A very good friend of mine absolutely hates "Ashes of Time", and for some very good reasons too. Firstly, he is a huge Jin Yong fan, and finds Wong Kar Wai's (WKW) re-imagination of the legendary characters out of "Legend of the Condor Heroes" mind-boggling (in particular, he cannot get over the fact that Ouyang Feng has been reduced to becoming an assassination middle-man), and secondly, he characterizes the film as being "diced and spliced together" as if WKW ran out of time and funding and so had to "put the movie together" with what he had in hand -- the result being something all artists who happen to be wandering around the desert wastes of Western China in the Sung Dynasty. If you carry it any further, then you are in for trouble. That the three major characters share the same names (and some of the characteristics of 3 of the major heroes/villains of LOCH) should be viewed as nothing more than coincidence or an illusion, because that is the brilliant conceit (whether intended or not) of this film -- the unreliability of memory. Time erodes everything, so that only the ashes of memory remain.
This is a film to be watched for the feeling it evokes (like almost all of Wong Kar Wai's films) not for the great plotting or storyline, and certainly not for its action sequences. You cannot compare a Matisse to a Rembrandt. Upon the first viewing of the film, you will be frustrated, disappointed and puzzled, you may be compelled to consign it to the trash bin, that's your prerogative. But if the puzzle requires answers, and you happen to have the VCD (like me) and just have to figure it out, then you will have to watch it again and again, and then probably (after the fifth viewing) you will come to realize that this is a beautiful film. You are drawn to a lot of the scenes, mesmerized by the color and overwhelmed by the feeling that some of the scenes evoke. Loneliness, despair, longing, desire, jealousy, nobility, pettiness -- its all there in this beautiful canvas. Taken as a whole, "Ashes of Time" may be less than the sum of its parts, but oh, how sumptuous and wonderful are the parts.
Leslie Cheung as Ouyang Feng ( 5 out of 5 )
Leslie is absolutely brilliant as the "narrator" of the film. He has marvelous range in this film. You can sense his mean-spiritness, as he refuses to help Charlie Yeung avenge her brother, his pragmatism as he explains to Jacky Cheung which one of the horse thieves is the most dangerous, his cunning as he tells the villagers not to hire a swordsman "without shoes", his jealousy and envy as he drinks with Tong Leung Ka Fai. But most of all you feel his enormous sense of loss and loneliness. He is that way because he was betrayed by his one true love.
Brigitte Lin as Murong Yin/Murong Yang (5 out of 5)
Brigitte is the absolute centerpiece of this film, mesmerizing as the psychotic, vicious, split-personality demonic Swordsman/woman who falls in love with Tony Leung Ka Fai. She steals every scene she is in; she is simply magnetic. You can feel her elemental rage as she realizes she has been betrayed, and her transformation in her last scene into Dugu "Seeking a Loss" (who else could it be?) just seems so fitting.
Tony Leung Ka Fai as Huang Yaoshi (5 out of 5)
Tony isn't really asked to do much in this role, yet he is perfect for it. He just plays the carefree, handsome scoundrel Huang Yaoshi, who can destroy a hundred bandits with a wave of a hand in one moment, play a trick on a lovestruck Brigitte Lin the next, and is comfortable sharing a drink with Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai (who both hate his guts). At the end, though, you feel that he hasn't got it all, as he realizes that he can't have Maggie Cheung, because she retains the memory of her one true love.
Jacky Cheung as Hong Qi (4 out of 5)
The only true hero in this entire film. He has very little to say, consistent with his humble origins. He takes up the cause of Charlie Yeung without batting an eyelid and without asking for anything. The few short scenes with his "wife" Li Bai are wonderful.
Tony Leung Chiu Wai as the "Sunset Swordsman" ( 5 out of 5 )
Tony is as usual wonderful in this secondary role. His ex-best friend stole his girl and he can't fight back because he's not strong enough. He's run out of money and is losing his sight. All he wants to do is go back home -- and so he takes one final job. Will there be enough sunlight for him to finish the job? His scenes with Leslie Cheung and his desperate "kiss" with Charlie Yeung conveys all the despair and hurt he's experienced. The epitome of the Tragic Hero with a capital T and H.
Charlie Yeung as the "Girl with Eggs" ( 5 out of 5 )
The first time I saw her in this, I fell for her immediately. She absolutely looks the part of the young maiden in distress -- unaware of her own beauty -- out to seek help to avenge her brother's death. That anyone could not be moved by her seems inconceivable. Leslie's refusal and counter-offer really remind me of a more malevolent Claude Rains in "Casablanca".
Maggie Cheung as "The Woman" ( 5 out of 5 )
Just because she is Maggie Cheung. One of the most beautiful and greatest actresses in world cinema today. Lying down and explaining her lost love to Tony Leung Ka Fai, no wonder you feel a twinge of jealousy just like Tony.
Carina Lau as "Peach Blossom" ( 3 out of 5 )
Carina isn't one of my favorite actresses, and I feel she was miscast here. Her scenes with the horse and the water were extremely puzzling, but I guess they convey the elemental beauty and free spiritness which mesmerized both Tonys.
Action Sequences ( 1 out of 5 )
Yes, my friend is right. Don't watch it for the action. It owes more to Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa, but obviously on a much tighter budget. Nothing but slow motion whirls and blurs. WKW is just not good at this. Some of it is totally nonsensical, like when Huang Yaoshi destroys a hundred bandits with a wave of his sword, and then he gets easily wounded by Murong Yin. That not one of these actors is a martial artist probably says it all.
Cinematography ( 5 out of 5 )
Stunning. Christopher Doyle would make anyone look good. I think without him, I would not have bothered watching it a second time. WKW owes him big time on this.
Plot ( 0 out of 5 after 1 viewing, 3 out of 5 after 12 viewings )
What plot? Give me a break. WKW traces his lineage to the French "New Wave" not Hollywood and most definitely not Shaw Brothers. You are compelled to watch his films over and over again, for the feelings they bring. You never leave his movies feeling satisfied.
Dialogue ( 4 out of 5 )
Some really snazzy lines here like: "Wine just makes you feel warm, I drink water because it makes me feel cold."; "Would you really hire a swordsman without shoes?"; "What do you think? Is it right for a hero to have his wife follow him all over the place?"
Overall ( 4.5 out of 5 )
As I said before, a brilliant but flawed masterpiece. One of my favorite films to watch (over and over again), but definitely not for everyone. To reiterate, you don't judge a Matisse the same way you would a Rembrandt, and if you don't like WKW films I would most definitely stay away.