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Issue #154 HOME E-mail: mail@dighkmovies.com BACK ISSUES April 7th, 2003

Ashes of Time
(1994; Scholar Films/Jet Tone Production/Beijing Film Studio/Tsui Siu Ming Productions/Pony Canyon)

A Masterpiece
Highly Recommended
Very Good
Marginal Recommendation
Not Recommended
Definitely Not Recommended

Cantonese: Dung che sai duk
Mandarin: Dong xie xi du
English: Evil East, Malicious West

A film that absolutely requires multiple viewings to be fully appreciated, Wong Kar-wai's period fantasy is a captivating character study filled with affecting performances, stirring music, and mesmerizing imagery. Difficult to summarize, it centers around the cynical, world-weary Ouyang Feng (aka "Malicious West") whose interior monologues set up much of the narrative. After ten years of fighting, Ouyang (Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing) has retreated from White Camel Mountain into the desert, where he runs an inn and "solves problems" as a middleman for people with the right sum to offer. He is visited annually by Huang Yaoshi (aka "Evil East"), an old friend with similar views on life, who has taken up with the woman Ouyang spurned a decade earlier (played by a radiant Maggie Cheung Man-yuk, who is not credited). A year earlier, Huang (Tony Leung Kar-fai) promised to marry Murong Yin (Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia, whose real voice is heard only in the Mandarin version), the sister of swordsman Murong Yang (also Lin), but later reneged. Now, Yang has come to the inn seeking vengeance and engages Ouyang to kill his old friend. However, it becomes apparent to Ouyang that Yin and Yang may actually be the same person. A young girl (Charlie Yeung Choi-nei), with nothing but a mule and some eggs, offers them to Ouyang in payment for wiping out the bandits who killed her brother but the innkeeper balks and advises her to proffer sexual favors instead. An all-but blind swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), needing money so that he may return home, is hired by some villagers to slay the horse thieves who have been tormenting them but is slaughtered when his sight finally fails him. Skilled young fighter Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung Hok-yau) accepts the girl's offer and decimates both her brother's killers and the remaining horse thieves but, in spite of his great abilities, cannot be a good husband to his long-suffering wife (Bai Li), whom he stubbornly refuses to bring along on his martial adventures.

Upon first viewing, much of the film seems overly oblique, with its non-linear presentation, myriad flashbacks, and preponderance of voiceovers, but one remains entranced by the sheer radiance of the visuals, the quality of the performances, and the enveloping, adventurous score. Upon second viewing, the relationships become clearer and fresh possibilities emerge as doors open to reveal degrees of profundity and commentary on love and other human foibles that went previously unnoticed. Later viewings allow one to fully integrate the easily perceptible and more intellectually demanding pleasures into a unique and supremely stimulating whole. One of the main plot elements is a magical wine which causes one to forget the past, an ingenious device that allows Wong to alter the flow of events, interweaving them into and around the lives of the protagonists. While the wine does seem to work on the characters who do consume it, the effect is disastrous: Huang cannot remember even his best friends and Murong is pushed once and for all over the brink into insanity. The others are consumed by the memories of their loved ones and haunted by the wrongs they have done them. It is a pain that drives one man into both literal and spiritual exile and another to pursue a noble but, ultimately, lamentable death. The characters are consumed by loneliness and alienation, adrift in their own worlds, save for fleeting contact with others who share their emotional burdens. In keeping with this predicament, the occasions where they do manage to connect physically (particularly in a beautifully realized sequence where Brigitte Lin strokes a seemingly sleeping Leslie Cheung, with each using the occasion to fantasize about the lover they have lost) provide only fleeting comfort. The only person to emerge happy is the least complex: Hong. His exposure to Ouyang's cynicism leaves him a better person and reinforces a joy of life that the rest have lost and are seemingly incapable of recapturing.

