Ashes of Time

Reviewed by: Moinllieon

May 20, 2007

Rating: five

Directed by Wong Kar Wai

Leslie Cheung
Maggie Cheung
Tony Leung Chiu Wai
Tony Leung Ka Fai
Brigitte Lin
Jacky Cheung
Charlie Yeung
Carina Lau

Many people have tried to adapt Jin Yong's epics down to a reasonable size so as to make a movie from them. But unfortunately, since Jin Yong's books frequently goes up to the thousands of pages of length and one page in a novel usually translates to about one minute of screen time, it is an almost impossible task, especially since nobody wants to watch a 1000 minute movie, much less making one that long. Tsui Hark's attempt to adapt the "Smiling Proud Wanderer" was split up into 2 movies, and even then the plot was a very scaled down version. Nevertheless, the movies were huge hits. It was under those circumstances that Wong Kar Wai shot his adaptation of Jin Yong's most famous and most popular work, "Eagle Shooting Heroes".

With a cast consisting of a who's who of Hong Kong actors and directed by the Director of "Chungking Express", this movie carried with it very high expectations. It was poorly received by audiences and a box office flop. Nevertheless, it garnered 4 Hong Kong Film Awards. How was it possible for different people to have such differing opinions of a movie?

"Ashes of Time," or "Dong Xie Xi Du" as it is called in Chinese, meaning Evil East Venomous West, wasn't a straight adaptation of Jin Yong's book like so many others. It is an interpretation. Wong Kar Wai, wisely, decided that an adaptation of Jin Yong's book would not make a good movie. Instead, he chose to speculate on the stories and lives of characters in the book that took place before the book. He managed to create a whole new story involving some of the most loved Jin Yong characters without changing any of the characters at all. The movie was not a martial arts movie, it was a dramatic movie, a psychological study of unrequited love and missed opportunities, of disappointment and regret. The wuxia fans drawn by the film's title undoubtedly came away disappointed, but that by no means make this movie a bad movie.

Synopsis contains some spoilers! Click here to skip the synopsis.

The movie tells 5 separate but connected stories. The main character of the movie is OuYang Feng (Leslie Cheung), who was Venomous West, the villain in "Eagle Shooting Heroes". In the movie, he was a middle man who helps martial art practioners make money by making them assassins for hire and finding work for them. At the beginning, he was visited by a friend, Huang YaoShi (Tony Leung Ka Fai), who would eventually become Evil East. Huang YaoShi, having just recently dispatched of a gang of horse thieves, brought with him a jug of supposedly magical wine which was supposed to make whoever drinks it forget his past. OuYang Feng was not interested, but Huang YaoShi drank half of the jug and really did begin to have amnesia. Soon, Huang YaoShi, seemingly remembering something, went riding off to a faraway place, where he ran into a woman who upon seeing him approach, grabbed a hold of the reins of her horse and walked in the other direction. On his way there, Huang YaoShi met a man who he kind of remembers meeting. The man claimed he used to be Huang YaoShi's best friend but refused to drink with him and walked out. After walking out, we discover that the stranger was nearly blind.

Leaving that story to be resolved later, the movie jumps in time to the time when a person named MuRong Yan (Brigitte Lin) came to OuYang Feng putting a price on Huang YaoShi's head, claiming that he had wronged his sister, MuRong Yin. Soon after MuRong Yan left, MuRong Yin (also played by Brigitte Lin) came to OuYang Feng putting a price on her brother's head for wanting to kill Huang YaoShi. This, needless to say, confused OuYang Feng as he tried his darnest to find a way to satisfy both of their demands so as to get the bounty offered by both....

After the MuRong family problem was settled, a poor nameless girl(Charlie Yeung in her first role) came to OuYang Feng asking him to help her avenge her brother. Being poor, she was only able to offer a basket full of eggs and a mule. Disgusted by the lack of benefits she offered, OuYang Feng suggested that if she really wanted to avenge her brother, she was much better off selling herself, for revenge had a price. The girl refused to do so and said that she would keep waiting at OuYang Feng's door until someone accepts her request. Seeing her standing there at the gate of the entrance into his property, OuYang Feng suddenly noticed that she reminded him of another woman....

