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Ashes of Time
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Chinese: 東邪西毒  
Year: 1994
Director: Wong Kar-Wai
Cine: Christopher Doyle
Action: Sammo Hung Kam-Bo
Cast: Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing, Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia, Carina Lau Ka-Ling, Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau, Charlie Young Choi-Nei, Lau Shun
The Skinny: Wong Kar-Wai's first (and currently only) wuxiapian is the most uncompromisingly complex film of his career. It also displays his continuing maturation as a director, as its presents the sum of his previous films' themes. This film is one of a kind: a thinking man's martial arts melodrama with very little action. It features some of the biggest stars in the business giving excellent performances, Christopher Doyle's usual magnificent visuals, and William Chang's predictably sublime art direction.
by LunaSea:

Ever since his debut Romance of the Book and Sword (Shu Jian Eng Chou Lu), the king of wuxia xiaoshuo Jin Yong showed he had enough talent to become one of the greatest novelists of the modern era. His novels have been adapted for TV, film and even animated cartoons. His most important work and a landmark of the genre was The Eagle Shooting Heroes (She Diao Ing Xiung Zhuang), which has now become a favorite amongst Jin Yong and wuxia fans.

Taking inspiration from that novel is Wong Kar-Wai's epic melodrama Ashes of Time, which took two plus years to shoot, went ridiculously overbudget, and saw many different plot changes. Wong was a big fan of Jin Yong's original work, and wanted to approach the author to talk about some ideas. He was interested in the psychology behind some of the characters, like the tragic life of Venomous West/Huang Yaoshi. Unlike the book, where the character is presented as a vile and adulterous man, Wong humanizes the character, presenting him as a victim (like everyone else in the film). Ultimately, the two couldn't meet, so Wong's imagination started to run free, and created the labyrinthine results you see on screen.

Ashes of Time represents a prequel to the novel, with two of the main characters relegated to secondary status (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai's Blind Swordsman and Jacky Cheung's Hong Qi) and everyone else much younger and inexperienced. Wong's goal is focusing on the psychological and emotional reasons that brought the characters to the behavior we see in the novel. The most striking example is the principal character Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung). In the film he's still a man who trusts people, and is not completely selfish. His troubled relationship with a woman (Maggie Cheung) shapes his character, and leads to his change to an evil and treacherous man.

Wong mostly uses Jin Yong's work as a starting point for his personal vision of the wuxia world, where memories are more painful than battles against hordes of swordsmen, and men give themselves up to fate and are destroyed by their emotional distress. The Blind Swordsman embarks on an impossible battle even though he knows he's nearly blind. Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) drinks the wine that erases memory in hope of forgetting his love. Murong Yang and his identical female alter ego Murong Yin (Brigitte Lin playing both) react to rejection by becoming schizophrenic. And then there's Ouyang Feng. He hides in the desert, away from the pain of his past mistakes. Afraid of rejection, he chooses to reject first, and ignores his heart. This is a world where heroism doesn't matter, where stripping one's emotions to become "stronger" (like the traditional wuxia heroes) takes away the heroes' soul and leave them scarred forever.

The extent of Wong Kar-Wai's revisionism of the genre can be felt just by looking at the reaction by conservative wuxia fans and critics. He took a de-humanized world (where heroism was often more important than sentiments) and injected humanity into it. We're presented with allegedly invincible men who turn out to be people who crumble under the pressure and pain of rejection and memory.

It's pointless trying to write about Ashes of Time's plot, as doing so would be entirely too superficial, and leave out important facets of the story. Possessing a rudimentary knowledge of the novel would help as the film is extremely fragmented and often inaccessible. However, with a careful eye and a few repeated viewings the film's story is not so hard to grasp. What's important is the mood Wong Kar-Wai creates, and the air of sorrow we feel coming from each and every character. It may not be the wuxiapian Jin Yong and his hardcore fans (many of whom hated this film with a passion) would have wanted, but Ashes of Time is one of the most intelligent works of the genre, mixing melodrama with a deconstruction of many of the genre's formulas and clichés. (LunaSea 2002)


14th Annual Hong Kong Film Awards
• Winner - Best Cinematography (Christopher Doyle)
Winner - Best Art Direction (William Cheung Suk-Ping)
Winner - Best Costume Design (William Cheung Suk-Ping)
Nomination - Best Picture
Nomination - Best Director (Wong Kar-Wai)
Nomination - Best Screenplay (Wong Kar-Wai)
Nomination - Best Editing (Patrick Tam Ka-Ming, Hai Kit-Wai)
Nomination - Best Action Design (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo)
Nomination - Best Original Score (Frankie Chan Fan-Kei)
1st Annual Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards
• Best Picture
• Best Director (Wong Kar-Wai)
• Best Screenplay (Wong Kar-Wai)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Mei Ah Laser
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
English and Chinese Subtitles
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image courtesy of Jet Tone Productions Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen