Ashes of Time

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/18/05 01:41:07

"Some guys just aren't cut out for action movies"
3 stars (Average)

Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee made their martial arts movies after they'd made a name for themselves as "serious" filmmakers. For them it was, in part, somewhat nostalgic, making the sort of films that they'd enjoyed as kids and teenagers. Wong Kar-Wai's martial arts picture, on the other hand, was made near the beginning of his career, and was the sort of thing he was trying to move away from.

A look at Wong's filmography will show that this isn't the first time he's worked in the genre; he got his start in the industry writing B-movies like the Haunted Cop Shop flicks, and even though he already had two features under his belt as a writer-director when he made Ashes of Time, he was still working on scripts like Savior of the Soul. And then this movie took forever to finish, especially dragging in the editing room, to the point where Wong set it aside and made Chunking Express, which would become his international breakout hit. It's worth remembering, the next time you feel like mocking the makers of a mediocre action movie, those movies can chew even a great director up and spit him out, without a whole lot to show for it.

Leslie Cheung plays Ou-yang Feng, a once-great swordsman who now operates a tavern in the middle of the desert. He mainly acts as a go-between these days, having left the life of a warrior behind after the battle that begins the movie. There's work to be had - a nearby band of horse thieves needs thwarting, a girl (Maggie Cheung) wants her brother avenged despite not having any money to pay, and a woman with what appears to be a split personality (Brigitte Lin) hires Feng both to kill and protect her one-time lover (Tony Leung Ka Fai), who has come upon what apparently some sort of magical wine that erases memories. The other swordsmen who come looking for work have eccentricities - one (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, who has appeared in several of Wong's films) has lost his night vision and is on his way to going completely blind; another (Jacky Cheung) dislikes wearing shoes and has a wife who tries to bring him back home.

Or at least, that's what I think was going on. Characters drift in and out, certain stories are told out of order, and Feng's narration often contains far more in the way of philosophical musings than useful exposition. In a later movie, Wong Kar-Wai would poke fun at how martial arts novels often seem to be slapped together without much thought for sense or continuity; I wonder if that was in reference to his experience in adapting Louis Cha's The Eagle-Shooting Heroes into this movie (the same novel had been adapted as a parody a year earlier). It doesn't help that the print and subtitling was more reminiscent of the prints that used to play in the midnight kung fu series than a retrospective series. The end result, though, is a movie that feels confusing and never as exciting as it should be, but also never achieves the emotional heft it is presumably shooting for.

It's also one of the least visually exciting movies Wong has made. It doesn't romanticize its period setting at all, with everyone dressed in drab, ratty outfits. It's not nearly as colorful and, well, pretty as the high-end martial arts films that would follow it a decade later. It's a valid enough artistic choice, but one which sucks much of the fun that the film might have had right out. It's not even a good-looking desert; it gives the impression that there's a bunch of trucks just on the other side of the dune.

The action is rather ho-hum, as well. The opening battle isn't bad, but nothing that comes later makes nearly as strong an impression. Some of the big-action stuff - mountains exploding, lakes apparently split by the swing of a sword - doesn't seem to fit in the same movie as the
gritty setting.

Wong Kar-Wai isn't the first A-list director to have a deceptively easy genre kick his ass, and he won't be the last. Ashes of Time is decent, but action just apparently isn't his thing.

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