Year of release: 1994
Ashes of Time
One of the most talked about Hong Kong films of the past decade is ironically perhaps one of the most simple -- at least on the surface. Despite all of the adjectives thrown at this movie, it is at its' heart a wuxia (swordsplay) film about three tales of love, revenge and redemption. Let us not forget that all wuxia movies are based on these themes somewhat, it's just with the glut of similar movies during the early 1990's that the story was de-emphasized in favor of increasing wire-fu antics in order to entrance increasingly jaded local audiences.
The stories revolve around an isolated inn in the depths of the desert run by Ouyang Fang (played by Leslie Cheung), who came seeking solace after his love Maggie Cheung married his brother. Ouyang also runs a murder-for-hire business out of the inn, and the impetus for the stories comes from the missions he does (and does not) take.
The first has male and female twins (both played by the impeccable Brigette Lin) hiring Ouyang for competing jobs. Yin, the male, wants Ouyang to kill his best friend (played by Tony Leung Ka-Fai) for jilting his twin sister Yang, who wants Ouyang to kill Yin for trying to make her marry Leung in the first place. Secondly, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai plays an assassin losing his sight, looking for one last job so he can return to his hometown. The last story features another assassin, this time Jacky Cheung. He stands at a crossroads at his life and must decide whether to go all they way and become a cold-blooded killer or accept his feelings for drifter Charlie Yueng.
Now, that is a pretty simple story, but Wong's techniques have created a movie that may be too confusing for some people. The movie depends heavily on flashbacks, which are one of my least favorite film devices. And while I will agree that the flashback-heavy structure makes the film perhaps a bit too dense, the flashbacks and playing with the timeline (much like Pulp Fiction) gives Ashes of Time an unexpected flavor that warrants repeated viewings.
It is the exact reason why many people don't like this movie -- "it's too confusing" -- that gives it some weight compared to many of its anorexic counterparts. Even the mighty juggernaut of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (though it has a lovely story that depends on flashbacks itself) doesn't hold up as well to repeated viewings as this movie, because Ashes of Time is one of those rare films where you take in something new each and every time you watch it.
The other sticking point for many of this movie's critics is Wong Kar-Wai's (via cinematographer Christopher Doyle) visual style. Sammo Hung took great pains to stage the fight scenes in a classical style, but Doyle's "stop-printing" technique renders the scenes near-incomprehensible. While I will agree that I may have like to see these grand fights staged in a typical fashion, the unusual style (once again, after repeated viewings) creates an aura around these scenes that will make them stick in your mind. The fleeting images -- swords going off the edge of the frame, twirling and blurring fighters, isolated spurts of blood -- provide an intense sense of close sword combat near unmatched by any film before or since.
And Doyle's style outside of the action scenes provide some striking images as well. I don't think I've ever seen shots in a movie as beautiful as in Ashes of Time. In particular, two shots stick in my mind: one with Brigette Lin highlighted by a lantern inside the inn, and, most strikingly, near the end, where a relatively simple shot of Maggie Cheung contemplating the events that have gone on makes her look simply gorgeous, almost angelic. Again, it is in the way Wong carves his own niche with his particular visual style that Ashes of Time rises far above not only just other wuxia movies or other Hong Kong movies, but most films (regardless of where they were produced) in general.
Perhaps no other movie in the Hong Kong fanboy community inspires such varied opinions as this one. Just look at any of the discussions that pop up on Usenet or other website reviews. Most critics of this film point to the way Wong Kar-Wai disregards many of the "rules" of the wuxia genre and creates a film that is too complicated and stylish for its' own good. However, it is exactly the way Wong breaks these rules that make it one of the most unique takes on the genre and one of the most well-crafted films to come out of Hong Kong in the last ten years.
If you aren't a fan of Wong Kar-Wai's work, there's really no reason for you to watch this movie. But if you haven't seen any of his films, this is an excellent place to start. It's also an excellent place to expand your Hong Kong film horizons to include something other than guys running around with dual guns and toilet jokes.