Dung che sai duk

(Ashes of Time, Hong Kong 1994)

by Vanes Naldi

Cast: Leslie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Jacky Cheung, Charlie Yeung, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Kar Fai, Li Bai, Shun Lau
Genre: Swordplay
Director: Wong Kar-Wai
Screenplay: Wong Kar-Wai, based on Louis Cha's "The Eagle Shooting Heroes"
Cinematography: Chris Doyle
Composer: Frankie Chan
Runtime: 100 minutes

Sometimes the more difficult the film is to understand the more rewarding it is in the end. In my movie fan "career" that's spanned a few thousand films I've never, ever seen such a difficult film to get into. It wasn't until the 10th-11th viewing when I fully understood it, but at this point it rewarded me more than anything I've seen before did.

The film contains touches, elements, and formulas of some of my favorite directors. We get Sergio Leone's de-romanticized and anti-hero approach to westerns with extreme close-ups of the characters to better display and portray their emotions. In this case, Wong Kar-Wai applies it to the strict old formula of wuxia (swordplay) films. There are also quite a few touches of Akira Kurosawa's characters. There's the unmistakable highly demanding, fragmented non-conventional style of Jean-Luc Godard (and Wong Kar-Wai could be considered the Godard of Asia, even though I'm much more a Kar-Wai fan than a Godard one). In addition, we see Zhang Yimou's love for a believable, realistic representation of the world he's trying to portray.

This is not merely a demanding film; it is extremely, almost inexplicably demanding. So many people cast it off as Kar-Wai's worst film calling it "boring, pretentious crap," which is laughable. Dung che sai duk is the film that made me a Wong Kar-Wai fan. While he's an incredibly gifted director, and I've loved just about everything he's done, his previous and following works have never touched the brilliance of this epic melodrama.

You can't watch this film just once, even only two times. It will look like an irritating, pretentious, meaningless, over inflated, overbearing, overdramatic sensationalist swordplay film with the added touch of the "confusing" story that totally deviates from wuxia tradition. This was more or less my feeling on this film the first time I watched it in '96 when I wasn't a serious film fan and didn't understand what art was. This film demands complete attention from start to finish and requires the viewer have some background of the stories it's trying to tell (you'll appreciate it a lot more). It asks you to forget about "proper" conventional western storytelling. There's enough material here to do 3-4 films, but Wong Kar-Wai incredibly pieces everything together like a jigsaw. In one of the best segments of all time, he makes everything climax with a 10-minute eye-opening uncredited performance by Maggie Cheung.

Ashes of Time is one of the most controversial film of the 90s, at least in the Hong Kong film scene. It's controversial in the way Pulp Fiction is: its non-conventional style spawned a wide range and variety of opinions. Many, many people hated it, but some people were ready to expect something "new" (to them at least), to appreciate something different. There are so many differing opinions on this film, even from people that I wouldn't put in the "average moviegoer" category. From reading other people's opinions on this film, it seems that few caught the meaning and understood what the film is based on and about. The most interesting thing is that it mixes so many styles, intertwines them so perfectly, that it's a new experience in filmmaking because nothing like this has ever been done.

The Wuxia books and films have totally changed from their basic background. They used to be tales of betrayal, love, relationship, redemption, revenge, and tradition. While the successful formula is still present, many of the latest works (including Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) moved more toward "action" than "story" to cater to the increasingly "Hollywood action flick" friendly audience. It wasn't about the story anymore, it was about stylish choreographed "wire fu" (wiring + kung fu) as some people call it. It certainly produced many, many interesting films, but it looked like one aspect was almost lost. There weren't as many touching, interesting stories that could develop without becoming action movies.

The story takes elements from Louis Cha's two most famous books - "Eagle Shooting Heroes" (aka "Legend of Condor Heroes") and (under the pen name Jin Yong) "Return of Condor Heroes" - which are backdropped by the rise and fall of the Mongolian Empire in China. These are part of Cha's famous "Divine Eagle Trilogy" (some people call it the "Divine Condor Trilogy"). The third book in Cha's chronologically ordered trilogy is "Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre", but "Ashes of Time" actually takes place before any of Cha's books. It is not about gradual progression, but more about the development of characters intrinsically tied by love, memory, fate and destiny. There are a dozen characters whose lives intersect, as they are linked by fate. Time seemingly runs in circles, dilates, and becomes fragmented. Characters age, even transform into their opposite sex alter egos. It's a tale of supernatural heroes who can kill armies of a hundred swordsmen, but eventually fall prey to their destiny, the people they love and want to forget or remember. Their major weakness exposes them to fate, prohibits them from becoming complete.

The story takes elements from Jin's "East, South, West, North" of the Condor saga.  Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), the West Venom, is an "agent" for hit men, for killers. He hides in the desert waiting for opportunities to hire people. The story revolves around him, with different characters coming to him and disappearing like the sand. He's an interesting character who would fully develop in Jin's later novels as the closest thing to the "devil." He still shows contempt for his hired killers, and his cynicism comes from the story of his life. It comes from the fact his loved one married his brother instead of him just because she couldn't wait for him anymore.

Huang Yao-Shi (Tony Leung Kar-Fai), the Heretic East, is a swordsman who meets Ouyang every year to drink a "magic" wine that seems to erase memories. He does so to forget the woman he loves (Maggie Cheung) that couldn't wait anymore for Ouyang, couldn't deal with the fact he chose the sword over her company. Huang keeps meeting the woman every year to tell her news of her loved Feng, who she didn't have enough courage to marry. He never reveals the truth to Ouyang, and he has to bear the pain of such a decision. Ouyang Feng doesn't partake with him, and instead decides keeping the memory of his loved one intact, to regret his decisions, even if it would hurt him.

Brigitte Lin is Mu Rong Yin. She is unstable because of a promise broken by Huang Yao-Shi. She feels pain and can't deal with her life without Huang. For this reason, her male alter ego Mu Rong Yang (always played by Brigitte Lin) decides to hire a swordsman (Ouyang Feng) to kill Huang Yao Shi for what he did to Yin. He promised to Yang during a discussion that if she had a sister he'd marry her, and when he walked away from this "deal" Yang became enraged. Mu Rong Yin though, still in love with Yao-Shi, decides to hire Ouyang Feng as well to kill her "brother" or male alter ego Mu Rong Yang.

The film portrays the life of Ouyang Feng and Huang Yao-Shi as a "prequel" of what would happen in Jin Yong's martial arts saga. They are his Dongxie (Evil East) and Xidu (Venomous West) before becoming an old statesman and an arch villain.

Tony Leung Chiu-Wai plays The Sunset Warrior, an assassin on the verge of losing his sight who is just looking for one last "mission." He needs a payday so he can finally go home and see the peach blossom one last time before his blindness would take that away from him.

Another story involves the North Beggar, Hong Chi-Gong (Jacky Cheung), at an important point in his life where he has to decide between living his life for the money as a cold blooded killer or helping a beautiful lady who has no money in her quest for revenge. He has to decide between his love for her and his "career," between humanity and greed.

There are even more stories, for instance one involving a shoeless killer that's not trusted because his name (that translated means seven) reminds Ouyang Feng of an unlucky premonition. Everything is interlaced so intimately, subliminally connected that when you realize what you've just seen you can't help but feel incredibly shocked at what Kar-Wai has been able to accomplish in only ONE FILM.

The big revelation at the end is about who sent the "magic" wine and why. In one of the most touching monologues of all time, Maggie Cheung speaks to Huang Yao-Shi, who visits her every year to bring her news of Ouyang Feng (without breaking the promise of ever telling Feng the truth), about the fact that after all these years she still remembers and loves Ouyang Fen. The camera, à la Sergio Leone, stays with Maggie all the time focusing on her emotions, conveying a great deal of suffering. This is one of the most beautifully romantic and dramatic scenes ever, and it totally destroys the hope for chronological order in the story because we realize the end happened before the beginning. Finally, she drinks the wine and the film ends with the same scene that it began with. It drives you into an elliptical circular rendering of time that makes this story even more incredible and fulfilling (as well as confusing).

