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Ashes of Time (Wong Kar-Wai) 1994


    Most of Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-Wai’s films feel like they’ve been captured quickly, in the heat of the moment. His aesthetic relies on fragmented and smeared images that seem more like a recollection of the event that they show than a recreation of the event itself. Perhaps, that’s why so many of his films feel ruminative and melancholy. They rely on the disappointments of life accumulating until to a point where they become expected, and even when the disaffected narrators of his stories work toward a happy ending, it feels tentative at best. In Ashes of Time, which is Wong’s try at the wu-xia genre, he brings his distinctive style and worldview to a genre that normally would work best with the most workmanlike direction imaginable. The result is an art film that just happens to feature characters that are martial arts experts. Instead of giving us intricately staged fight choreography that stuns us with its verisimilitude and variety, Wong chops up the action sequences to the point that they feel like instinctual impressions of what’s going on. Rarely do we have an understanding of who’s fighting whom, and in most of the fight scenes, a blurry uncertainty unfolds over the action, roughly approximating the primal adrenaline rush that the combatants must feel.


    The fight scenes aren’t the main attraction here, however. Certainly the cast, which reads like a mid-90’s who’s who of HK cinema (Tony Leung, Brigitte Lin, Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, etc…) is one of Ashes’ big selling points, but even the presence of the most charismatic of the actors seem secondary to Wong’s overpowering vision. In telling a triptych of tales featuring an agent whose clients are swordsmen, the director weaves an overwhelming mood of romantic longing and emotional alienation. The plot isn’t terribly complex, but the adjustment to Wong’s style, which employs frequent flashbacks, a great deal of voiceover narration, scenes that are shorter than usual, and muted delivery from most of the actors, takes a while to adjust to, and a second viewing, which allows the viewer to watch while expecting this style, enhances the experience greatly. One must pay close attention to follow each of the film’s myriad plot twists, but the attentive, or perseverant, viewer is rewarded with an unexpected amount of emotional impact by the time Maggie Cheung’s closing soliloquy rolls around. Even those that can’t quite follow the plot of Ashes of Time should enjoy the fleeting pleasure that Wong’s gorgeous images and frenetic editing provide, if they aren’t expecting a slam-bang action epic.


* * * 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman