Ashes of Time
1994, NR, 100 min. Directed by Wong Kar-Wai. Starring Leslie Cheung, Bridget Lin, Tony Leung Kar Fei, Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Chu Wai, Jacky Cheung.
REVIEWED By Joey O'Bryan, Fri., June 9, 1995
Easily the most ambitious picture of last year, this epic, action melodrama from director Wong Kar Wei (The Days of Being Wild) is so structurally complex in its unfolding of plot and characters, not to mention so ruthlessly revolutionary in its destruction of typical narrative techniques, that films like Pulp Fiction look like simple A-Z storytelling by comparison. Based on a classic Chinese novel, the plot follows hired assassin Leslie Cheung (A Chinese Ghost Story) and the unusual characters that cross his path: A wandering friend suffering from amnesia, a visually impaired swordsman, a kind-hearted warrior turned hired-killer, and a curiously asexual stranger with a split personality (appropriately named “Yin” and “Yang”) all visit Cheung at one time or another, and as the movie progresses, their web-like connection to one another is slowly revealed. The story itself really isn't all that complicated, but is told in such a fractured style that subtle details and character relationships aren't at all clear until the gloriously anticlimactic finale, and, even then, it may take multiple viewings to get the whole thing straight. The all-star cast is absolutely tremendous (with the possible exception of pop singer-cum-actor Jackie Cheung), with all of them delivering solid, textured work. Tony Leung Chu Wai's blind swordsman and Bridget Lin's lovelorn schizophrenic are particularly worthy of mention. Other pluses include the fine electronic music score, Samo Hung's energetic fight choreography (deliriously photographed in a variety of slow-motion and step-framing techniques), and last, but not least, the astonishingly rich and inventive cinematography by Christopher Doyle, whose expert realization of Wong Kar Wei's imagery earned the award for best cinematography at last year's Venice film festival. As I said before, Ashes of Time is a film designed for multiple viewings, and therefore, may not be everyone's cup of tea. (A fellow viewer dubbed it, with deliciously overblown hyperbole, “the most inaccessible movie ever made!”) But Wong Kar Wei's film is definitely one of the most challenging to come along in quite some time -- reason enough to give this wildly ambitious picture a look, or two, or three… or until you think you've got it.