Ashes of Time

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Ashes of Time
Ashes2.jpg
Film poster
Traditional東邪西毒
Simplified东邪西毒
MandarinDōng Xié, Xī Dú
CantoneseDung1 Ce4 Sai1 Duk6
LiterallyEastern Heretic, Western Venom
Directed byWong Kar-wai
Produced byWong Kar-wai
Jeffrey Lau
Jacky Pang
Screenplay byWong Kar-wai
Story byLouis Cha
StarringLeslie Cheung
Tony Leung Ka-fai
Brigitte Lin
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai
Carina Lau
Charlie Yeung
Jacky Cheung
Maggie Cheung
Music byFrankie Chan
Roel A. Garcia
CinematographyChristopher Doyle
Edited byHai Kit-wai
Kwong Chi-leung
William Chang
Patrick Tam
Production
company
Jet Tone Productions
Beijing Film Studio
Tsui Siu Ming Production
Scholar Films
Pony Canon Inc.
Distributed byNewport Entertainment (HK)
HKFM (US)
Release date
  • 17 September 1994 (1994-09-17)
Running time
100 minutes
93 minutes (Redux)
CountryHong Kong
LanguageCantonese
BudgetHK$40,000,000 (estimated)
Box officeHK$9,023,583 (HK)
US$1,912,490 (Redux)[1]

Ashes of Time is a 1994 Hong Kong film written and directed by Wong Kar-wai, and inspired by characters from Jin Yong's novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes.

Background[edit]

The film's story is a prequel to the renowned novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes as it imagines the older characters when they were younger. It focuses on the main antagonist (Ouyang Feng) and humanizes him into a protagonist while retaining his despicable qualities. Feng, known as the Western Venom, crosses paths with the other powerful wuxia masters. Their backstories depict with great liberty and sometimes completely subverts the intended meaning from the novel.

During the film's long-delayed production, Wong produced a parody of the same novel with the same cast titled The Eagle Shooting Heroes.

Although it received limited box office success, the parallels Ashes of Time drew between modern ideas of dystopia imposed on a wuxia film has led many critics to cite it as one of Wong Kar-wai's most under-appreciated works.

Due to the original prints being lost Wong re-edited and re-scored the film in 2008 for future theater, DVD and Blu-ray releases under the title Ashes of Time Redux. The film was reduced from 100 to 93 minutes. Both the original and Redux versions can still be found on Asian markets, while only the Redux version is available to western markets. Several criticisms of the Redux version have been noted, such as poor image quality and color mastering from the source material, cropping and removal of portions of the bottom image, poor English translations, and the re-scoring.

Cast[edit]

[2] [3]

Summary[edit]

The film follows the main antagonist Ouyang Feng, from the novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes, when he is a young man crossing paths with other important characters. The movie humanizes Feng and depicts the events that lead to his descend to villainousness. It sometimes completely subverts the intended meaning of the novel, as in Feng's copulation with his sister-in-law, which is depicted as sinister and taboo in the book but is shown as true love in the film; the longing for her serves as a common theme that echoes throughout the movie.

Plot[edit]

Sets in ancient China, the film consists of five short stories each featuring a main character from the novel; with the young Ouyang Feng serving as narrator and the common link.

Opening[edit]

The story begins after the main events that take place later in the film, with Ouyang Feng – now known as the Western Venom due to his spitefulness and mercilessness; and hailing from the western province – effortlessly toying with and disposing of a group of henchmen. He narrates that he is venomous because he is enraged with jealousy.

The story backtracks many years to the time when Feng is younger and working as a broker for assassins in a remote and desert region. He eagerly waits for his friend Huang, who visits him once a year around this time.

Act I – Huang Yaoshi (Eastern Heretic)[edit]

Huang Yaoshi (Eastern Heretic) kills a band of bandits to take one of their horses. He arrives at Feng's and presents to him a bottle of wine called "Forgotten Love" that he said was given to him by a close friend. Huang's friend claims the wine can make a person forget the past and start each day anew, free of past burdens; he proceeds to drink the wine while Feng declines. That night, Huang begins to lose his memory, hurriedly leaves and chases after a shadowy woman who had awoken him in his sleep. The shadowy woman may be a fragment of his dream.

Huang arrives at a shallow river. A woman named Cherry Blossom is standing in the river and tending to her horse. Huang, seemingly still retains memory of her, looks smugly at her while she steals glances at him. Neither one speaks.

