I’ve never been reticent when it comes to voicing my adoration for the films of Wong Kar-Wai. Admittedly, I haven’t seen all of them, but the ones that I have seen affect me like few other films. Wong’s trademark themes of alienation and loneliness, his lovelorn characters, and his inimitable style (voiceovers, meandering plots, intriguing filming and editing techniques) always draw me in and take me to that alternate world that I think all film-lovers hope to experience when they go to the theatre or pop in a DVD.
And besides, even the worst Wong Kar-Wai film is worth watching for the rapturous imagery alone. Indeed, how many directors do you know who make films in which nearly every frame is worth hanging on your wall?
I open with all of this, effusive and gushing as it may be, because I’m writing about Ashes of Time, a film that even diehard Wong fanboys (myself included) may find to be something of a challenge. A wuxia (swordplay) film with very little swordplay, Ashes of Time — regardless of whether we’re talking about the original or 2008’s “redux” version — is Wong’s most challenging and surreal film, but in some ways his purest.
From the very start, Wong’s trademark visual styles are in full effect, from his use of garish colors and multiple film speeds to his editing style, which could be described as “stream of consciousness” here. It makes a film like Fallen Angels, itself an overly stylish film, seem downright placid at times. What’s more, the themes of alienation and loneliness that filter through his other movies are laid out on the table here, as clear as can be.
Wuxia films always tell of gallant heroes with superhuman abilities and rigid codes of honor and chivalry. Ashes of Time, however, looks at the pain and loneliness that such codes can create, especially when they’re lived out by decidedly fallen and broken individuals. Call it a deconstruction of the genre, if you will. No one in this film is truly and completely gallant. Rather, nearly all are broken down and worn out, defined by regret and angst and trapped within the past.
Like Fallen Angels and Chungking Express, Ashes of Time consists of several stories, each dealing with a different swordsman. But unlike those films, where the stories typically stand alone with only a slight overlap, the stories here intertwine with each other in several ways. One point they all have in common is Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), a former swordsman who now lives alone in the desert, and who serves as an agent for other swordsmen in the area, hiring them out to people who wish to take advantage of their unique — and deadly — skills.
The first swordsman is Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka Fai). He has grown tired of the martial life, however, and has begun drinking a wine that erases one’s memories. For him, having no memory of the past means that each day is a new beginning. Unfortunately, that gets him in trouble with Yang, a swordsman who seeks Huang’s death after Huang left his sister, Yin. Yin, however, wants to kill Yang because she still loves Huang and wants to be free of Yang’s control. Further complicating matters is the fact that Yin and Yang are the same person (in an interesting performance by Brigitte Lin).
The second swordsman is Huang’s former best friend (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), who is losing his sight. He wants to return home before he goes completely blind, but has no money. So he comes to Feng looking for employment and gets embroiled in a war between a roving band of robbers and the nearby village. At the same time, he is drawn to a village girl (Charlie Yeung) who reminds him of his now-estranged wife and who waits outside the village everyday, waiting for someone who will avenge her brother’s death at the robbers’ hands (though she can only pay with eggs and a mule).
The third swordsman is Hung Chi (Jacky Cheung), a reckless but idealistic young man who comes to Feng seeking fame and glory. His youthful ideals, selfish as they may seem, conflict with Feng’s cynicism and Chi finds himself disturbed by the affect Feng is having on him. He gets mixed up in the same war with the bandits, as well as the plight of the young “egg” woman.
The final swordsman is Feng himself. The film reveals Feng’s own pursuit of glory, one that closely resembles Chi’s. Unlike Chi, however, he left behind his one true love and hides his regret behind materialism and disaffection. After Chi’s departure, he finds himself questioning his choices in life, especially those that drove his lover into his brother’s arms.
Nearly every character with a speaking part, from Feng to the “egg” girl, carries with them feelings of loss (the “ashes” of the movie’s title). This is especially evident in the characters of the swordsmen. The pursuit of their deadly art and their desire for fame and glory has brought them nothing but hardship and misery. Feng occasionally recites from almanacs and religious texts, his predictions implying that these characters are bound to their fate. Their decisions are not theirs to make, the turmoil they experience meted out by unknowable powers.
