16 June 1999 | zdac
A haunting postmodern genre revision...
Loosely based on the Chinese heroic literature classic, "The Eagle-Shooting Heroes" by prolific Wuxia author Louis Cha, ASHES OF TIME is conspicuous for the unusual and postmodern approach it takes to a genre so firmly entrenched in Hong Kong cinema.
The "story" consists interactions between various characters as they weave in and out of each other's lives, with a small village in a bleak desert wasteland as the crossroads. These vignettes are not always sequential, and we must gradually piece together the relationships and backgrounds of the protagonists, some of which contribute to a larger story, while others do not. The all-star cast portrays a varied palette of characters, perfectly flawed incarnations of fantastical beings, with performances teetering on the line between disarming humanity and iconic romanticism.
One thing to love about this movie is the way that director Wong Kar-Wai takes the reflective internal monologues and quirky, alienated losers from his other films and transposes them to the world of Chinese heroic fantasy. It's an interesting idea that both ennobles and deconstructs the genre. Martial-arts superheroes who can literally shear mountainsides with a wave of the sword, mired in their own personal conflicts and bouts with inadequacy, in the points of time that occur between the legend-worthy events. This unusual treatment lends these mythic characters a familiar dimension that is both poetic and banal. The cast and the desert are wrenchingly beautiful in the same starkly desolate way. The music consists of odd synth dirges, like a moody clash of Ennio Morricone and Vangelis (particularly the 1492 soundtrack), but it is nonetheless hauntingly atmospheric.
ASHES OF TIME is a truly beautiful movie. The cinematography is a lush blend of stunningly arid vistas, iconic posturing, minute sensual gestures, grainy documentary-style camera-work, and stylish, impressionistic fight sequences. A visual metaphor for textiles and tapestry persists, with the various interwoven plots echoed in the camera's almost tactile attention to fabric and texture throughout... sometimes tightly bound like an inescapable net, others fraying apart like elusive memories.
That said, this movie is not going to appeal to everyone. The disjointed dreamlike narrative can be confusing initially, with so many characters behaving in obscure ways, backwards and forwards in time. Still, in the end, if you take some time to retrace your steps, it all does fit together remarkably well. The puzzle pieces really do form a coherent picture, but for most people it will probably take a second viewing to see it all.
Also, those looking for the action sequences Hong Kong movies are famous for, will find the emphasis is on the characters and their meandering thoughts. When the (nonetheless exciting and very cool) action scenes do take place, they are blurred hyperkinetic washes of motion. While Hong Kong action films have some of the greatest choreography captured on film, ASHES OF TIME attempts to capture an impressionistic, psychological aspect as well, sometimes obscuring the action as much as displaying it.
This movie takes many of its cues from Sergio Leone's revisionist westerns. The stylized desert environment is the wastes of New Mexico revisited through Chinese legend, complete with tormented superhumanly-skilled anti-hero swordsmen/gunslingers, lost, deromanticized ideals, melodramatic showdowns, and roving hundreds-strong gangs of horse thieves. Still, Ashes of Time manages to be its own beast, a technical, artistic, visual, sentimental masterpiece, that gives a new twist on old conventions, while simultaneously managing to belong very much to Wong Kar-Wai's thematic oeuvre. A movie you won't easily forget.