After his first two features, As Tears Go By and Days of Being Wild, were greeted with critical success both in his home country of Hong Kong and abroad, Wong Kar Wai was given more freedom for his third feature, Ashes of Time. This film was a departure for Kar Wai in terms of budget (the biggest he had been given up to this point), style (abandoning the fluorescent streets of modern Hong Kong for the sandy desert of ancient China), and story (his first and only foray into the Wuxia genre).
The task of making Ashes of Time weighed heavy on Kar Wai to the point where he wrote, directed, and released his more highly acclaimed Chungking Express all during the editing process of Ashes. 14 years after the film’s 1994 release he would head back to the editing room and re-cut the film for Ashes of Time Redux, which is currently the only version available in an accessible format.
We are only a short way into our Wong Kar Wai marathon, but from what I have seen and what I know about the director I think it’s safe to say the Ashes of Time is likely his most complex film on a narrative level. There is almost no discernible story thread and it is almost impossible to determine which sequences are flashbacks, dreams, hallucinations, or part of the current timeline. If you are just joining the WKW marathon, for the sake of sanity and stamina I suggest that you don’t begin with this film.
That is certainly not to suggest, however, that this film should be missed. Ashes is a stylistic masterpiece and definitely Kar Wai’s most visually rich film up to this point. Along with his frequent cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Kar Wai paints a rich palette that emphasizes the yellows and tans of the Chinese desert. The action scenes are minimal, and much more affecting when the deep red of a bloody wound pollutes the serene landscape like oil on water. Ashes shows us that Kar Wai is more concerned with mood than with action, which foreshadows his works to follow.
Despite having seen the film twice, the story is very difficult to synopsize, but I will do my best. Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) is a heartbroken swordsman who has departed his homeland in the White Camel Mountains to set up a business in the desert hiring bounty hunters to murder for hire. The film is broken down into chapters based on the four seasons of the year, with a new major character introduced in each sequence. The Chinese Almanac foreshadows the weather and the type of trouble that Ouyang will have to face.
The first segment features Ouyang’s interactions with the schizophrenic Murong Yin/Murong Yang (both played by Brigitte Lin), female and male versions of the same conflicted soul. Yin and Yang attempt to hire Ouyang to kill each other over a love squabble with Ouyang’s longtime friend Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-Fai). In a later segment we see a blind swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) who must defend the camp against bandits in order to earn money to return home. The third major assassin is Hung Qi (Jacky Cheung) who seeks adventure and plays by his own rules (like refusing to wear shoes) leading to a confrontation with Ouyang when he chooses to help a poor woman for no money and is nearly killed in the process.
Despite being laid out in chapters, the narrative darts around rather unpredictably. At one point Ouyang returns to visit the blind swordsman’s widow and begins a new romantic affair. There are implications that certain characters get mortally wounded, but then they appear later in the film seemingly unscathed. The ending is the open-ended sort that makes the film feel like a prequel to a film that would never come.
Just as Sam Peckinpah and many other great directors offered up a revisionist take on the classic Western, Wong Kar Wai uses Ashes of Time to present a revisionist look at the Wuxia martial arts epic. We get some of the symbolic martial arts archetypes (the blind swordsman), but there are very few action scenes and the objective of the storytelling is more to create a mood and examine individual characters’ psychology rather than present a digestible narrative with all-encompassing themes.
Kar Wai never uses broad strokes to paint his characters and each is given a deeply human motivation ranging from loss to heartbreak to romantic dreams of adventure. Every character comes across as a victim and the camera stays close-up to their faces to show us that these swordsman are far from programmed killing machines; every life they take weighs deeply on their soul.
There is enough going on in the Ashes of Time to make it more than just a film for Wong Kar Wai completists. Christopher Doyle’s beautiful cinematography, the flashy, powerful editing, and the gorgeous minimalist production design make the film a visual treat. It is also a great indicator of the tone of Kar Wai’s films to come.
Bottom Line: The flavors at work in Ashes of Time don’t hit the palette right away, but when they do it is a visceral treat.