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With: Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin
Written by: Wong Kar-wai, based on the novel by Jin Yong
Directed by: Wong Kar-wai
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Cantonese with English subtitles
Running Time: 100
Date: 16/09/1994
IMDB

Ashes of Time (1994)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Serving 'Time'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Ashes of Time on DVD.

Don't feel bad if you don't know what's going on in Ashes of Time. Hardly anyone does. But it's one of the few movies that can be enjoyed through its style and its atmosphere alone. It's difficult, demanding, maddening, beautiful, astonishing, surreal -- and it's a masterpiece. It opens today at San Francisco's 4 Star Theatre for a limited run.

Even in his more narratively cohesive films, master director Wong Kar-wai doesn't much care about telling a story in any conventional way. Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Happy Together and In the Mood for Love tackle various forms of love -- often unrequited -- through the places that people live and work and the food that they eat, and the emotional effect thereof.

Ashes of Time is just a little bit different. It's Wong's only kung-fu film -- with beautifully choreographed battle scenes -- and it's his only period film, or at least his only film that does not take place in the 20th century. In fact, Wong himself became so bogged down working on it that he quit for a while to make Chungking Express and clean out his creative pipes, so to speak.

The plot is loosely taken from the novel "The Eagle Shooting Heroes," which had been made into another film under that title in 1993. I've cross-referenced a few plot synopses from various sources, so let me see if I can get you started.

Leslie Cheung (from John Woo's A Better Tomorrow) stars as a swordsman and a killer for hire. Leslie has a friend, played by Tony Leung Ka Fai (from The Lover) who visits him once a year.

(Just to confuse things, the other Tony Leung -- Tony Leung Chiu Wai -- from John Woo's Hard-Boiled and In the Mood for Love is also in the cast.)

During his current visit, Tony offers Leslie some magic wine that will help him forget. Tony drinks; Leslie does not. Tony wants to forget his true love, played by the great Maggie Cheung (also in In the Mood for Love), who is in touch with Leslie -- she married Leslie's brother. Actually, I think both men are in love with Maggie, but maybe not at the same time.

Got that so far? Here's more: the great Brigitte Lin (from Swordsman II and Chungking Express) also stars as a woman who's in love with Tony, but he's not in love with her. She somehow splits into two characters, a yin and a yang, -- or maybe it's just that they're brother and sister. Anyway, one of them wants to kill Tony.

Finally, Jacky Cheung (from John Woo's Bullet in the Head) shows up as another swordsman. One of the swordsmen is blind and another one loses his sight during the movie, but I can't remember which one is Jacky.

Occasionally a battle breaks out, with swordsmen swishing and dashing all over the room, making the battles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon look like everyday occurrences.

Wong and his brilliant cinematographer Christopher Doyle shoot in such a way that the whole thing feels like a dream -- it's kind of a strobe effect, but that doesn't really describe the extraordinary look of this film. Even the non-battle scenes, which take place anywhere from darkened quarters with slats of light peeking through, to wide open, bright-yellow desert scenes, constantly startle.

I've seen Ashes of Time on video twice, and I still have no idea what's going on, but it's a film that I love watching nonetheless. This debut at the 4 Star Theatre marks the first time the film has been released theatrically in San Francisco. To see it on a big screen is an opportunity that should not be missed. I promise there's nothing else like it.

See also: Ashes of Time Redux.

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