In the next scene, Huang drinks with the Blind Swordsman inside an establishment. Huang asks how they know each other. The Blind Swordsman tells him they used to be best friends but Huang stole the former's wife. As he is leaving, the Blind Swordsman narrates that he would have killed Huang if not for the fact that he is losing his sight and cannot see at night.

An argument takes place between two patrons, one being Murong Yang. Yang tries to draw his sword when Huang interjects and urges him to calm down but Yang unleashes his sword and inadvertently cuts Huang. Huang retreats outside, leans on a wall, and sees that there is blood coming from his lower abdomen. Inside, Yang is laughing hysterically. Feng narrates that when Huang is a young man, he is charming and rebellious. He breaks women's hearts just as easily as they fall in love with him.

Act II – Murong Yang / Murong Yin (Dugu Qiubai)[edit]

Murong Yang arrives at Feng's den to hire an assassin to kill Huang. Yang claims that Huang breaks his sister's heart and deserves to die. Later, Yang's sister, Murong Yin arrives at Feng's and attempts to call off the order. She tells Feng that her brother is in love with her but she loves Huang, who tells her in return that she is the one he loves the most. Yang and Yin are the same person, a woman who sometimes dresses as a man.

In a flashback, one night after rounds of drinking, Huang tells Yang that if the later has a sister he will marry her. Yang, already infatuated with Huang, tells him she will present her sister to him. Yin arrives at the rendezvous, dressed as a woman, but Huang was a no show. The event sends her into a rage and she seeks to have Huang killed but she is torn on killing the person who broke her heart and the person who she is madly in love with. After a night of conversation with Feng where she fades in and out of character between Yang and Yin; she abandons the idea of killing Huang. That night, Feng feels someone caressing him while he is sleeping. The camera pans to Yin sneaking into Feng's bedroom but the person she envisions caressing is Huang while Feng imagines he is being touched by his ex-lover. Feng says that he never sees Yin again after that night.

Feng narrates that people who have been deeply hurt in love sometimes invent strange narratives to protect their wounded hearts. No one has seen Yang or Yin since; but shortly after her disappearance, a strange and powerful swordsman named Dugu Qiubai (who likes to practice her sword play with her own reflection) appears on the stage. The film then shows Dugu Qiubai as Yang and Yin interchangeably.

Act III – Blind Swordsman[edit]

The Blind Swordsman approaches Feng asking for a job to help pay for his journey back home to see the cherry blossom. Feng offers him the job of protecting the villages from the band of bandits seeking revenge for the comrades that Huang killed earlier in the film.

The Girl with a Mule solicits Feng's help in hiring an assassin to exact revenge on a group of imperial guards who killed her younger brother. She is a poor peasant who can only offer an old mule and a basket of eggs as payment. Feng coldly brushes her off and implies she should offer her body as compensation, a suggestion that disgusts her. Undeterred, she sits outside Feng's front gate hoping to solicit assassins who come to work with Feng. While observing her through his balcony, Feng laments that from this vantage point, she reminds him of his ex-lover.

Feng notes that The Blind Swordsman has a very orderly and rigid daily routine, but he knows that even though the later lights a candle at night, he cannot see in the dark.

During the course of fighting the bandits, the weather changes to heavy overcast, the Blind Swordsman is unable to see and is killed in battle.

Act IV – Hong Qigong (Northern Beggar)[edit]

Feng comes across an exhausted and dirty young man (Hong Qigong) who has run out of food and money. He offers him food, shelter, and a job to work as an assassin. Hong begrudgingly accepts.

Hong's first job is to kill the bandits, who are returning to cause havoc after being impeded and suffering casualties in the battle with the Blind Swordsman. Hong successfully disposes of the bandits and receives compensation from Feng. Feng notes that Hong is a man with integrity and will not stay in this profession for long.

Hong's wife appears at Feng's looking for her husband. Hong angrily ushers her away to return home; instead, his wife stands outside and waits for him. Hong tells Feng that he cannot take his wife along while he is getting his hands dirty fighting and killing for a living, and notes that every wuxia master he knows rides alone. Feng replies that there are always exceptions and tells Hong he once had a woman waiting for him but she ended up marrying his brother.

Hong accepts an egg from the Girl with a Mule and kills the imperial guards to exact revenge for her brother. During the battle he suffers serious injuries, including losing a finger, and is nursed back to health by his wife. While Hong is still in critical condition, the Girl with a Mule begs Feng to hire a doctor to tend to Hong. Feng refuses, saying that a doctor costs money and suggests again that she sell her body to raise money. A bedridden Hong urges the Girl with a Mule not to do anything stupid, and says that she doesn't owe him anything since he has accepted her egg as compensation.

