“Ashes of Time” - Wong Kar Wai (1994)

“The root of man’s problems is memory.”
The films of Wong Kar Wai (Wáng Jia-wèi) range across a number of genres – film noir, sci-fi, wenyi pian (Chinese melodrama) and wuxia (Chinese martial arts) – but they all carry Wong’s renowned flavor of romantic melancholia no matter what the setting. So Ashes of Time (Dongxié Xidú; literally: "Eastern Heretic, Western Poison", 1994), which was Wong’s lone foray into the popular wuxia genre, did not devote much screen time to the kinetic swordplay typical of wuxia films, and instead focused more on philosophical and personal motivational issues.

The story for the film was inspired by the popular wuxia novel by Jin Yong (Louis Cha) The Legend of the Condor Heroes (1957) that was set in the late Song dynasty.  But Wong did not follow that novel’s narrative, and Ashes of Time only drew elements from some of the novel’s characters.  Wong was more interested in pursuing his own intuitive themes in accordance with his unique mise-en-scene.  Since Wong and his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, often made  changes to what they wanted on the shooting set, his films often ran well over their intended production schedules and budgets, and these problems were compounded by the location shooting of Ashes of Time in an arid, desolate area of western China.  So it was not particularly surprising that the film took two years to complete and ran way over budget. 

When the film was "completed" and originally released in 1994, it was not much of a commercial success.  But it did seem to go down well with the critical community in Hong Kong and elsewhere.  For the 1995 Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards, it won the awards for Best Film, Best Director (Wong Kar Wai), Best Actor (Leslie Cheung), and Best Screenplay (Wong Kar Wai). And at the 1994 Venice Film Festival, it won the award for Best Cinematography (Christopher Doyle).

In some respects, though, Wong may always be reluctant to think his films are ever really “complete” – there are always some desired changes that may come to mind later.  So in 2008 when Wong went to rescue the endangered negatives of Ashes of Time, he used the occasion to make some further changes to the film.  This involved correcting the color palette, adding some intertitles, reducing some screen time devoted to wuxia swordplay, and introducing moody theme music by cellist Yo-Yo Ma.  Altogether these adjustments probably reflected Wong’s evolving aesthetic which in the meantime had resulted in his excellent films  In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004). I have not seen the original 1994 version of Ashes of Time, but I have no doubts that Wong’s changes improved the film.  The resulting re-edit is known as Ashes of Time Redux (2008), and my review is based on that version [1,2].

The story of Ashes of Time concerns the activities and desires of four master swordsmen in that long ago era.  What is the makeup of such men?  What drives them?  Wong offers the viewer four different takes on these issues and hints that ancient Chinese metaphysical notions of qi may provide insight on these matters.  Qi is vital “energy”, two essential forms of which are yin and yang [3,4,5].  Yin and yang pervade everything in the world to various degrees.
“yang was associated with the masculine, the forceful, and the bright, while yin was associated with the feminine, the yielding, and the obscure.” [3]
“The underlying polarity of Yang and Yin thus begins with light vs. dark and extends not only into high vs. low, creative vs. receptive, firm vs. yielding, moving vs. resting, and masculine vs. feminine, but also into many other areas of human concern, including the sun and the moon, the weather, the parts of the body, and even the distinction between gods (all Yang) and ghosts (all Yin).” [4]
Yin and yang are always present, like two sides of an object, but they can often be out of balance – one of them can be overly dominant – which can lead to disasters and suffering.  In Ashes of Time the balance of yin and yang is manifested in the characters to varying degrees.  This effects two basic areas of their desires:
  • fame, fortune, and honor – which I would interpret as yang-oriented,
  • love – which I would interpret as yin-oriented.
The four martial artists of interest are
  • Ouyang Feng (played by Leslie Cheung).  He is a skilled swordsman, but now spends his time as a broker who hires other skilled swordsmen to commit murders for his clients.
  • Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-fai) is a famed swordsman from the east who makes yearly visits to his friend Ouyang Feng.
  • The Blind Swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) is a friend of Yaoshi and is losing his eyesight, so his days as a skilled sword fighter are numbered.
  • Hong Qigong (Jacky Cheung) is a local (to Feng’s area) ruffian who works for Feng and  seeks fame as a martial artist.
The film’s narrative is sectioned into five seasons, each of which are introduced by lines from the Chinese Buddhist Canon and the Tung Shu (aka Tung Shing), which is an ancient Chinese book of divination.

