensuality to the film as a whole. See it while you can on the big screen before it goes to DVD.

ASHES OF TIME REDUX\ ***\ Stars: Leslie Cheung, Brigitte Lin\ Rated: R for violence\ How long: 1:33\ Where: Sundance\kcisar@madison.com

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