Wong Kar-wai's Ashes of Time is a baffling, frustrating but utterly intoxicating film, a long-delayed project that displays its piecemeal construction (possibly more so in this 2008 revision that cuts some scenes while adding others). Ostensibly a wuxia film, Wong's movie plays along genre lines -- including swordplay, romance and Stoicism -- to pass itself off as a valid entry in the martial arts epic while devoting its main focus to subverting as many tropes inherent in the genre as possible.
Based on the characters of Jin Yong's Condor Trilogy, Wong's film actually occurs before the events of the first book, The Legend of the Condor Heroes, charting not the exploits of master swordsmen who take up dominion of the north, south, east and west quadrants of a harsh terrain but what led each character to those positions. There are sword fights, blunt dialogue and elegant martial arts, but what the director primarily cares for is the emotional turmoil under these men (and even a few women).
Occurring over the five months of the Chinese calendar, Ashes of Time spends most of its length with two characters in particular, Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) and Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-fai). Old friends who meet once a year to catch up and drink a magic wine, the two serve as the nexus for the film's overlapping narratives, mired in their own emotional crises that in some way incorporate the other characters. From the start, the film's temporal structure warps and bends around the remembrances and present-tense travails of these and other characters, with only Ouyang's narration serving as any kind of tether. But even the condensation of Wong's penchant for crisscrossing narrations into one voice does not provide many clues: Ouyang's monologues are terse, delivering what might be pure exposition but in such a stark, oblique manner that even the most direct of establishing lines dissipate amidst the fractured visual schemata and strands of plot.
The central theme running through this chopped-up story is the pain of love and loss. Ouyang fled a lover to set up an inn, now working as an agent who hires bounty hunters, too hurt from his failed romance to use his own considerable swordsmanship. When Huang meets his friend each year, he drinks a sort of lacunal, anti-Proustian wine that makes him forget the past in the hopes of leaving behind his own troubled relationship. After Huang leaves, Ouyang receives a visit from a man(?), Murong Yang (Brigitte Lin), who wishes to use Feng's services to have Huang killed for standing up his sister, Murong Yin (also Lin), who in turn hires Ouyang to kill her "brother" for suggesting someone kill the man she still loves. Meanwhile, another master swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), wishes to complete one last job to raise the money to return home to see the "peach blossom," later revealed to be the name of his wife, before his creeping blindness ensures he can never see her again.
Wong's camera, filtered through Christopher Doyle's cinematography, is as reckless yet careful as anything the two have put together: their tactile, sensualist approach cuts so coarsely against the grain of wuxia film that it leaves razor bumps and bleeding nicks. During fights, the duo apply the same stop-start, fast/slow-motion tricks that could stretch a half-second moment of light contact into a lovesick man's raison d'être or years of life into a blip to martial arts. Even when Wong gives the crowd the violence they so crave, he shifts the focus off-center: the action in Ashes of Time comes in blurred figures, sped up or slowed down until their form is broken, swinging swords that fly out of frame. Interspersed are splashes of blood that spurt from wounds torn open in the chaos. By getting up close, personal and downright subjective, Wong deromanticizes violence even as he displays one of the most expressive approaches to cinematic bloodshed ever put on film.
In the long gaps between action, the film's yellow and brown tones create an earthen palette, grounding the painterly beauty of the shots of the harsh desert, a place so endless, hazy and slightly off that one keeps waiting for the camera to pan to the side and reveal melting clocks. The swirl of surreal tones mixes with soft, almost watercolor brushstrokes for gentile landscapes, and Wong even stretches his deliberately haphazard editing and framing until some scenes -- especially the action sequences -- border on abstract expressionism, particularly when those gushes of blood squirt out onto his step-printed canvas. The director has always had a painterly touch, but never have so many styles converged into his frame. With its digital touch-up and a Blu-Ray from Artificial Eye that improves the image (comprising film stock of varying and sometimes stunningly bad quality) to its zenith, Ashes of Time must be Wong's most gorgeous picture, placing it near or at the top of the most beautiful films ever made.
Visual symbolism abounds, from the Yin/Yang character to the motifs of water and the desert landscape, but Wong only makes the symbols themselves distinct and easily spotted, not what they stand for. Some scenes are utterly extraneous: Carina Lau, playing the Blind Swordsman's wife (Lau herself has been Chiu-Wai's partner since 1989), is shown wordlessly caressing her horse with such tenderness that the stallion becomes as much a symbol of virility and sexuality as it could without this becoming a very different type of movie, indeed. The shots have almost no bearing on the story and do not even make sense until nearly an hour later, but the experience of them, the suggestive power of cutaways and seemingly extemporaneous juxtaposition, makes for a wuxia film that is felt rather than merely processed.
