ong 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
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.