As I see it, there have only been two rolled gold masterpieces of the Cantonese cinema since the late 1980s: John Woo’s bloodstained Vietnam odyssey Bullet in the Head and Wong Ka-Wai’s Ashes of Time. Both were produced within three years of each other and are poles apart in content and style, but they remain shining examples of a film industry at its peak.
Ashes of Time is based on a popular Chinese martial arts novel The Eagle Shooting Heroes and is mostly the reminiscences of a famous swordsman, Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), who is living in self-exile in the Wuli desert. The erratic storyline is soon forgotten as you are bowled over by the beauty of this film.
Australian Chris Doyle, Wong’s regular DOP, provides a ravishing array of images and textures for this movie; each frame seems like it was meticulously hand painted by the greatest Spanish and Chinese artists (in fact, much time was spent developing the film stock to achieve such hues and tones). The soundtrack by Frankie Chan and Roel A. Garcia compliments the visuals and is an emotive blend of Eastern and Western music.
Ashes of Time is also a snapshot of Cantonese stars during the mid-1990s. Wong sprinkles his idiosyncratic tale with Jacky Cheung as a shoeless swordfighter; the fabulous Maggie Cheung appears briefly as Ouyang’s lost love; and Brigitte Lin is a brother/sister avenger who gives, possibly, the archetypal yin yang performance of the 90s.
Sit back and let this film spin its magic around you, because once you are under the spell of this fascinating and beautiful movie – repeated viewings will only increase your understanding and love for Wong Ka-Wai’s Ashes of Time.