Just as it is often said every great novelist has a great children’s book inside of them, almost every important Chinese auteur seems itching to take a crack at a martial arts movie. Most grativate towards the wu xia style of swordplay epic which, unlike its genre cousin: the kung fu film, has traditionally been more inclined to expand the boundaries of the cinematic form. Among the most experimental and, in retrospect, influential was Ashes of Time, a film that both surmised Hong Kong New Wave swordplay revival of the late Eighties and early Nineties and anticipated the cycle of arty Mainland efforts that made international waves throughout the next decade. Writer-director Wong Kar Wai tackles Eagle Shooting Heroes, an essential text penned by wu xia scribe Jin Yong a.k.a. Louis Cha, but instead of a straightforward adaptation posits a unique prequel trading chivalry and superheroism for a more humanistic, more contemplative approach, if no less romantic and lyrical.
Told through a myriad of flashbacks, voiceovers and impressionistic collages, the elliptical narrative is difficult to summarize but essentially revolves around Ouyang Feng (the late, great Leslie Cheung), a cynical, world-weary swordsman who has retreated from the Martial World to set up a “sword-for-hire” service at a desert inn. Provided the price is right, Ouyang connects desperate peasants with cash-strapped swordsmen able to extract vengeance on their behalf. Reunited with Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Kar-Fai), a warrior who share his bleak philosophy towards life, Ouyang is surprised when swordsman Murong Yin (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia, in male drag) hires him to eliminate his old friend. Years before, Huang Yaoshi reneged on his promise to marry Yin’s beautiful sister, Murong Yang (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia, again), on whose behalf he now seeks revenge. However, Yang makes Ouyang a counter-offer to kill her brother instead, though he comes to suspect Yin and Yang (get it?) are in fact the same person. Meanwhile, a poor peasant girl (Charlie Yeung) with nothing but a mule and some eggs offers them to Ouyang if he will wipe out the bandits that killed her brother, but only earns his disdain. She nonetheless attracts an almost-blind swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), working to raise enough money to rejoin his estranged wife (Carina Lau). Ouyang hires him to destroy the bandit gang, but he succumbs tragically when his sight finally fails him. Ouyang’s next protégé, a fearless fighter named Hong Qi (Jackie Cheung), proves more successful even though his ambition leads him to mistreat his faithful wife (Bai Li). It eventually becomes apparent Ouyang is haunted by his lost love (Maggie Cheung), who was betrothed to none other than his brother, Huang Yaoshi, and who sends him a magic potion able to wipe memories away.
Ashes of Time marked a unique collaboration between a set of cinema radicals - Wong Kar Wai, visionary cinematographer Christopher Doyle, editor/production designer/costume designer William Chang, co-editor Patrick Tam (director of The Sword (1980), another experimental wu xia film) - and artists more steeped in the martial arts tradition: source author Jin Yong, action choreographer Sammo Hung, composer (and acclaimed actor-director in his own right) Frankie Chan, whose haunting score is among the film’s many assets. Instead of subverting the wu xia tradition, Wong Kar Wai’s abstract, more meditative approach draws out the latent poetry and philosophizing that were always part of the genre. Even so, the film comes across more like a dream of a wu xia, commentating on love and human foibles, rather than a straight swordplay epic. Some have gone so far as to claim the characters are actually those from Wong’s Days of Being Wild (1991) projected onto a mythical past. Its central thesis, encapsulated in a Buddhist parable (“The flag is still, the wind is calm. It is the heart of man that is in turmoil”), observes how some human beings go out of their way to avoid leaving themselves vulnerable, rejecting love before they themselves are inevitably rejected. However, the film is not wholly bleak and finds room for hope. Hong Qi emerges from his experiences a far stronger, more compassionate man, risking his life for the price of an egg and eventually opens his heart to the possibility of a lasting relationship with his wife.
Characters in Wong Kar Wai films are often haunted by lost loves. Here, the whole vastness of time and space is haunted and the elements themselves, whether the wind, the moon, the sun or the stars, respond to their emotional turmoil made physical through heaven-shaking bursts of supernatural kung fu (e.g. Murang Yang’s sword stroke makes a lake erupt into an almighty geyser). William Chang and Patrick Tam’s avant-garde editing further underlines that the universe is in disarray. At one point, Murang Yin picks a chopstick off the floor, followed by a shot of him/her knocking it over. Visually, Ashes of Time weaves a vast and wondrous tapestry: tilted angles, oversaturated colours, gorgeous landscapes and subliminal edits coalesce into an intoxicating mood piece, both epic and intimate. The unique action scenes Wong created with Sammo Hung ingeniously dissect the cause-and-effect microcosm of a martial arts sequence with techniques that offer a window into the characters: slow-motion for Tony Leung’s tragic blind swordsman, frenzied frame-blurring for Jackie Cheung’s impetuous warrior. These paved the way for the similarly abstract, arty style practiced in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Hero (2003).
Nature and memory are also important themes in the story, an aspect further emphasised in Ashes of Time Redux, a slightly revised version of the film Wong released in 2008 that includes chapters named after the changing seasons and references to the Chinese Almanac detailing nature’s effect on the cycle of human life. Both versions draw strength from the superb performances delivered by the truly stellar cast. Remarkably, Wong’s co-producer Jeff Lau filmed Eagle Shooting Heroes (1993), a spoof version of the same story concurrently with the same cast and crew! Whilst the comedy version was an instant hit, Ashes of Time drew a muted response when first released. The film’s shoot was notoriously troubled and Wong even knocked out Chungking Express (1995) during a lull in post-production which ironically eclipsed this sprawling, big-budget effort as his career masterpiece. When seen today however, whether in Redux or original form, Ashes of Time stands as one of his most profoundly enchanting efforts, a film whose artistry and subtextual density demand multiple viewings.