It was in this overtone that a nearly blind man (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) arrived requesting work so he could make money to go back home and see the peach flowers there one last time. OuYang Feng got him a job of protecting a nearby village from the gang of horse thieves that was going to come back for revenge after being decimated by Huang YaoShi. It was a long wait for the horse thieves to arrive, during which time the nearly blind swordsman noticed the poor girl standing at the front of OuYang Feng's hut because she had reminded him of his wife. With each passing day, the man's sight worsened until he could only see in bright sunlight. Finally, the thieves arrived. Just before going off to face them, the swordsman asked OuYang Feng to tell Huang YaoShi that there was a woman waiting for him in the nearly blind man's home town. As he walked by the poor girl, he, inexplicably even to himself, kissed her, causing her to drop her basket of eggs onto the ground. As he walked off, he could still feel the girl's tear on his face and he wondered if his wife would shed a tear for him as well....

Next, OuYang Feng recruited a shoeless man named Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung). After convincing Hong Qi to go into the business, his first order of business was to buy a pair of shoes for Hong Qi. Using the fact that he had shoes, he was able to convince a nearby village to hire Hong Qi for protection against a gang of horse thieves. OuYang Feng then took Hong Qi to a place where a fight recently took place and specifically pointed out one body with a special, fatal wound that was inflicted by a left-handed person. Aware of this left-handed master among the thieves, Hong Qi ambushed the gang during a sand storm and survived. Things were going well for Hong Qi until his wife suddenly showed up. Furious because he believed that he could not make it in the martial world while having a wife around with him, he tried to convince his wife to go back home, but she refused. Soon, OuYang Feng noticed Hong Qi talking to the young girl with the eggs....

After Hong Qi's story was resolved, OuYang Feng was reminded of a woman (Maggie Cheung) that used to love him by the endless rain. That woman eventually married OuYang Feng's older brother. The night before her wedding, OuYang Feng asked her to run away with him, but she refused, sending him into a rage. In need for a change of scenery and wanting to see peach flowers for the first time in a long time, OuYang Feng decided to travel to the blind swordsman's home town. But to his surprise, there was no peach flowers there. He did, however, meet the swordsman's wife (Carina Lau) and had to inform her of his death. She walked back to her horse and broke down. Only after he left the town did OuYang Feng discover that there was never any peach flower in the town. "Peach Flower" was nothing more than a woman's name.

The movie cut to a sea-side pavilion with the woman, looking at her child, talking to Huang YaoShi about her child. She complained that her child would not say or do anything but would just stare at you endlessly until you pay attention to him. Huang YaoShi, knowing that she was really talking about OuYang Feng, revealed that he had loved her and was extremely jealous of OuYang Feng for he wanted to know what it was like to be loved. When Huang YaoShi asked the woman why she didn't marry OuYang Feng, she informed him that it was because OuYang Feng never told her that he loved her. The story then cuts to the same place, but a later time, when the woman confessed that she now regrets what she did before breaking down into tears. Huang YaoShi then informed that she died soon afterwards but asked him to take an amnesia causing wine to OuYang Feng, in hopes that he would forget her. Hoping to forget her as well, Huang YaoShi drank the wine and forgot many things, remembering only that he loved peach flowers.

OuYang Feng waited for Huang YaoShi next year but he never showed up. Soon, he received a letter from someone claiming to be his nephew telling him that his older brother's wife had died 2 years ago. Despite knowing Huang YaoShi would never come again, OuYang Feng still waited. During the wait, OuYang Feng realized how little attention he had paid to his surroundings, despite all the time he spent there. He reminisced about his past and how happy it was, but realized that it was too late now and no matter how much he wanted to, he could never go back to that time. He suddenly wanted to forget and finally drank the rest of the wine. Despite of himself, he distinctively remembers a woman waiting for him at his home. He finally realized that the wine was her final joke on him, for the more you want to forget something, the more it sticks in your mind. He remembered something someone once told him: "When you can no longer possess, the best you can do is to make sure that you don't forget." During the next couple of nights, OuYang Feng repeatedly had a dream of himself picking an egg out of the basket of the young girl. Because of the dream, OuYang Feng set his place on fire and left for good.