While director of photography Christopher Doyle dazzles the viewer's eye with one gorgeous sandscape and unique tableau after another, ASHES does possess some recognizable roots in film history. Although presented with Wong's customarily stylized slow motion, Tony Leung Chiu-wai's battle against hordes of swordsmen is reminiscent of the combat found in Japanese samurai films, while the soundtrack offers up an accompaniment for this footage that would fit right into the spaghetti western of your choice. The swordsman and his affliction is also reminiscent of Cameron Mitchell's titular character in Sergio Corbucci's Italian western, MINNESOTA CLAY (1965), while Leung's last thought before death was echoed previously by one of the villains in the second entry of Toho's LONE WOLF AND CUB series. The film ended up going way over budget and schedule (Charlie Yeung's role was originally played by Joey Wang Tsu-hsien but all of the latter's footage had to be scrapped when Wang was not available for reshoots) and then spent several more months in post-production, while Wong and four editors cut and re-cut it (the director dashed off the much more economical CHUNGKING EXPRESS during a brief break in the editing). Ironically, these delays caused it to arrive right at the end of the late 80s/early 90s swordplay cycle, which is fitting as it redefines the parameters of that genre, while also continuing some of the themes and character archetypes Wong broached in AS TEARS GO BY and DAYS OF BEING WILD (both reviewed in issue #138). The resulting hybrid is one of the most challenging and rewarding films to emerge from HK since the start of the New Wave and a superb achievement. A parody of the same source material (Jin Yong's "The Eagle Shooting Heroes"), which also takes drastic liberties, was filmed concurrently with much of the same cast and crew (!) by Wong's partner, Jeff Lau Chun-wai, as DONG CHENG XI JIU and appeared in theatres over a year before this picture.

Cover art courtesy Mei Ah.

Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing. Image courtesy Mei Ah.

Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia. Image courtesy Mei Ah.

Jacky Cheung Hok-yau. Image courtesy Mei Ah.

Tony Leung Chiu-wai (foreground). Leslie Cheung (background). Image courtesy Mei Ah.

Carina Lau Ka-Ling. Image courtesy Mei Ah.

Maggie Cheung Man-yuk. Image courtesy Mei Ah.

Tony Leung Kar-fai. Image courtesy Mei Ah.

Charlie Yeung and Leslie Cheung (background). Image courtesy Mei Ah.
Mei Ah #DVD-068 (Hong Kong label)

Dolby Digital 2.1

Sync Sound Cantonese and Dubbed Mandarin Language Tracks

Permanent English and Traditional Chinese Subtitles

21 Chapters

Letterboxed (1.87:1)

98 Minutes

Contains stylized swordplay violence and some sensuality

Australia: M 15+ (Medium Level Violence)
British Columbia: 14YRS (Some Violence)
Hong Kong: II
Ontario: AA
Singapore: PG

World Video has released a domestic English market version of ASHES but it is such a travesty, it does not even deserve a full review. The company simply took their poor quality Chinese market version and matted off the bottom third of the picture, to cover up the original Chinese and English subtitles, and put new video generated English subs on top. The result is a compositional disaster and a far from appropriate presentation for any film, let alone one as beautifully composed as this; Wong and Doyle should sue.

Mei Ah's rendition has its drawbacks but is far closer to the way this looked theatrically. The film is presented at 1.87:1, with the upper matte seeming a bit tight at times, and the source material displaying light wear throughout. With its heavy conceptual grain, brownish colors, and varying contrasts, this is a very difficult film to present successfully on video. Mei Ah has done a much better job than World but there are instances of gatefloat and graininess that cause noticeable compression flaws; the theatrical subtitles are also a bit unstable. The Cantonese track sounds strident and mildly distorted but the Mandarin dub, with its overly prominent vocal track, is less appealing and sacrifices the original sync recording. There is no menu and the chapter stops are simply placed at five minute intervals throughout. The disc originally came in a jewel case packaged inside an outer sleeve but is now only available in a standard keepcase.

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