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Ashes of Time

Director(s): Wong Kar-Wai

Theatrical Release: 1994

Cast: Brigitte Lin, Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Jacky Cheung

Genre(s): Adventure, martial arts, period piece

Countries: Hong Kong

Location in store: Asian Directors > Wong Kar-Wai

(1 / 1)
Ant Rating
Running Time: 95m.

Master Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai directed this lyrical, dream-like martial arts epic. A famously troubled shoot, the film took two years and 40 million dollars to produce (a shocking sum for a national cinema populated with low-budget quickies) and features a virtual who's-who of the Hong Kong film world. Conceived as a prequel to the popular martial arts novel The Eagle-Shooting Hero by Jin Yong, the movie is less a straightforward action thriller than a visually striking meditation on memory and love. It nominally centers on Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), who ekes out a lonely existence as an itinerant hired sword. Getting on in years and tormented by memories of a lost love, he also works an agent for other mercenary assassins from his remote desert abode. Ouyang's old friend and fellow swordsman, Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Kar-fai, who starred in the The Lover) drowns his lovelorn misery in a magical wine that makes him forget. Later, a mysterious young man named Murong Yang (Brigitte Lin) hires Ouyang to kill his sister's unfaithful suitor, Huang Yaoshi. The following day, that spurned sister, Murong Yin (Lin again), hires Ouyang to protect her dearly beloved. Meanwhile, Hong Qi (pop star Jackie Cheung) finds some redemption for a life of killing by accepting a poor girl's offer to avenge her brother's death — a task that Ouyang brusquely shunned. In another subplot, a master swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) is slowly going blind. He agrees to defend a village from horse thieves so that he can afford to go home and see his wife before his eyesight fails completely. This film is one of the most celebrated examples of 1990s Hong Kong cinema: it won multiple awards in its native Hong Kong, along with a Golden Osella for Best Cinematography at the 1994 Venice Film Festival. — Jonathan Crow (

Member Reviews

Stirring the Ashes by RW - August 26, 2008
Recently I stumbled upon a trailer for a soon-to-be-released Redux version of Wong Kar Wai’s heart-rending period romance cum magical martial arts epic Ashes of Time. It reminded me of my first viewing; it was in my late teens and I was overwhelmed and deeply shaken by the beauty of the film but could feel I was missing some of the core experiences needed to fully appreciate it. I’m looking forward to trying it again, the original next weekend and then maybe the Redux when it’s released in October.

Wong Kar Wai is an auteur known for weaving the quiet, emotional lives of his characters in and out and through each other, and for his control of atmosphere, narration and setting to create a realistic, intimate experience bordering on voyeurism. My favorite film of his is his first full length, Days of Being Wild, but the most acclaimed and influential are probably Chunking Express, In the Mood for Love, and Happy Together. Ashes of Time is unique in that it is his only period piece (until the future-set 2046), and his only film to employ any special effects, although they are all of a decidedly analog Mexican magical realist bent. Despite their prevalence in the trailers, the “action” takes a far-backseat to the character’s stories of regret, memory, and love lost. I suggest reading some of the IMDB comments for perspective.

This movie was a long time in the making, so much so that Kar Wai took a break from it to write and direct Chunking Express, to “get his head straight”. From what I have read and remember it shows. It may not be very cohesive or on first viewing coherent, especially with the weaving, non-linear vignettes, but those who are willing to put forth a little effort will be doubly and doubly again rewarded by Kar Wai’s heartfelt and human ruminations on the connections that bind lovers together and their slowly twisting, constricting movements on the paths of memory as, with time, they move farther and farther apart.


So I watched it this past Sunday, and it was beautiful, impressionistic, amazing. I was mesmerized, but I will warn you, everyone else in the room walked out because of incompatible expectations, slow pacing, and at times difficult to follow storyline. I feel a little background reading (IMDB, Wikipedia, reviews by established critics) as well as a familiarity with Hong Kong cinema of the era aren’t necessary, but help create a fuller appreciation of the movie. Most important is an understanding of the genre before you begin watching; it is a complex, visually and thematically rich art film. It requires a little bit of effort and a lot of letting go, letting the film and characters’ words wash over you. If you can do this, I promise you a unique, rewarding experience. A definite 9/10.