Monday, August 15, 2022

#2,800. Ashes of Time (1994) - Spotlight on Hong Kong


Though it falls under the classification of a Wuxia film, which by its most basic definition is a martial arts-themed movie set in China’s distant past, 1994’s Ashes of Time is more a reflection of its director, Wong Kar Wai, than any subgenre or storytelling style.

Master swordsman Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) is a guy who gets things done. From his remote outpost in the middle of the desert, he acts as a broker of sorts, a go-between for assassins / warriors and those in need of their services.

Structured as an anthology spread across the seasons of Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and back to Spring, Ashes of Time kicks off with Ouyang Feng being visited by his friend, Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-fai), a trained killer who, after drinking a magical wine, begins to lose his memory. Upon leaving Feng’s house, Huang encounters a blind swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), then the hot-headed Murong Yang (Brigitte Lin), who during their conversation draws his sword, cutting Huang.

Eventually, Murong Yang makes his way to Feng’s, looking to hire an assassin to finish off Huang Yaoshi for supposedly breaking his sister’s heart. A short time later, Murong Yang’s sister Murong Yin (also played by Brigitte Lin) also turns up, and begs Feng to instead kill her brother!

Once Autumn rolls around, the Blind Swordsman shows up at Feng’s desert abode looking for work. Diagnosed with an eye disorder that will render him blind by the age of 30, he hopes to raise enough cash to pay for his trip home, so he can once again see the cherry blossoms before losing his sight completely. All the while, a mysterious woman (Charlie Yeung), with nothing more than a basket of eggs and a mule to her name, implores Feng to help her get revenge on the bandits that murdered her brother (Feng refuses because the woman has no money to pay).

With winter setting in, Feng invites an unkempt beggar, Hung Chi (Jacky Cheung), back to his house and feeds him, doing so because he could tell right away that Chi is a talented swordsman. Ignoring the pleas of his wife (Li Bai) when she turns up at Feng’s unexpectedly, Hung Chi agrees to help the woman with the mule (for the payment of a single egg) and kill those responsible for her brother’s death.

The return of Spring sees Feng lamenting his lost love (Maggie Cheung), causing the master swordsman to undertake a journey of his own, and a heartbreaking discovery will result in his decision to leave the desert once and for all.

It’s interesting to note the book that inspired Wong Kar-Wai to write Ashes of Time, Jin Yong’s The Legend of the Condor Heroes, paints some of the movie’s characters in an entirely different light, starting with the lead, Ouyang Feng. In Yong’s novel, Feng was a straight-up villain, and though the events of Ashes of Time are set in an earlier time period than those in the book, we see traces of Feng’s darker side every now and again. At one point, he tries to convince the woman with the mule to take up prostitution in order to afford his services, and a late flashback in which he approaches his former lover (who ended up marrying his brother) reveals he is prone to violent outbursts. Yet Ashes of Time ultimately portrays Feng in a much more sympathetic light, not as a treacherous outlaw but a skilled assassin who regrets letting his one true love slip away.

Each and every character in this film is given a distinct personality and plenty of depth, and much like Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love, the events that play out in Ashes of Time never eclipse these characters or the emotions that drive them. This is especially prevalent in the Murong Yin / Murong Yang sequence, which hints at dual personalities and the destructive influence of unrequited love.

As with many Wuxia films, Ashes of Time does feature a handful of action scenes, the best being the Blind Swordsman’s battle against dozens of bandits (in the midst of which his eyesight begins to fail him). But as exciting as it can be, it’s the characters that will stay with you, making Ashes of Time a near-perfect blending of genre and director.
Rating: 9 out of 10

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