Wong Kar-wai’s “Ashes of Time” is a rare film. It manages to be complex, thoughtful, and incredibly entertaining at the same time. Based on a novel of the same name by Louis Cha, “Ashes of Time” is truly an amazing film, one of the best, if not the best, Hong Kong melodrama/action films I’ve seen come out of that market. It is epic in scope, but small enough that it remains personable and accessible.
At first glance, the film might seem incoherent and meandering, but an attentive viewer will see all the pieces coming together soon enough if he listens carefully (or in this case, reads the subtitles carefully) and watches everything that takes place onscreen. The movie stands out from many “swordplay” films of its era by having a narrative that is never forced, but flows so smoothly into each scene and subsequent segment that the movie looks and feels like its opening motif, that of the smooth flow of ocean waves. The movie is spotless in execution and the acting is the most superb I’ve seen in a Hong Kong production in a long while.
The plot of “Ashes of Time” is an intricate web of characters, situations, and seemingly unrelated plotlines. As movies such as Pulp Fiction and others would later adopt in years to come, “Ashes of Time’s” various storylines are truly overwhelming at first, but with proper attention and some brainwork, it can be figured out. The result, once the viewing is over, is a sense of wonder at just how heartfelt and soulful the film had been.
“Ashes of Time” is not about the swordplay or the martial arts, although they do exist within the background of the film. One gets the feeling that Kar-wai (“Chungking Express”) could have done without the fighting and bloodshed, although he handles them with competence. The film’s real strength is in the performances of its actors and its brilliant handling of the scenery in all their shades and seasons. The desert cinematography is rugged, but still manages to convey a feeling of permanence despite constantly moving. People come and go and the desert moves and changes shape, but it is always there.
Among the notable casts, some of who give the best performances of their lives, are Leslie Cheung (“Inner Senses”) as Feng, a swordsman who has given up the wandering life to live a secluded lifestyle as a sort of broker for killers and bodyguards. Cheung plays Feng as a charismatic charmer, at eased with his surroundings, but nevertheless a charismatic loser troubled by his love for his brother’s wife. We later learn that she married the brother out of spite, angry with Feng for leaving her one too many times. It’s a choice they have both lived to regret, although neither knows about the other’s regrets.
Brigitte Lin (“Bride with White Hair”) is a wandering swordswoman with a schizophrenic personality, Yin and Yang, a woman and a man. After falling for the handsome Huang, Yin and Yang begins to develop homicidal thoughts toward the other, and the two eventually merges to become something dangerous. Lin’s scenes with Cheung, as each side of her personality attempts to hire Feng to kill the other, are truly eerie, but beautiful and lyrical at the same time.
There is Charlie Yeung (“Fallen Angels”), playing a peasant girl who wants Feng to kill a band of militiamen who had murdered her brother, and in exchange is willing to pay him in eggs and a mule, but nothing else. Feng wants her in payment, but she refuses, and is determined to stay outside his home until someone else comes along who will agree to take her eggs and mule as payment for doing the murder. Young’s face is eternally covered by her hair, but her voice lets us know just how beautiful she is on the inside, and we can’t help but root for her character to not make the bad choice that Feng is trying to cajole her into making.
If there is one word that can sum up the theme that permeates every frame and sand pebble of “Ashes of Time”, it is this: choices. The movie is about the choices we make — or in some cases, doesn’t make — in life and how some leads to regret, others to happiness, and still others to a state of near physical and mental oblivion. One choice — one simple decision — that can alter our whole future.
It is also about how time, which is supposed to be the healer of all pains, only increases the regrets resulting from our bad choices. In the end, time will always move forward, the seasons will always change, but the choices we make, like the bodies of oceans that crashes against the beaches, will always remain no matter how much time has passed. The seasons and times, like our choices, like our past, never changes, only increases in age and resonance.
Each and every one of the characters that graces the screen, no matter for how short or long a period, has made decisions in the past that has dictated their future, or is on the verge of making those decisions. In Feng, Huang, and the Blind Swordsman, we see those that have already decided their fate. On the flipside, Charlie Yeung’s character and Hung Chi are two people on the brink of making those life-altering choices. We can only hope they will make the right ones, because like Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka Fai) discovers, choices made by one person may affect not only us, but those around us.
Kar Wai Wong (director) / Kar Wai Wong (screenplay), Louis Cha (novel)
CAST: Brigitte Lin …. Mu-rong Yin/Mu-rong Yang
Leslie Cheung …. Ou-yang Feng
Maggie Cheung …. The Woman
Tony Leung Chiu Wai …. Blind Swordsman
Jacky Cheung …. Hung Chi
Tony Leung Ka Fai …. Huang Yao-shi
Li Bai …. Hung Chi’s Wife
Carina Lau …. Peach Blossom
Charlie Yeung …. Young Girl