Contentment, hope and good intentions – the personas in Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time are filled with anything else but. Their lives converge in drought-ridden ancient China, with “problem-solver” Oeyung Feng as the anchoring character. Feng, himself a skilled warrior, is in the business of contract killing and hires traveling swordsmen to execute his bloody tasks. Owing to its reflective theme and extensive presentation of martial arts, the film has been classified under both the drama and wuxia or Chinese martial arts genre.
Most of the plot is set in a desert, a fitting locale for people with motives and varying degrees of desperation to meet or compete for survival. By situating action in a place bereft of resources, the director makes it easier for viewers to make sense of the responsibilities that characters take on, as well as those they choose to leave behind. Though a desert is typically arid and scathing, the color palette is vibrant and inviting, making the background look almost like it was painted on.
The manipulation of narrative elements is well played out in the film. Its opening sequence features a desert, an eclipse, a turbulent ocean and close-up shots of Oeyung Feng and his friend Huang Yaoshi battling it out in their younger years. Wong incites the viewer to juxtapose the two men from the very start, because their approaches to the film’s theme will turn out to be radically different. Each of the plot’s four chapters is attributed to a particular season, but the warped temporal order is made manifest by flashbacks and disrupted chronology.
As far as the plot is concerned, Ashes of Time commences in the spring. The narration is told mostly from Feng’s point of view, but a number of scenes mark the transfer of mental subjectivity to the Blind Swordsman, Huang Yaoshi, and Murong Yin/Yang. Brigitte Lin skillfully shifts from flighty to intense throughout the chapter; her costume and makeup are essential for the viewer to differentiate her characters. When Lin dresses as Murong Yang but begins to speak from the point-of-view of Murong Yin, it becomes clear that they are two personas in one love-crazed person. The director also toys with lights, shadows and movement to produce space depth; this is best seen during the first few encounters of Feng and Murong Yin, when their faces simultaneously bathed in light and covered by the shadow of the rotating bird cage.
The summer chapter provides answers to the questions raised by the one it succeeds. It is here that the love triangle among the Blind Swordsman, his wife and Huang Yaoshi is confirmed. The Swordsman reveals to Feng that his wife is in love with his best friend, who the viewer knows to be Huang Yaoshi from a flashback in the previous chapter. The deterioration of the Swordsman’s vision is echoed in the score, where periods of noise are accented by abrupt silences. The fresh angle and cinematography of the Swordsman’s death sequence is a mark of directorial ingenuity. During his final moments, his dying scream morphs into the chirping of birds, and his mind’s eye takes him to a faraway resplendent place where Peach Blossom waits. His joy in this return, however imaginary it may be, is reinforced in the final shot, where a hole in the tent – a passage leading to the sky, far away from the forlorn desert – comes into view as darkness fades to light.
The final chapter both concludes and preludes the narrative. In terms of chronology, that particular winter ends where spring in the first chapter takes off. Here, Feng’s past and present is revisited; the viewer is introduced to the woman Feng has fantasized about throughout the film, and his brother who eventually became her husband. Wong shows off maverick editing techniques in the confrontation sequence between the woman and Feng on the eve of her wedding. The volume is turned up but the pitch is hollow and almost hushed, as the two characters’ violent whispers reverberate in the long corridor. The director tinkers with temporal duration as he cuts rapidly from shot to shot, allowing the viewer only stolen glimpses and noises of this tryst, sometimes even leaving the latter in the dark altogether (i.e. when the shots shift to situationers, or footage of static backgrounds).
Ashes of Time employs several patterns and motifs to solidify the themes and emphasize the value of characters. The way women in the film always contrast sharply with the background is an example of such. The Swordsman’s wife is consistently styled to be unkempt but is always well illuminated. The somber clothes and washed out face of the peasant girl with a basketful of eggs distinguishes from the vivid desert. White-as-snow skin and blood red lips make Feng’s lover stand out against the gray background of White Camel Mountain.
Thematically speaking, all male characters fall prey to displacement of affection. Deprived of love by choice or consequence of duty, they channel their desires to another person or activity – the desire to forget and Murong Yin for Huang Yaoshi; Murong Yin for Feng; the peasant girl for Feng, the Swordsman and to a platonic extent, Hong Qi. The visual emphasis on the female characters highlights this tendency; usually it is the women left behind by their men – Peach Blossom and Feng’s lover – who are illumined, to further the point that they belong to the past and are now out of reach. Similarly, these two women projected their affections elsewhere– Peach Blossom to Huang Yaoshi, and Feng’s lover to his brother – as a coping mechanism, but later found that in so doing, they ultimately jeopardized their own happiness.
Additionally, water is a recurring motif in the film. One way of reading this is to see water as n foil to the parched atmosphere of the desert. But perhaps more than the simple need to quench thirst, water can also come to symbolize the characters’ longing for closure. The viewer sees this many times throughout, including Murong Yin battling her own reflection, Hong Qi leaving Feng’s abode at the onset of a storm, the meeting of Feng and the blind Swordsman’s wife at a lake, and Feng’s lover reminiscing about her past and looking off into the horizon.
The persistence of memory is also instrumental in the narrative. All the characters are motivated or haunted by their past, but they differ in the way they deal with it. This is where the opening sequence finds its meaning – both Huang Yaoshi and Oeyung Feng struggle with the bitterness of spurned love, but the former preferred to forget, while the latter chose to live a present that could not compete with memory.
In a world where truth and trust are hard to come by, even the seemingly steadfast lose themselves in the struggle. This warranted change in the self was most evident in Hong Qi. “I never cared about the money,” he told Feng, “I thought I’d always be that way. Then that girl asked me for help. And I knew I was a changed man. I turned her down because I knew you would…I don’t want to be like you. Because I know you’d never ever risk your life for an egg.” As he speaks thus, the shadow obscuring half his face gradually turns to light, and Feng would later admit how much envied the man and his wife for being true to their hearts. Sometimes, when confronted with change in ourselves or in others, to run is the best option. To run in this light presents no cowardice, because in moving forward we learn not so much to retreat, but especially to brave running towards.
*This claimer: T’was a review I wrote for film class under Prof. Patrick Campos last sem.