Ashes of Time
Running Time: 100 minutes
Ashes of Time (Dung che sai duk) is one of Wong Kar-wai's earlier works. It is a direct "sequel" ("prequel"? "re-interpretation"? Hard to say) of another film, Eagle Shooting Heroes, a movie not directed by Wong Kar-wai himself but containing, for the most part, the same acting cast. They are both loosely based on a popular novel, "Legend of the Condor Heroes" by Louis Cha.
Note: for the sake of the people who don't want to know anything about the plot of a movie they're going to see, I'm going to say that the following review will contain spoilers. Not that being informed in advance about what any given Wong Kar-wai film is about will change your viewing experience in any way; his movies, bluntly put, are generally plotless. But oh, what gorgeous beautiful haunting plotless movies they are. Anyhow, it actually might be recommended that you be somewhat warned of the plot in advance for this particular movie, as if you are watching it the first time you will walk out of the movie incredibly and utterly confused. That said, I've left a lot of things out (the more surprising bits) so that you retain some enjoyment in the art of surprise.
(in order of appearance in the movie, some spoilers removed)
The theme is largely about unrequited love. The story centers around a hermit, Ou-yang Feng, who is bills himself as a "problem-solver" and a middleman; for the right amount of money, he'll arrange to solve your problems (generally by killing whoever offended you). The film is a series of vignettes of the different people who come to visit him over the course of an unknown number of years; each character is only loosely connected to each other.
Ou-yang Feng (Leslie Cheung)
Ou-yang Feng, the hermit, does not concern himself with the affairs of others; he has closed off his heart and simply lives life doing business: making money by hiring young, idealistic swordsmen eager to make their fame and fortune in the world. He is cynical in his observations and is unmoved at the plights of others; one would be hard-pressed to understand how such a man was once like the swordsmen he uses. But the root of his tragedy is this: he is simply broken-hearted. The woman he loved (played by the gorgeous Maggie Cheung), and still loves, did not wait for him while he was out in the world and instead married Ou-yang Feng's brother.
Ou-yang Feng, in a conversation with Hung Chi (a random swordsman), remarks about how he used to wonder what lay on the other side of the mountain; one day he went to see the other side and finds "nothing special".
Huang Yao-shi (Tony Leung Ka Fai)
A handsome wanderer nicknamed "Evil East", he brings misfortune everywhere he goes, whether on himself or on others. He is loved by many, but Huang's tragedy is that he is love with his best friend's wife, though he is no longer friends with his best friend anymore because of this. He is keenly aware of his problems, but finds no real way to solve them; his attempts to find joy cause strife in other people.
Every year, he passes by Ou-yang's house and visits. In the last year he visits, Huang Yao-shi brings a gift: a jar of magical wine from a woman. The wine is reputed to take away the memories of those who drink it, and is meant, in some way, to bring happiness because of it (think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Huang Yao-shi, upon setting the jar down, asks to partake of the wine, for he would like nothing better than to rid himself of his burden of memories.
Mu-rong Yang and Mu-rong Yin (Brigitte Lin)
A handsome woman comes to visit Ou-yang Feng, wearing loose robes and calling herself Mu-rong Yin. She is slightly disheveled, as if she was in a hurry. Her request is deceptively simple: find some way to kill her brother.
Yin never stops moving as she speaks to Ou-yang Feng; her eyes are fixed on the birds in the cage that he keeps. Kill her brother and she will be free to go after her true love (none other than Huang Yao-shi). Ou-yang Feng tells her that he will think about it, and she leaves, laughing eerily.
A few days later, a strangely boyish young man comes to visit Ou-yang Feng, neatly dressed in blue and carrying a sword, calling himself Mu-rong Yang. His voice is unusual, but his face is contorted in a mask of hate. He comes to Ou-yang Feng with a request: to find some means to kill Huang Yao-shi.
Ou-yang Feng, surprised, asks why.
It is very simple, Mu-rong Yang says very matter-of-factly. He jilted my sister. Huang Yao-shi, having met Mu-rong Yang during his travels, drunkenly makes a proposal to marry Yang's sister and Yang agrees, swearing that if Huang Yao-shi does not keep up his side of the bargain, he will kill him. Yang sets a time and date for his sister and Huang Yao-shi to meet, but Huang Yao-shi never arrives.
So Mu-rong Yang wants him dead. As simple as that.
The boy asks calmly if his sister visited earlier, and Ou-yang Feng tells the truth: that his sister wants to see him dead. It does not seem to bother the brother, as long as his sister no longer sees Huang Yao-shi.
As soon as Mu-rong Yang leaves, Mu-Rong Yin arrives. She wants her brother dead, even though it is obvious that he cares about her. It drives her mad, this stifling love; all she can think about is how to hurt him the way he hurt her. As she leaves, Mu-rong Yang arrives, imperious and haughty.
And so the two vie for Ou-yang's favor the next few days.
It does not take long for Ou-yang Feng to discern the truth of the siblings; that they are two minds inside one body.