All the characters are intimately connected. Everybody is trying to find an emotional attachment to someone, but they always end up with the wrong person. Everybody is touched by the memories of past loves as well as current ones. They are haunted by the hope of finally finding a sentimental anchor to cling onto, but their attempts are futile. They're referred always as "that man" or "that woman" during the film to emphasize the similarities of the characters. To get this point across better, the male and female leads are dressed very similarly. It's not about the characters and what they do, but the message and what they all FEEL.

Wong Kar-Wai portrays the characters as beautiful, sentimental individualists, which is a perfect contrast to the corporate China. It's all about an uncertain future and a past not fully explored. It draws from many cultures, the Spaghetti western era, and European Cinema (in particular French). It's not about the action, but the life of the characters. The contrast between East and West, both the characters and the cultures from which the film takes elements, makes this probably the greatest Hong Kong film ever made.

The cinematography is not only stunning, but it also seems like a collection of pictures. There are incredibly beautiful and colored scenes where duration and the fast furious style of Chris Doyle gives up to nature and its beauties. In a sense, this shows the maturation of Chris Doyle as a complete artist. After this film, he explored new techniques in works like Chungking Express and Fallen Angels. The last scene with Maggie Cheung looking almost like a crying angel is both visually and emotionally touching. The elements that made Doyle famous with his later works come out during the swordplay action. It is almost like taking a page out of Anime and Leone's films. The action is so stylistic, different, and involving. It makes your mind enter the world of the swordsmen, generating a sense of urgency, confusion, limited space, frantic action, and nervousness. The style used is something totally original and that probably made "purists" of the swordplay genre cringe like purists of the westerns cringed when watching Sergio Leone's new style so they predictably, moronically criticized his work because it was innovative and changed the conservative formula.

I'm not asking you to believe this is the greatest story ever told in the modern era of cinema because I haven't met many people who fully understood the whole message, but if you only watch this film once you'll probably only be captured by the amazing cinematography. You'll feel confused by the story, by the non-linear pattern in which the events develop. You'll have a hard time identifying the main characters and their stories. Something will stick with you though, a sense of desperation, grief, and passion for love. Watching this film two, three, or even four times won't be enough. You'll start noticing something else like the beautiful almost Morriconesque soundtrack or the romanticism and great emphasis the fights have, almost making it a live anime. You'll start understanding the differences and similarities between the characters. You'll probably notice something as simple as Yin & Yang, black and white, male and female, good and evil. Watch this film over and over until you get the story. When you come to understand how the half dozen stories are perfectly intertwined, that a seemingly invisible line connects each character, you'll feel incredibly satisfied.

Wong Kar-Wai learned a lot from this film like the non-conventional way of storytelling he embraced after "As Tears Go By" that still makes him a love him or hate him cult director. With such an all star cast (although in the western world they might as well be soap opera stars since sadly other than Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie and Leslie Cheung the rest are not very famous outside of Hong Kong and China), it's no surprise that everybody plays his/her part perfectly. The biggest surprise is how in 10 minutes someone can totally capture the sense of the film with a memorable monologue that perfectly illustrates the feeling and message of the film. In an incredible career making performance, Maggie Cheung completely captures the screen with her face conveying the emotions in such a believable way that it makes sense out of this masterpiece.

Everything from the directing to the acting to the cinematography by Chris Doyle to the action scenes by Sammo Hung was worthy of an Oscar. At least Hong Kong acknowledged Kar-Wai and his crew with several awards.

There will only be a 5% of the people who will understand his film, probably only after several viewings. These people will consider it as an all time classic. The other 95% will probably cast it off as an overbearingly confusing melodrama that doesn't make sense. Be ready to embark on something that is unlike anything you've experienced. Open your mind to a different style of storytelling, completely focus your attention on what happens and why it happens. Try to understand the message and even if you're not fascinated by wuxia stories as much as me you'll be incredibly touched by this film. If Martin Scorsese didn't do Goodfellas, this would be the best film of the 90s. Incredible, unbelievable, put every superlative you want. It deserves them all.  



Wong Collection DVD

Wong Collection DVD
Wong Collection DVD

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