To Everything, Turn, Turn, Turn
2008 // Hong Kong - China // Wong Kar-wai // November 2, 2008 // Theatrical Print
C - Excess suffuses Wong Kar-wai's Ashes of Time Redux, but not the bombastic sort one might expect in a film that owes most of its narrative elements and a slice of style to the wuxia tradition. No, Ashes is an elliptical meditation first and foremost, a serious-minded discourse on love and loss, replete with swelling strings (just in case you forget for a moment how serious). Wong puts a glowing burnish on this tangled tale of swordsmanship and longing set against impossibly bright desert sands, relying on a lyrical four-part structure that admittedly gets its talons into you. The director's preference for lingering shots and meandering dialogue, while not objectionable on its face, lends Ashes a musty odor of pretension, if only because it highlights the unevenness of his storytelling technique. One wonders at Wong's choices: on the one hand he offers several minutes of a woman caressing a horse--an exquisitely poetic sequence--while elsewhere his transitions are so ambiguous and edits so jarring that the story becomes baffling.
So what of the story? Much of it unrolls from the perspective of Oyaung Feng (Leslie Cheung), who lurks in a crumbling house outside a village on the edge of a vast desert. Feng is a fixer: villagers and outsiders approach him with their problems, and he solves them, typically by retaining a down-and-out swordsman to hack through said problems. Divided into four acts that explicitly evoke the passing of the seasons, Ashes is told through Feng's voice-over narration. Supplicants and mercenaries come and go: Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka Fai), a rogue who drinks a memory-wiping wine; Hong Qigong (Jacky Cheung), a cocky peasant-swordsman; a grim warrior who is slowly going blind (Tony Leung Chiu Wai); a cross-dressing warlord princess with a double identity (Brigitte Lin); and a poor farmer's daughter (Charlie Yeung) who stands outside Feng's house for months with only her mule and a basket of eggs.
Everyone's problems seem to revolve around murder and love, the latter usually of the unrequited or forbidden quality. Feng dwells outside his clients' woes, a middle-man with a honed cynical eye. The other characters rush headlong into their fates, while he muses on the perils and absurdities of the human condition. He seems to be the sort of man who harbors no sentimentality, but we soon learn that his past holds its own doomed romance, one involving a cold beauty (Maggie Cheung) now married to his brother. All of these tales run together and entwine. The swaggering Huang Yaoshi has enraptured the princess, he's a former lover of the blind swordman's wife (I think), and he also seems to know Feng's old flame. No one is headed for an entirely happy ending, but even the tragic conclusions seem appropriate. Nothing stays the same, muses Feng. The sun sets, the winds shift, and the peach trees will bloom again.
All of this is conveyed with monumental artiness and plenty of moist pondering. Character glide and laze through the Ashes, all of them (even Feng) practically drowning in their lusts and longings. The story flows like molasses at times and then jerks forward with a snap, often leaving the viewer at sea. Wong asks for our patience, but for every moment of gentle beauty Ashes discovers, it spends far too much time fiddling around as though haziness were a storytelling virtue. The wuxia action is sparing, and when it arrives it is usually muddled or perfunctory. However, there are some gems. Wong achieves an outstanding scene of thrilling terror when the blind swordsman faces down an endless army of bandits. The sequence is shot in a blurry, lurching style that captures the confusion of battle, but watch for how Wong highlights the appearance of a menacing left-handed warrior amid the whirl of blades, or how he pauses for half a beat on the breath-sucking sight of saffron-yellow sand grains shifting in the wind. Motifs recur, and this is where Wong exhibits a rich cinematic talent, striking a taut balance between window dressing and metaphor that remains powerful throughout the film. Rugged ridges, dishes of water, pack animals, and bird cages: we register them and they infect our thinking of the film, but they don't devolve into fetishes.
There is no narrative reward to be had in Ashes, in the sense that most viewers might expect. While this makes the film's haphazard style all the more exasperating, it also strongly suggests that Ashes is best approached as a rumination, or at best a package of parables, rather than as a tidy story complete with ribbon. It's challenging cinema, and not always worth the effort, but Wong's original touches lend Ashes an energy and visual allure that ultimately redeem it. The director's refusal to glamorize his setting or his characters—even as he summons a legendary aura—makes the film's tragedies both familiar and potent. Wong's medieval China is one of dusty hills, scrub, and trees like gnarled hands; no pagodas or peony gardens here. It's a land where the people fidget, belch, sulk, grope, and sigh. They do foolish things in the name of love, hate, and glory. The narrator Feng smirks, but he's the one checking the almanac every day to determine how the winds of fortune are blowing. Wong posits that we all have our cages, and that they always shatter eventually, whether we've escaped in time or not.