Ashes of Time

by Russil Wvong

Hong Kong/China, 1994
Hong Kong Release Date: 1994/09/15
Running Time: 1:40

Cast: Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Kar-Fai, Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Carina Lau, Charlie Yeung, Jacky Cheung
Director: Wong Kar-Wai
Screenplay: Wong Kar-Wai based on characters from the novel "The Eagle-Shooting Heroes" by Jin Yong
Cinematography: Christopher Doyle
Action Director: Sammo Hung

Of all the movies I've seen, if I had to pick one as my favorite, it'd be Ashes of Time. It's hard for me to explain exactly why, though. Despite several spectacular action sequences, stunning cinematography, and eight of Hong Kong's best-known and most charismatic actors, it's not a very accessible movie. Lots of people hate it. The video store clerk where I first rented the movie felt compelled to warn me that "it's not an action movie."

Leslie Cheung as Ouyang Feng
Some things in the movie are easy to understand; others are completely opaque. At a straightforward level, there's the beautiful images of the desert, filmed by Christopher Doyle. The amazing fight scenes, choreographed by Sammo Hung, are filmed in stop-motion, so that they appear as a continuous blur of action.

The next thing that's striking is the narrator's overwhelming sense of desolation and regret, contrasted against the other characters: insanity, grief, recklessness, self-destruction.

Tony Leung Kar-Fai as Huang Yaoshi
The next question is, who are all these people? In contrast to the plodding explanations of a TV episode, Ashes of Time shows us characters without telling us who they are until much later. (A character is typically introduced by showing him battling a horde of enemies.) And there's a lot of characters to keep straight; it's easy to get confused, particularly if you're not familiar with the actors.

Jacky Cheung as Hong Qi
Three of the central characters are taken from "The Eagle-Shooting Heroes", a famous martial-arts novel by Jin Yong. In the novel, which takes place decades after the movie, they're powerful lords, the best swordsmen in the martial arts world; in Ashes of Time, they're still young men, out to make names for themselves. The narrator, Ouyang Feng (played by Leslie Cheung), will later be known as the Poisonous West, synonymous with corruption and death. Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Kar-Fai), reckless but an equally formidable swordsman, will retire to Peach Blossom Island and be known as the Evil East. Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung) will become the nine-fingered Northern Beggar, leader of the Beggar Clan, and will eventually kill Ouyang Feng in battle.

Charlie Yeung
It's interesting to contrast these three characters. Ouyang Feng is a sympathetic character, despite his later reputation. He's willing to help other people, or to offer them advice, as long as it doesn't cost him anything. His flaw is his cold-bloodedness: he proceeds by calculation, refusing to put himself at risk unless it's profitable. He flatly refuses to help a peasant girl (Charlie Yeung) avenge her brother's death, because she's unable to pay him. Later, he realizes that he has rejected other people -- in particular, his brother's wife (an uncredited Maggie Cheung) -- in order to protect himself. Ouyang Feng's story is what gives Ashes of Time its sense of tragedy.

Maggie Cheung
By contrast, Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Kar-Fai) is careless, even irresponsible, taking risks with his life on a whim. He's willing to abandon a woman who's fallen in love with him (Brigitte Lin), or to seduce his best friend's wife (Carina Lau). Eventually, he withdraws from the world, blotting out his memories and retiring to an island.

Brigitte Lin
Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung) is the most optimistic of these characters. Ouyang Feng describes him as a "simple man": he's willing to put his life at risk because someone needs his help, not because there's money in it. Like Ouyang, he's motivated by ambition -- he wants to make a name for himself -- but he also has a conscience, and in the end, he becomes a force for good. In "The Eagle-Shooting Heroes", he battles Ouyang Feng several times, and eventually kills him.

Besides these three, there's two other characters who can be contrasted with Ouyang Feng. Brigitte Lin plays a young woman disguised as a man, Murong Yang. Later, she will become known as the Defeat-Seeking Loner, a legendary swordsman who will never be defeated. She takes refuge in insanity after Huang Yaoshi abandons her.

Carina Lau
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai plays Huang Yaoshi's former best friend, a swordsman who is now going blind. Since the blind swordsman's wife (Carina Lau) fell in love with Huang, they're no longer friends. Unlike Ouyang Feng, the blind swordsman is consumed with bitterness and destructiveness, rather than simply detachment.

Understanding the characters and the relationships between them is remarkably complex, but understanding what's going on isn't particularly easy, either. The plot is episodic and non-linear. The closest thing that comes to mind in American movies is Pulp Fiction, with its three interlocking stories. Even there, though, each of the stories had a clearly defined arc. Here, the emphasis isn't on what happens, it's on the characters themselves: the focus shifts from Ouyang Feng and Huang Yaoshi to Murong Yang, then to the blind swordsman, then Hong Qi, and finally returns to Huang Yaoshi and Ouyang Feng.

Tony Leung Chiu-Wai
Time jumps both backward and forward -- not carelessly or randomly, but in such a way as to unfold the story of each character. In many instances, the full implications of what we see only becomes apparent later. The first time I saw Ashes of Time, I immediately rewound it and watched it again. It was the only way I could make sense of what I had seen the first time.

Overall, I can't claim to have anything approaching a full grasp of the movie, because it seems to have so much depth to it. It uses all sorts of unconventional and experimental techniques, without being incoherent or confused: I get the sense that the filmmakers know exactly what they wanted to say and how they wanted to say it -- the carefully framed images, intercut with one another, the acting, the cryptic dialog, the ominous soundtrack, all form a coherent whole -- but I don't know exactly what it means, and I can't dissect it and figure out how it works.

Maybe that's why I've watched it so many times.


Hong Kong Cinema and Internet Movie Database entries for Ashes of Time, including reviews from other people.

Essays on Ashes of Time by Wong Kar-Wai and Hong Kong film critic Li Chuek-to, from Lokman Tsui's Wong Kar-Wai website.

Notes from alt.asian-movies explaining some aspects of Jin Yong's novel "The Eagle-Shooting Heroes". Jin Yong is a hugely popular novelist in the Chinese-speaking world; Galen Jang has a list of Jin Yong novels.

How to see it

If you want to see Ashes of Time, try the following:

There's two releases on DVD, one by Mei Ah which has been out for several months, and one by World Video which was just released in October 1998. The World Video release is terrible, according to people on alt.asian-movies. The Mei Ah release is basically the same as the laserdisc release; I've got a copy of it.

Update: Mark Morrison says that Chinatown Video in Australia has just released Ashes of Time in PAL format. (He wrote the liner notes!)

This page hosted by GeoCities. For your own free web page, visit
30 October 1998; updated 27 April 1999