In fairness, the action scenes, unorthodox as they might be, are stunning. Shots of Brigitte Lin practicing sword skills on a lake explode water in symphonic boisterousness, bending nature around the purity of her mastery. The Blind Swordsman's last job has him saving a village from a swarm of bandits, and the ensuing bloodbath is more visceral than anything to crop up in the last decade's boom of arty martial arts films. Yet even that sequence is undercut by Wong's directorial flourishes, the image bleeding into white when the swordsman looks up and has his already weakened vision bleached out by the sun. The entire scene builds less a sense of heroism than a mounting futility, and when the moment ends with a slit throat expelling blood as if a spittle-filled sigh, Wong attains the instant existential resignation that lined Belmondo's face at the the end of Breathless.
That view of heroism dominates Wong's attention. The heroes of action films, and especially wuxia epics, must harden themselves to human vulnerability, but Wong demonstrates how isolationism eats at those who practice it. Lin's descent into schizophrenic madness arises from rejection, and her malignancy arises from her pain -- when she goes to seduce Ouyang in her pain, we are treated to the quietly repellent sight of the woman stroking the man as both think of other lovers. The Blind Swordsman stayed away from home for so many years, only thinking of returning to his wife when it was too late, when he is doomed and she long ago gave her heart to another. Yet he at least makes a move toward undoing a lifetime of emotional remove, and Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung), a brilliant but unstable bounty hunter, picks up where the Blind Swordsman fails. Where he has spent his entire life counting the money of each job to collect wealth, Hong redeems himself when he ignores money to help a poor village girl who can only pay him a single chicken egg.
No such luck for Ouyang and Huang. In the books to which Ashes of Time serves as a prequel, the two characters are hard-hearted and violent, Huang someone who still believes in love but can never have it himself, Ouyang a man who rejects love entirely. They are not solidified into those roles here, but one can clearly see the arcs that will define their lives: Ouyang has fled from the woman who loves him, while Huang never follows through with the love he inspires in others because he's fixated on the one woman who loves someone other than him. Maggie Cheung arrives near the end of the film to deliver a devastating monologue to Huang. Ouyang's ex-lover, Cheung's character ultimately married the man's brother because she tired of waiting for Feng to return to her. She clarifies the reasons for Huang and Ouyang's annual meeting and the woman who links them in pain, and her speech, framed in a simple, wide-angle close-up without trickery that lets all focus rest on her words, speaks directly and piercingly to the pain of unrequited love. When the story comes full circle and the two main characters discover the uselessness of the magic wine, that the attempt to forget only further ensconces painful remembrances in memory, Cheung's pain is fully visited upon Ouyang and Huang.
For all its production troubles and stop-start construction, Ashes of Time displays Wong's directorial concerns as much as Chungking Express, the film he made in the middle of Ashes of Time. By making a wuxia film set in China's dynastic past, Wong directly tackles the questions of shifting national identity he expressed in his '90s cinema, and by wrapping the genre around his preoccupations with unrequited love and emotional isolation, he reconfigures one skewing of history into his own perspective. As ever, time and place are meaningless and all-important in the director's film, placing the characters at a set point in China's history while communicating themes that are timeless and irrespective of geographic borders.
The more I wrote about Ashes of Time Redux the more I thought about it, and the initial frustrations I had with the segmented, overlapping narratives faded into an appreciation of its beauty. Less accessible than any of his other films and less poignant than several, Ashes of Time nevertheless demonstrates Wong Kar-wai's mastery of form by showing what a great movie he could make far outside his comfort zone. More than any Kurosawa movie, this is a Western infused with a thoroughly distinct eastern flavor, and even the Ennio Morricone-inspired score is undermined as the film continues and pitted against itself to let more lilting sounds arise from its disquieting electronic hum. Re-edited in 2008, Ashes of Time Redux not only consolidated the handful of circulating prints of dubious quality into a better-looking version supposedly without significant alteration but allowed audiences to see how well Wong could play outside his usual style in the wake of his first major misfire. My Blueberry Nights might have set critics back to their laptops to type out instant reconsiderations of the director -- because it is only natural that a mild disappointment should somehow counteract a decade and a half of meaningful, beloved films in the minds of a few -- but Ashes of Time is far greater a stylistic leap than Wong's foray into English-language film. It may not seem like it at first, but the movie's also a perfect fit into Wong's canon and a visual delight worth revisiting as much simply to gawk at as to further analyze its ideas.