The acting in this movie was superb. Everyone in the cast gave the performance of their lives. Leslie Cheung was magical and magnetic as OuYang Feng. I had doubts in my mind on whether or not he could pull off such a despicable character because of his rather boyish face. But typical of his style, Leslie Cheung pulled off the role without a hitch. He became the character throughout the movie, and despite being the most morally corrupt character in the movie, he was the one that the audience relate to the most. Maggie Cheung's appearence in the movie was only about 5 minutes long, but it was 5 of the most gut wrenching moments in film history. The close ups of her face, the music, her words, her story, and her acting were so profound and engrossing that the scene hit you like a punch to your stomach. As brief as Maggie Cheung's appearance was, Carina Lau's was even more brief. Her performance was a true tour-de-force. She spoke a total of about 10 words in the entire movie, and yet her character was a complete character with sorrow, regrets, and a lost love.

Jacky Cheng and Charlie Yeung displayed how great their acting talents were. Jacky Cheung's performance was so real that one forgets his status as one of the 4 Kings of Hong Kong Pop, something that I thought could never have happened. Even more impressive, it was difficult to believe that this was Charlie Yeung's first movie as she more than held her own opposite such established stars as Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai. Both Tony Leung's performances were equally good, but at this point, I have ran out of superlatives to describe the greatness of their portrayals, so suffice to say that they are among the best they have ever done.

This movie has easily one of the best soundtracks of all time. The wailing guitars and flutes of the movie were as heartbreaking as the stories and the characters. Every scene and sequence was accompanied by the perfect background music. Several times the music almost overshadows the picture. The music for this movie is so beautiful that they are some of the most used tunes TV series, appearing in shows like "State of Divinity 96" and many others. Easily some of the most beautiful tunes ever composed, their value is proven by the fact that while the DVD of the movie sells on Ebay for around US$20, its soundtrack frequently sells for US$50!


Yet another category in which this movie won the award in, this was one of the most beautifully photographed movie of all time. Wong Kar Wai admitted that this movie was heavily influenced by the works of Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa would have loved to be able to achieve such a beautiful visual film. Every shot was beautifully captured with stunning contrasts in colors. At any point in the film, one can hit the pause button and be confronted with a picture worthy of a Pulitzer.

Action/Fighting Sequences:

It has been called "an action movie about inaction". This was the one area of complaint that most people gripes about. True, the actions scenes are very grainy and blurry, due to the fact they are shot in slow motion and displayed in normal time. But the sequences are still amazingly choreographed by Sammo Hung, provided that one watched enough times to know what was going on. But all in all, this is the wrong movie to watch to be blown away by the action and the fighting, especially at first go. However, if you give it time and make the effort in trying to find what happens in the fights, you'd be blown away.


This is my favorite film, beating out the "Godfather". Despite of all the awards it won, in my opinion it is still underrated. I honestly cannot think of a single bad thing about the film. Even the "disappointing" fighting wasn't disappointing to me at all. It is a work of art that many film makers can only dream to create. But like Van Gogh's classics, it is severely misunderstood and under appreciated. The critics of this movie have completely missed the point of the movie. This is not one of those relaxing movies that one just sits down and watches. It grabs a hold of you and makes you work along with the director in understanding the characters, the stories, and the themes. Those who watch the movie expecting action will come away disappointed, but those who watch the movie expecting to be blown away emotionally, to be engrossed by the characters, and to be made to think by the story will be more than satisfied. If you can appreciate a good movie for what it is and not for surface (read: shallow) entertainment, then you don't need to look any further than this movie. For depth of character, excellence in story-telling, virtuosity in direction, and perfection in movie making, it doesn't get any better than this movie.

Rating 10 Stars!! (What, it doesn't go up that high? Well... 5 Stars out of 5 then.)

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