Feng berates a bedridden Hong and asks him if it is worth it losing body parts for an egg. Hong smiles at him and says he is using his wuxia for good instead of greed and the cold and calculating Feng would never know how good it feels. Feng leaves Hong's bedside speechless.

After Hong returns to health, he and his wife embark on their journey together and leave Feng. While watching them disappear over the horizon, Feng thinks of his own shattered love life and feels a great sense of jealousy.

Feng notes that Hong purposely heads north into the northerly wind. The caption narrates that Hong later becomes the leader of the Beggars Sect and engages in a fierce battle with Feng.

Act V – Ouyang Feng (Western Venom)[edit]

Feng pays a visit to the Blind Swordsman's hometown to see the cherry blossom and is surprised to learn that the place has no cherry blossom. Cherry Blossom turns out to be the Blind Swordsman's wife, who breaks down crying after she learns from Feng that her husband has been killed in battle.

In a flashback, Feng tracks down his lover the day before she is to be married to his brother and offers to take her away with him. She steadfastly refuses, telling him that he is too late. Feng, not wanting to attend the marriage ceremony, leaves that night and never returns.

Feng receives a note from his family that his lover (now his sister-in-law) died almost two years ago. Feng figures that the "Forgotten Love" wine that Huang brings to him early in the film is a gift from her.

In a flashback, Huang is sitting and talking with Feng's lover in her beach-side hut. Huang narrates that he is in love with her but she only loves Feng. She sends Huang to visit Feng every year to gather his news for her. Secretly, she hopes that Huang would tell Feng her whereabouts. After Huang tells her he will never tell Feng her location because he promised her that he would not, she breaks down sobbing. She laments that she always thought she was a winner in love but she now realize that she is a loser.

Huang narrates that he likes cherry blossom because he gets to see her every year during the season. She dies of illness soon after their last meeting and on her deathbed she gives Huang the "Forgotten Wine" to deliver to Feng.

In the present, Huang has lost a lot of his memory. One of the few things he remembers is that he likes cherry blossom and he proceeds to become a hermit, residing on an island filled with cherry blossom and acquiring the nickname Eastern Heretic.

Feng waits for Huang to visit even though deep down he knows Huang will not come now that she has died. After two days of waiting, Feng drinks the remaining bottle of "Forgotten Love". The wine does not make Feng forget his past but instead makes his memory for her even stronger. He narrates that the more a person wants to forget, the more he remembers; and that the wine is her way of making him always remember her.

Feng burns down his dwelling and returns to his hometown. The caption says he later becomes the leader of his clan and acquires the nickname Western Venom.

Ending[edit]

The film ends with brief appearances by the surviving main characters, and references scenes from the novel. It implies that the henchmen killed by Feng in the beginning of the film belong to the Beggars Sect lead by Hong. Hong sets a trap to corner Feng, but Feng is unfazed and smiles manically at Hong. Hong and Feng then engage in a battle. The film then pans to an older Feng in grey beard and hair, fighting and disposing of his enemies.

Soundtrack[edit]

The music was composed by Frankie Chan and Roel A. García, and produced by Rock Records in Hong Kong and Taiwan. It was released in 1994. The redux version features additional cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma.[4]

Reception[edit]

Critical[edit]

When the film opened in Hong Kong it received mixed reviews. Critics found it so elliptical that it was almost impossible to make out any semblance of a plot, something very rare in a wuxia film.

In The New York Times, Lawrence Van Gelder also gave Ashes of Time a mixed review:[5]

For those who seek metaphors, Ashes of Time... presents the eye as well as the illusions of vision. One character is nearly blind. Another, a swordsman, goes blind in the middle of a horrendous battle. Two characters, Yin and Yang—one presented as a man, the other as his sister—are identical. And there is a brief appearance by a legendary sword fighter who hones his skills against his own reflection.

For those who seek battle, Ashes of Time offers intermittent blurs of action, streaks of flying figures, flashing steel, and rare spatters and gouts of moist crimson, all washing across the screen like hurried brush paintings.

Like the attainment of wisdom, Ashes of Time requires a long journey through testing terrain.

Note that this review contains a number of errors as regards the plot of the movie.

Awards and nominations[edit]

Box office[edit]

Ashes of Time grossed HK$9,023,583 during its Hong Kong run.

References[edit]

External links[edit]