Ashes of Time (1994) Kar Wai Wong
Production Budget: $5 million
Worldwide Gross: $2 mil
Ashes of Time was an attempt to create a wuxia epic based on one of the most beloved epic books in China “The Legend of the Condor Heroes”. Several big name stars were brought in to work with up and coming director Wong. But wait, how do you adapt three novels into a 1 hour and 40 minute movie? You don’t . Wong uses only the character names of the four swordsmen and makes his own story.
The plot follows Ou-yang Feng a self proclaimed best swordsman EVAH who is in semi retirement and instead contracts out jobs to other swordsmen. Feng lives like a hermit in the desert because of a woman who broke it off after a bitter affair. The swordsmen we meet all deal with love and broken hearts in one way or another.
This movie was important but not in the way you would think. First, the production dragged on so long Wong got burned out and actually made another movie to clear his head. That movie, Chungking Express, has actually been considered by some to be Wong’s best movie and one of his most profitable. The other reason it is important is that according to some this is the time when Tarantino met with Wong and used Ashes of Time’s circular storytelling in a little movie called Pulp Fiction. But Ashes was dragging so long and going so overbudget Wong felt compelled to cover up the costs by making another movie. Wong make a parody of the book with the same actors called The Eagle Shooting Heroes. The movie did well in Hong Kong but received practically no press outside of that area. In 2008, Wong edited the footage down and recolored the film and released it in the US as Ashes of Time Redux. Redux still failed to bring in any money.
Is it any good? Let’s get this out of the way right now: Ashes of Time is not a wuxia film. At least its not a good wuxia film. If you are expecting kung fu or sword fighting like Hero or Crouching Tiger or any of the other movies of the genre you will be pissed off. There are very few fighting scenes and what scenes there are are shot in blurry unfocused slow motion in which I could not tell who was fighting who and who was being stabbed. Whether it was made that way intentionally (basically intentionally deconstruction the genre) or not (basically incompetence) is up to debate. No, this is not an action movie this is a movie about bitter angsty love. You know what I relate this movie to. Its kind of like when you break up with your very first crush when you are a teenager and you get all bitter about love and go through this really weird phase. The phase where you listen to bands like the Cure or whatnot because they are the only ones that truly understand you or in a tearful night of watching Titanic for the 34th time you write poetry of your unrequited love. I’m not calling it Emo because that term is overused. No this isn’t emo but just a very droll vision about how love sucks. Its the kind of rambling that you hear from an office worker and you just think to yourself “God, this guy just needs a blow job to lighten up.”
But I am getting snarky and after Ebert’s advice I am trying to quit the snark. One issue I actually had is that the movie’s story is quite confusing the first time through as it seems Wong is trying to go through a lot of material in 93 minutes of screen time. Through all of my bitching there is a bit to admire about the movie. The look is very beautiful as we see that trademark visual flair from Wong. For all my complaints of the theme of love, I was still interested by the characters and the outcome of it all. But it all felt like Wong has done better, even with the theme of unfulfilled love (In the Mood For Love). Overall its a “meh” film. If I were to recommend Kar Wai Wong it would be either Chungking Express or In the Mood for Love.