The characters deal with this in various ways, and none of them are too positive, be it drinking themselves into amnesia, going mad, or wandering through the desert until their next battle. Even for the one character that has some sense of idealism, Hung Chi, the movie makes it clear that he still has troubles ahead. None of the characters leave this movie unscathed.
Wuxia films have always had a mythological feel to them, whether you’re talking about the genre’s recent entries (e.g., Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, House of Flying Daggers) or the classics (e.g., A Touch of Zen, Duel to the Death, Dragon Gate Inn). But Ashes of Time, with its surreal visuals and obtuse storyline seems all the more removed from reality, which ramps up the mythological, otherworldly feel. This is best seen during the film’s infrequent action sequences.
At times, Ashes of Time moves and unfolds like a desert-induced hallucination. Call it Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on acid if you will, but that does come pretty close to describing the style on display. Wong loves playing with his film speeds, filters, and camera angles, which turns Sammo Hung’s action choreography into montages of blurred bodies jumping and spinning all over the screen. The scenes are reduced to mere impressions of action, creating the feeling that we’re watching demigods in action, individuals who move so fast that you’ll miss them if you blink. It’s frustrating if you’re hoping to make out what is happening every second during those scenes, and yet, the blurs and impressions of motion prove enthralling in their own way.
(Unfortunately, the “Redux” version breaks the spell somewhat with the addition of some superfluous CGI effects to the action scenes. In one scene, for example, the copious amounts of computer-generated blood detract from what is otherwise one of the film’s most poignant moments. The film’s original effects — such as the watery explosions that serve as evidence of one character’s martial powers — may be more lo-fi, but they’re more natural within the film’s internal world and therefore, less distracting.)
While Ashes of Time can be frustrating to watch, it also holds rapturous moments (which are enhanced by the redux version’s digital color correcting). Wong perfectly captures Yin/Yang’s confused mindset in a sequence where s/he visits Feng while he’s asleep. In this mindset, s/he’s convinced that Feng is actually Huang, and lies down next to him, running her hands over him like a lover. It’s a sensual scene to be sure, and Wong’s camera follows Yin/Yang’s hands like a slow dance. Wong’s use of light and shadow, and the way he intercuts between the two personalities adds a truly dreamlike quality to it.
His use of shadow is also seen in the way he shoots his actors’ faces. As his characters stare into the reed birdcages in Feng’s abode, often with faraway looks and existential dialog, it looks as if they’re peering through a barbed wire fence. Wong never seems to shoot his characters head-on, but often from the side, or through objects, adding a sense of voyeurism. Combined with this, the shadows cast by the birdcages reinforce the characters’ isolation and imprisonment. It’s a simple effect, to be sure, but the sight of the cage’s lines crisscrossing over Brigitte Lin’s face is nothing short of ravishing.
Wong’s camera is especially generous to his actresses. Brigitte Lin, Carina Lau, Charlie Young, and Maggie Cheung have never looked more radiant, Cheung especially. When the camera closes in on her worn face, her eyes pools of sadness and her expression one of resignation, it’s one of the film’s most gorgeous sights. I daresay she’s never looked lovelier in any of her films, including In the Mood for Love.
I’ve yet to see a Wong film that didn’t impress me on some level, but I’ll admit it was difficult to make it through Ashes of Time. Heck, I’ve even fallen asleep during the film (but in my defense, it was a comfortable couch, a lazy Sunday afternoon, and I’d just eaten lunch). There are times when Wong’s pacing, the way he frames certain shots as if to consciously make them abstract, and his non-linear editing and storytelling can make for a frustrating viewing. “Style for style’s sake” is a criticism that could be put to nearly all of Wong’s films, but this is one where such a label seems doubly justified. And yet… I can’t deny the inexorable pull that the film, via its visuals and tortured characters, has on me.
It’s hard to make a definite statement about a film so intent on being dreamlike and intangible, on a genre film that’s anything but. But I will say this, Ashes of Time — regardless of the version that you watch — does nothing but cement Wong’s reputation as Hong Kong’s most frustrating and rewarding director. I don’t want to label it “genius” just because Wong Kar-Wai’s name is attached to it, but at the same time, I can’t write it off as quickly as others might just because of its difficult nature.
This article originally appeared on Filmwell on May 26, 2009.