Wuxia films are generally set in ancient or mythological China, but for his entry in the genre, director Wong Kar-wai creates a milieu that feels post-apocalyptic, if not cosmic. Abstract nearly to the point of incoherence, especially if wuxia’s tropes and literary influences are unfamiliar to you, Ashes of Time takes place against a barren desert landscape, where desperate figures duel in vignettes that seemingly ignore the rules of space and time.
The central character is Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), a desert hermit and broker for other martial artists looking to hire out their skills. Ashes of Time incorporates Ouyang Feng’s musings on his own life with chapters devoted to the stories of the broken-hearted swordsmen he hires. Identity, memory and unrequited love are all recurring motifs, as they are in other Wong films like In the Mood for Love and Days of Being Wild. But mostly this is a movie that wants to linger on mesmerizing movement, whether that’s a wide ripple spreading across a still pond or a grass bird cage slowly spinning in Ouyang Feng’s cave-like home.
As for the action itself, which is a staple of the genre, Wong prefers an impressionistic approach. Slowly moving across the screen in medium shot or close-up, the swordsman register less like people than slow-motion smears. A prominent color is blood red; when a throat is cut or a finger lost, Wong suddenly sets the artistic remove aside and attends to the details of the wound. For all its aestheticizing, Ashes of Time doesn’t sanitize the violence a bit.
Each member of the ensemble cast gets generous time before the glamorous gaze of Wong’s camera. Aside from Leslie Cheung, the movie also features Tony Leung Kar-fai, Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Brigitte Lin. It should also be noted that multiple versions of the film exist, including an official Ashes of Time Redux done by Wong himself in 2008.