The Nameless Girl (Carina Lau)
A girl comes to plead her case with Ou-yang Feng. Her brother was killed by the militia and she wants revenge. But she is poor, with only a mule and a basket of eggs to her name. Ou-yang Feng says that no one will pay the price of an egg to risk their life for her, and says, rather callously, that the girl herself, being young and pretty, was worth more than a mule. She refuses to offer her body, and says that she will wait until someone comes to help her.
Ou-yang Feng warns her that there is a price for everything, but she does not listen.
The Blind Swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai)
In my opinion, the most poignant story in the film. A swordsman visits Ou-yang Feng for work to make enough money to return to his hometown one last time to see the peach blossoms. From the way the swordsman stares into the sunlight, it is clear that something is wrong with his sight. The swordsman says simply that he is afflicted with a malady that slowly steals his sight; he will be blind by the time he turns 30.
The swordsman says that he is almost 30.
The swordsman watches the nameless girl in the distance, and says that she reminds him of his wife. When Ou-yang Feng asks about the wife, the swordsman says absently that she is in love with another man. It is an old hurt, it seems, but there's nothing he can do, after all.
Ou-yang Feng asks him to dispatch some horse thieves to get the money he needs. But when the thieves will attack is another story entirely...
Hung Chi and Hung Chi's Wife (respectively, Jacky Cheung and Li Bai)
Hung Chi is a wandering swordsman hired by Ou-yang Feng to do his dirty work. A good fighter, he finds himself inching closer and closer to Ou-yang Feng's lifestyle and ideals, a thought that horrifies him when he realizes what is happening.
His wife, a silent woman that made her way from the village to find him, stubbornly refuses to leave when she arrives, even though Hung Chi shouts at her to leave and go back home. It isn't proper to bring a wife along in the dangerous work of being a hero. Ou-yang Feng, amused, remarks, why not take her along? There wasn't a rule that said wives had to stay at home while their husbands went out to become famous and respected.
Hung Chi mulls it over and realizes that it isn't a bad idea after all. The sight of the pair fills Ou-yang Feng with wordless envy.
Ou-yang Feng's Love (Maggie Cheung)
She loved Ou-yang Feng. She still loves Ou-yang Feng. So why did she marry his elder brother instead?
"I needed to hear those words."
Wong Kar-wai films are always a mixed bag. There is a camp of people that passionately love his movies and there is a camp that passionately hate it. A large part of enjoying his work depends very heavily on how well his aesthetics sit with you; Christopher Doyle, the cinematographer, has a very unique style that can be jarring to the unprepared viewer, with a pop culture sensibility that not everyone particularly likes. If you are a movie fan that values plot, then you will not like his films at all. Otherwise, it's really quite the experience. Fans of Godard definitely will enjoy his work; perhaps fans of the written works of Murakami Haruki will, too.
The story is filmed haphazardly; there is an "approximate" chronological order involved to the characters, though you will be hit with the odd flashback or flashfoward. Saying that it is "approximately" ordered is rather pushing it; the movie is downright disjointed and slightly disorienting on the first view. It is best recommended that you watch it twice; I'm of the personal opinion that Wong Kar-wai movies are best on the third viewing, pleasantly aged by experience and familiarity.
Ashes of Time is often billed a wuxia film, a martial arts hero film, since it appears to be such on the surface. The film Eagle Shooting Heroes, its wicked twin brother, certainly is, though one that doesn't take itself too seriously. But Wong Kar-wai neatly excises the martial arts part of it entirely; the camera blurs the fights into a disorienting mess so that only the excitement of the fight comes through, but not the technical details. While this serves admirably well within his movies set in huge cities (Chungking Express, Fallen Angels), it doesn't work nearly half so well in the middle of a vast desert. The story itself could have been simple and easily understood it been presented more neatly; each scene is disconnected from the previous one, making it very difficult to follow if you don't know who is who (even more so if you're also catching up reading subtitles, too).
The pacing of this film is very slow, and constrained by the standards of this particular genre; it's not a very accessible film by any means.
On the other side of the coin, Wong Kar-wai takes a very standard genre and completely flips it upside down; he takes a magnifying lens to the relationships within a wuxia film and throws it up for stark contrast to highlight the absurdity of such a genre. The payoff for this film comes towards the last third of the movie, where the story threads wrap up and connect the beginning with the middle with the end; if you were paying attention, Wong Kar-wai does indeed reward you.
There is a thread of pain and loneliness that runs throughout this film (similar to that in Happy Together); characters who shut themselves away to keep on going; characters who are deeply regretful of those they hurt; characters that do not realize the value of someone until it's too late... characters who wish that forgetting memories could be as easy as drinking magic wine. But after all, "the harder you try to forget, the easier it is to remember"...
I would say that if you're new to Wong Kar-wai's films, shelve this particular film for a later date and try some of his more accessible films: Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, In the Mood for Love. Ready to try on a peculiar genre and a peculiar take on it? Go for this film, but be prepared to take notes.
Technical information (casting credits, year of production) courtesy of IMDB (http://www.imdb.com).