Rivers of blood and the froth of death runs rapid in the minds of those that follow the way of the sword, but for anyone that has ever loved and lost, nothing could cut more than the razor of heartache, and nothing could dig deeper than the dagger of loss. For stories such as this, no other filmmaker can express these ideas through the world of wuxiapian quite like Wong Kar Wai. Whether it’s across the neon streets of Hong Kong or amidst the parched wastelands of a mongolian desert, Wong expresses the triumphs and tragedies that befall the memories of sword fighters with flawless grace through his only wuxia film, Ashes of Time.
Based on Jin Yong’s famous wuxia novel series, The Legend of the Condor Heroes, Ashes of Time was released in 1994 as a prequel / companion piece to the novels, acting as Wong’s imaginings of what he feels are the emotional origins of the book’s characters, centering on the unorthodox and carefree Huang Yaoshi (played by Leung Ka-Fai) & the bitter Ouyang Feng (acted out beautifully by the late Leslie Cheung). Ouyang Feng is more central to the story than Huang since he acts as an intermediate for assassins and mercenaries, placing his quest for glory amongst swordsmen aside for reasons that are revealed later in the film. Leslie Cheung’s portrayal of Ouyang Feng is clever, informative and balanced since it is his character that creates the narration, monologues and exposition that help to flesh out the story, while Leung Ka-Fai’s portrayal of Huang introduces us to the notions that drive one to forget the past. For many a Wong fan, the film has come under considerable criticism over the years for how “elliptical” and “nonsensical” the plot is, but I feel that these criticisms have little to do with the merits of the film and more to do with peoples’ taste on how they think movies should deliver or flesh out a story. In reference to what other net reviewers have pointed out, Wong’s work on Ashes of Time has less to do with what’s exactly being said and more to do with how the film makes YOU as a viewer feel as you watch the film.
With that said, the performances from all the actors and actresses involved in the film are nothing short of outstanding. I for one possess no grasp of the Chinese language, but the amount of feeling and emotion portrayed by everyone, from Charlie Yeung carrying eggs in the desert to Bridgette Lin’s stunning, if not marvelous turn as two characters in the film, paints a vibrant portrait of jiang hu angst that is made more grandiose thanks to the creative eye of Wong’s long time cinematographer, Christoper Doyle. And with Wong Kar Wai alum Tony Leung rounding out the cast as a blind swordsman, I think we got ourselves a FINE film to watch.
Although most wuxia films focus a great deal of it’s time on fighting, Ashes of Time avoids all of that to give the viewer something more cerebral, if not lasting, with evocative visuals and strong acting. However, opinions on the film became more divided when, in 2008, Wong re-edited the film and released it as Ashes of Time: Redux, which is readily available on DVD and on Netflix streaming. More commercially available then the original film, the re-edits and the new score have either alienated older fans or re-introduced new fans to a film that was seldom seen outside of the arthouse circle. I for one am of the latter, so I am unaware of the differences between the two, so maybe it’s a bit too soon for me to sing praises for this version of the film, but at least in my honest opinion, Ashes of Time: Redux is a brilliant piece of filmmaking.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this review, nothing can cut deeper than the edge of one’s memories. Pain and sadness, longing and regret, and the lust for conquest that drives broken individuals towards the way of the sword are what color the characters that we find in Ashes of Time: Redux. The film has divided many a movie fan over its unorthodox storytelling and out-of-character viewpoint of the wuxia world, and yet the film is remembered and loved by many for those very same things. Wong Kar Wai has given us a vibrant painting that not only provides us with a bleak view of how cruel the way of the sword can be, but a longing look at how our memories haunt our present and cloud our future, no matter how fearless we seem to be. Like the pain that we find ourselves feeling over things we wish were long forgotten, it continues to come back even more when we actively try to forget. However, despite all of this, there is a duality that is present in this motif. Only by embracing the past for what it is, we come to eventually learn more from ourselves, let go, and, possibly, succumb to the remarkable possibilities that may be hidden right in front of us. In the end, a sword can only strike down so much…