1.  Spring
In the opening section Yaoshi makes his annual visit to Feng and offers him some wine that he was given that makes a person lose his memory. The wine-giver had told Yaoshi that this wine was useful, because "the root of man’s problems is memory." Yaoshi then drinks from the wine jug, but Feng abstains. Later Yaoshi visits his best friend’s (the Blind Swordsman’s) home town to attend his friend’s wedding to a woman named “Peach Blossom” (Carina Lau).  Something goes wrong, and we will later learn that Peach Blossom is in love with Yaoshi.

Later Yaoshi and Feng, separately and on separate occasions, meet what appear to be a brother and sister, Murong Yang and Murong Yin (both played by Brigitte Lin), but who later turn out to be two sides of a single person with a split personality.  Murong Yang and Murong Yin are fundamentally at odds with each other because of their contrasting yang and yin dominance.  Both siblings want to hire Feng to commit murders that they think will solve their problems.  This section includes a scene where Murong Yin approaches Feng while he is sleeping and furtively gives him sensual caresses, which he senses.  But for both of them, the caresses invoke dreams of someone else that they love but have lost – Murong Yin dreams of Yaoshi, and Feng dreams of the woman (Maggie Cheung) who spurned him to marry his brother.   As Feng says, “some people don’t realize who they love until they’ve left that person behind.”  (Hereafter I will refer to the character played by Maggie Cheung as OFSIL – Ouyang Feng’s Sister-in-law).

2.  Summer 
In the summertime an impoverished girl (Charlie Yeung) with only a mule to offer comes to Feng hoping he can arrange a revenge killing of some militia men who murdered her brother.  Feng, who is only coldly interested in money, refuses her offer, but he is attracted to her because she reminds him of OFSIL.

Then the Blind Swordsman arrives.  He, too, is attracted to the girl with the mule, because she reminds him of his estranged wife, Peach Blossom. Feng has arranged for him to fight a band of about a hundred bandits who have been harassing a local village.  With his sight rapidly failing the Blind Swordsman hopes that the sunlight will be bright on the day of the battle.  In the event, though, the sun passes behind a cloud momentarily obscuring the Blind Swordsman’s poor vision, and he is killed.

3.  Autumn 
This section introduces Hong Qigong, a barefoot swordsman with dreams of glory.  Feng arranges for him to fight the bandits, and despite a heavy sandstorm to interfere with things, Hong Qigong fights them off.  But Hong Qigong wants more than Feng’s money, he wants honor, and he agrees to fight the revenge battle for the girl with the mule.  Although he loses a finger in the ensuing battle, he does enact the sought-for revenge, and he treasures his honor.

4.  Winter 
In this section the subject is lost love.  Although Huang Yaoshi is loved by Murong Yin and Peach Blossom, the woman he really longs for is Ouyang Feng’s sister-in-law (OFSIL).  So both Yaoshi and Feng yearn for the same unattainable woman (although OFSIL still seems to have a hidden love for Feng).  Every year after his visit with Feng, Yaoshi visits OFSIL to let her secretly know how Feng is doing.   OFSIL had rejected Feng because he was too proud to tell her that he loved her. So it was a battle of (yang) egos back then.  But now she is fatalistic about love; she tells Yaoshi:
“Nothing really matters anymore. I used to think some words were so important.  Once spoken, they’d last a lifetime. But looking back, I realized it makes no difference. Everything changes. . . . I always thought I was the winner . . . until one day I looked in the mirror and saw the face of a loser. . . . During the best years of my life, the person I love was not by my side.“
Then there is this exchange between OFSIL and Yaoshi:
OFSIL: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could go back to the past. . . . You’re his good friend.  Why haven’t you told him I was here?

