Ashes of Time, 1994
dir: Wong Kar Wai
In the mood for a Wong Kar Wai movie, I stretched for my copy of ASHES OF TIME. This is no accident as I was talking about this movie with the producer of FLOWER IN THE POCKET who is an avid fan of ASHES OF TIME. It reminds me how long ago I have watched that movie and I remember the impression of the movie is not very favourable since half the time, I have no idea what is actually happening. Rewatching it some years back didn’t really help, so I thought I may as well give it another try since there is something in there that really captivates me and I remembered the feeling. I want to explore that feeling.
ASHES OF TIME is by far not an easy movie to watch despite having one of the biggest cast line up that I have ever seen in a Hong Kong movie. Plus the talent of Christoper Doyle, William Cheung and Patrick Tam, it promises to be one of the best received movie. But the reverse is actually true. Most of the people in the team didn’t know what is happening and Patrick Tam was said that he thanked God Christopher Doyle did an amazing job with the visuals to make his editing job that much easier.
The story of ASHES OF TIME, if there is one, is loosely based on Jin Yong’s novel “The Legend of the Condor Heroes”. It is meant to be a prequel to the novel, on how the characters in the novel is as it is by examining the relationship between the characters when they were still relatively young.
This is where it started to charm me, this time, besides the great cinematography and music which I appreciated before. In ASHES OF TIME, deliberately or not, Wong Kar Wai infuses a certain humanism in the characters. For all of us who grew up with a steady diet of TVB drama adaptation of Jin Yong, if not read Jin Yong’s novel ten times already, the characterisation that we feel from the novel and the TV adaptations is somehow different from how Wong Kar Wai depicted them to be in the movie. In ASHES OF TIME, these characters are much weaker, more humane, still has love in their hearts, and still think of their hometown and people they love. The characters in ASHES OF TIME has just a tad too many human flaws.
These human flaws made the characters interesting and charming. And God-damn Wong Kar Wai made the characters recite dialogue which to many people will sound very comical, including me. In the scenes where Brigitte Lin and Leslie Cheung exchanges words, I cannot help but imagine the words of Leslie Cheung coming out of Stephen Chow’s mouth and I started laughing.
Well, anyways, this movie is about unrequited love most of the time. The people you love is not always the person you are married to. One exception that stood out was Jackie Cheung’s character where his wife came to look for him and he brushes her off. She refused to go and waited outside for him for days. Then much later, after many experiences, Jackie Cheung decided to leave to which Leslie Cheung asked him what he is going to do with the wife. He answered that he will take her along. And somehow, we the audience understood that Jackie Cheung understood the underlying meaning of love, i.e. the person you love most is in front of you. Make a life with her or you will regret later, like how Leslie Cheung regretted not saying the 3 words to the girl he loves, i.e. Maggie Cheung, or how Tony Leung Chiu Wai married a woman, Carina Lau Kar LIng, who loved his best friend, Tony Leung Kar Fai, more than she loves him and had to resort to abusing the horse to satisfy her sexual needs (hic!).
Another character that stood out was Charlie Young’s character who played a poor woman whose brother was murdered by a band of roving bandits. She asked Leslie Cheung to help avenge her but because she has no money and Leslie Cheung will not kill for no money since he is an assassin/assassin agent. All she can offer is a donkey which is supposed to be her dowry and a basket of eggs. Leslie Cheung said that she can actually get more money by selling her own body since she is not ugly. But Charlie Young adamantly stuck to her principles of not selling her body and it finally took Jackie Cheung to avenge her for the price of one egg which resulted in one of Jackie Cheung’s fingers getting cut off. What follows is a dialog between Leslie Cheung and Jackie Cheung, and it clearly shows the difference in characters between the two of them, who later in the novel, are sworn enemies and killed each other in a duel.
I came to realise the richness of the characterisation in the movie and even thinking of it now, a feeling of sadness for the characters and sympathy for their regrets arise from my stomach. This may be the same feeling I felt when I first watched the movie. And the theme music and scenes keep playing in my mind. Indeed a great movie.