Hong Kong sword ‘n’ sandal cinema gets its first art movie with the long-awaited “Ashes of Time,” a rousing elegy to the heroic dark side that stabs straight to the emotional heart of the Chinese swordplay tradition. Frequently breathtaking, and never less than audacious, this complex, highly referential genre-bender could, however, prove a challenging sell in the international marketplace. Reaction at its Venice world preem swung from passionate support to total confusion, depending on individual ability to tune into its dense style and plotting.
A last-minute competition entry at Venice, pic was already a legend before it hit the screen, with a massive $ HK40 million ($ 5.5 million) budget, a clutch of missed fest dates, and the attached name of cult director Wong Kar-wai (“Days of Being Wild,””Chung King Express”). The East Asian version, some five minutes longer with more action front and back, opened recently in Hong Kong.
“Ashes” began as the first of a two-pic production deal (with the same megastar cast and story basis) between Wong’s company Jet Tone and the H.K. affil of Taiwan’s Scholar Films. Under pressure to produce a B.O. winner for Chinese New Year ’93, the second pic was brought forward, turned into a comedy (directed by Wong’s partner Jeff Lau) and emerged as “The Eagle Shooting Heroes: Dong Cheng Xi Jiu,” scoring a healthy $ HK22 million ($ 3 million).
By then, the skeds of the cast had changed, so Wong waited till summer ’93 to complete the first movie, of which only a fifth had been shot in H.K. studios. Remainder of pic was shot on mainland China.
Like “Heroes,” pic takes its inspiration from a popular late-’50s novel by Louis Cha (aka Chin Yung/Jin Yong), extracting a couple of aged characters and spinning a yarn around their earlier days.
Ou-yang Feng (Leslie Cheung), after youthful adventures and losing his love (Maggie Cheung) to his brother, runs a trouble-shooting business from a remote desert inn, agenting swordsmen for dirty work. Every year, he’s visited by his pal, Huang (Tony Leung Kar-fai), who’s also lovelorn; Huang later visits Ou-yang’s pining ex at her home in White Camel Mountain.
Ou-yang is hired by a man, Mu-rong Yang (Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia), to kill Huang, who once ditched Mu-rong’s sister, Yin. Yin also hires Ou-yang to kill her brother. Yin and Yang turn out to be the same person.
Other characters in the interlocking stories include a half-blind swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), whose wife (Carina Liu) fell in love with Huang; and a barefoot swordsman (Jacky Cheung) who avenges the death of the brother of a penniless young girl (Charlie Young). Pic ends with Ou-yang and Huang — the characters from Cha’s novel — moving on to their separate destinies.
Plotting is no more or less labyrinthine than usual martial arts movies. But Wong throws an extra wrench in the works by giving over most of the movie to either voiceover soliloquizing (by both Ou-yang and Huang) or melancholic two-way dialogues; action sequences are more brief intermissions than narrative components.
Aside from a couple of large-scale action sequences, the pic doesn’t flaunt its budget (50% of which went to above-the-line costs). For much of the time Wong’s visual style has a pregnant simplicity, with plentiful use of close-ups, stark desert vistas and half-obscured faces. There’s generally only one or two players onscreen, and the accent is always on the dialogue.
Action sequences (choreographed by veteran Sammo Hung) erupt almost unannounced, each taking its style from the main participant: Mu-rong’s is over before it’s started, and the half-blind swordsman’s is only dimly perceived. Wong puts to striking effect an innovation (first used in his debut, “As Tears Go By”) of shooting at 10 frames per second and double-printing each frame: Effect is like blurred, jerky slo-mo.
Most striking of all, however, is the movie’s color palette, for which Wong and Australian-born lenser Christopher Doyle copped a Venice Fest award. Mixing filters, reverse printing and pinpoint timing, the film often has an unreal, almost video-originated look, heavy on sepias and the like. Frankie Chan’s epic melancholy score and Luk Ha-fong’s realistic, lived-in costume design are further pluses.
Performances are on the money all round, and running time sensibly tight. Chinese title literally means “Evil East, Poisonous West,” nicknames for the Huang and Ou-yang characters.