Yaoshi: “I made you a promise, so I kept silent.”

OFSIL: “You are too honest.”
Shortly afterwards OFSIL falls ill and passes away.  Before she dies, she gives Yaoshi the magic bottle of wine mentioned in the film’s beginning that makes one forget, so that Feng will forget about her.

5.  Spring  
The final section is even more elegiacal.  Yaoshi stops visiting Feng, who later learns of OFSIL’s death.  Feng then solemnly reflects on what he has accomplished in life by his selfish ways.
“I learned that the best way to avoid rejection is to reject others first.”
He finally decides to drink from the memory-cancelling wine jug, but to no avail.  He then reflects:
"That wine was just a joke she played on me.  The more you try to forget, the better you’ll remember.”
In the end, Ashes of Time is not really about wuxia heroism.  It is more about Wong’s themes on the memories of missed romantic connections, and the film’s English title is well chosen.  The wuxia battles that do appear in the film offer a blizzard of blurry action shots, mostly in closeup, but they are merely chaotic and have no real progression to them.  Some people might like some of the stop-action slowmo effects, but I thought that the fight scenes were just a distraction and Wong was right to cut some of them out.  Overall, however, the cinematography is very effective, with emotive closeups and atmospheric landscapes that convey the emotional landscape.

In fact it is the crisscrossed human relationships that intrigue one as the film moves along. Gradually one learns that the Blind Swordsman loves Peach Blossom, who loves Huang Yaoshi, who is also loved by Murong Yin but who really loves OFSIL, who loves Ouyang Feng, who in turn loves the no-longer-available OFSIL. However, the yang-driven pride and acquisitiveness don’t provide much satisfaction in this story.
  • Ouyang Feng just wanted money in order to arrange for murders.   And it was his pride that blocked him from declaring his love to OFSIL.
  • OFSIL’s pride caused her to reject Feng.
  • Huang Yaoshi wanted fame and honor
  • The Blind Swordsman vowed revenge on Yaoshi concerning Peach Blossom, but was blocked by his poor eyesight from carrying it out.
  • Hong Qigong wanted personal honor.
  • The girl with the mule wanted revenge.
  • Murong Yang wanted revenge
  • Murong Yin wanted Feng to kill Murong Yang (i.e. suicide).
  • And an offhand reference is made to Feng and Hong Qigong much later engaging in a duel that resulted in them taking each other's life. 
Where did all these prideful feelings get them in the end?  It all adds up to just wanting to kill memories and/or score points on some mythical scoreboard.  When Ouyang Feng and the Blind Swordsman do, on separate occasions, try to engage romantically with women, their actions are clumsy and self-centered.  The only one who seems to treasure the present is Huang Yaoshi, who loves visiting OFSIL:
“Though I have always loved her [OFSIL], I have kept it a secret, because I know that untouched fruit is the sweetest."
But this is a limited consolation.  In the end what we see in Ashes of Time, and perhaps Wong is suggesting in wuxia stories generally, is that yin and yang are out of balance on this stage.  Wong effectively conveys in this film the feeling that there needs to be more consideration and support given to yin.

  1. Fernando F. Croce, “Ashes of Time Redux”, Slant Magazine, (26 September 2008). 
  2. Stephen O. Murray, “No Longer Opaque, but Complicated and Difficult Wong Kar-wai Movie”, Epinions, (3 March 2010). 
  3. Franklin Perkins, “Metaphysics in Chinese Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (2 April 2015).  
  4. Charles E. Osgood and Meredith Martin Richards, “Yang and Yin to and or but”, Language, Vol. 49, No. 2, (June 1973), pp. 380-412.
  5. Robin R. Wang, “Yinyang (Yin-yang)”, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (September 2006).  

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