Ashes of Time ★★★½

ASHES OF TIME REDUX (1994, HONG KONG)

ASHES OF TIME REDUX is a meditation on time, memory, and the human capacity for self deception. It has clear French New Wave influences, but is undeniably a product of the Cantonese film industry. It is a film that burns individual images and ideas into your mind forever, but whose plot is not clear on first viewing and greatly benefits from careful rewatching. It is a very loose adaptation of the events of Jin Yong's CONDOR HEROES novels, but one of the best and truest when it comes to replicating the feeling of reading one.

The story unfolds in non linear fashion over a year in the western deserts of China. It concerns Western Venom, a procurator of assassins and his unrequited love, his dealings with Eastern Heretic, the Beggars' Sect, and other figures from the novel. The film establishes Venom as an unreliable narrator with regards to the events presented in the books.

What's more important than a full synopsis are the characters themselves who function as both mythic archetypes and symbols of Wong Kar-Wei's preoccupations: a swordsman drinking a bottle of wine that erases all his memories, so that each new day is a fresh start; a brother and sister who are personalities within one body in turn trying to love and kill the same man before integrating into a swordsman/woman who is so powerful that they only practice their craft against their own reflection, another legendary swordsman going so far blind that his skills only function when the sun isn't blocked by a cloud.

What's at stake in ASHES OF TIME is the link between memory and identity and the process of becoming as the sum of a set of second order interpretations of your own actions and intentions. Truth is not constructed from a third person omniscient perspective, as in most films, but is the product of individual contemplation over time. Western Venom has become a villain by the end of the film because he is unable to escape the narrative of his own behavior. Every other major character in the film, by the narrative's end is able to synthesize their experiences and move to a place where they can live with themselves except Venom.

As with all of WKW's films the primary source of this neurosis is frustrated sexual desire. Wong's heroes are always characters who connect on fundamental levels but have difficulty navigating the minefield of circumstances that would allow them to consummate their affections. Venom cannot accept that he's lost the woman who became his brother's wife. It's that inability to square with reality that leads him to accept a ruthless path through life.

The film looks very striking: impossible reds and yellows and amazing location filmmaking through the Gobi Desert with practical affects standing in to represent the wuxia powers of the heroes make this a feast for the eyes. Particularly well executed are the scenes involving the legendary warrior dueling their reflection in the water, where depth charges are used to represent the immense power of each sword slash.

This is a film that has to be committed to and requires care and attention and if you're willing to work through a plot that doesn't easily reveal itself, then it's recommended.