Among all of the Hong Kong directors working today, Wong Kar-Wai sticks out like a sore thumb. Movies such as Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, and In the Mood for Love have received international acclaim, but get rather chilly responses from hometown crowds. His unorthodox filming methods (such as not filming with a script) frustrate his actors, but it’s safe to say that many of them deliver their finest performances under his direction. And compared to the normal fare that many associate with Hong Kong cinema (martial arts extraordinaires and insane action pieces), Kar-Wai’s trademark style and pacing can be maddening at times even for fans.
There’s no better example of this than Ashes Of Time, a movie that might even divide the most ardent of Kar-Wai’s fans. A “wuxia” (swordplay) movie with very little swordplay, Ashes Of Time is easily Kar-Wai’s most surreal and frustrating film, but in some ways his purest. Kar-Wai’s trademark visual styles are in full effect, from his use of garish colors and multiple film speeds to his editing style, which is more stream of consciousness than anything else. 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, clear as can be. Wuxia movies always tell of gallant heroes with mystical powers and rigid codes of honor and chivalry. Ashes Of Time, however, looks at the pain and loneliness that such rigid codes can create. Consider it a deconstruction of the genre, if you will. Noone in this film is gallant or heroic. Rather, they are all broken down and worn out, defined by regret and angst.
Like Fallen Angels (and Chungking Express), Ashes Of Time consists of several different stories, all of which deal with different swordsmen. But unlike those films, where the stories typically stand alone with only slight overlap, the stories here intertwine with eachother in many ways. One point they all have in common is Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), a former swordsman who now runs an inn in the desert. He serves as an agent for other swordsman in the area, representing them to clients who might wish to take advantage of their skills.
The first swordsman to wander through is Huang Yao-shi, the so-called “Malicious West” (Tony Leung Ka Fai). He has grown tired of the 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 her brother’s control. Further complicating matters is the fact that Yin and Yang are the same person (in an interesting performance by Brigitte Lin). Eventually, Yin/Yang goes mad from loving/hating Huang.
The second swordsman is Huang’s former best friend, the so-called “Evil East,” who is losing his sight (played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai). 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. The blind swordsman finds himself pining for one of the village girls, a young woman who reminds him of his wife. The young woman 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, 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 that Evil East fought, as well as the plight of the young woman with the eggs.
The final swordsman is Feng himself. The film shows 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 the arms of his brother.
Nearly every character with a speaking part, from Feng to the egg girl, carries with them feelings of loss (the so-called ashes of the movie’s title). This is especially evident in the characters of the swordsmen. The pursuit of their deadly art, their longing 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 is 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.
Watching all of this unfold is like watching some sort of desert-induced hallucination. Call it Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on acid, because that comes pretty close to describing the style on display. In particular, the fight scenes seem more like an afterthought, rendered as impressionistic paintings than a standard swordfight. Kar-Wai 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.
Ashes Of Time can be frustrating to watch, but it also holds some rapturous moments. Kar-Wai 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 Kar-Wai’s camera follows Lin’s hands like a slow dance. Kar-Wai’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 inn, often with faraway looks and existential dialog, it looks as if they’re peering through a barbed wire fence. Kar-Wai never seems to shoot his characters head-on, but often from the side, or through objects, adding a sense of voyeurism. In this case, the shadows cast by the birdcages reinforce the characters’ isolation and imprisonment.
Kar-Wai’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 have yet to see a Kar-Wai film that didn’t impress me some level, but I Ashes Of Time to be difficult to make it through. I’ll admit, 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). There are times when Kar-Wai’s sense of pacing, the way he frames certain shots as if to consciously make them abstract, and his non-linear editing can make for a frustrating viewing. “Style for style’s sake” is a criticism that could be put to nearly all of Kar-Wai’s films, especially this one.
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. However, I think it’s safe to say that Ashes Of Time will do nothing but cement Kar-Wai’s reputation as Hong Kong’s most frustrating and rewarding director. I don’t want to label it “genius” just because Kar-Wai’s name is attached to it, but at the same time, I’m not willing to write it off as quickly as others might just because of its difficult nature.