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Meditations on memory: The magical world of Wong Kar-wai's 'Ashes of Time'

'Ashes of Time' - Wong Kar-wai

Ashes of Time is Wong Kar-wai’s memorable attempt at conducting a reinvention of the immensely popular wuxia genre of Chinese literature and cinema. Borrowing from the great literary traditions that evolved throughout the centuries, wuxia films have been entertaining audiences since the early twentieth century. While most works belonging to this genre fixate on the choreography of martial arts to explore larger questions of justice and codes of honour, Ashes of Time effortlessly breaks away from the norms by creating a surreal, meandering vision that is characterised by metaphysical violence.

Imagined as a prequel to the famous novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong, the production for Ashes of Time was a long and arduous one. In fact, he was so burnt out from the deeply philosophical themes of Ashes of Time that he ended up making the more whimsical Chungking Express during a two-month break from the editing process of the former project. The filmmaker explained, “After the very heavy stuff, heavily emphasised in Ashes of Time, I wanted to make a very light, contemporary movie, but where the characters had the same problems.”

Starring the late Leslie Cheung as Ouyang Feng, Ashes of Time features a complex narrative structure with Feng at the very centre of it. Feng inhabits a strange, mystical world where he arms himself with cynicism in order to survive. Within the framework of an otherworldly landscape that almost appears to exist outside time and space, Christopher Doyle’s masterful cinematography transforms the spectacle that is usually associated with the wuxia genre into a truly cerebral experience. “The organic evolution of the storytelling has as much to do with the space in which it takes place as it does the idiosyncrasies of our working style,” Doyle observed. Critics have applauded the visual narrative of the film, interpreting it as the imposition of dystopian principles onto the genre.

While Ashes of Time does indulge in dazzling moments of stylised violence featuring the likes of Tony Leung as a blind swordsman and Brigitte Lin as a warrior with multiple personality disorder, the reality of the widespread oppression is more philosophical than physical. The world that Wong Kar-wai presents to us is a highly volatile existential vacuum where everyone is in love with the wrong person. Unlike most wuxia films that use swordplay to create marked distinctions between good and evil, Ashes of Time gently erases such rigid demarcations and subverts the motivations of violence with an irony that is almost Beckettian in nature. A common complaint about the film is that it is difficult to keep up with its rapid ratiocination. That’s only because Wong follows a different epistemological approach, moving away from the inadequacies of language.

The film is structured like a dream, devoid of traditional narrative devices where the audience is assured of the validity of events through establishing shots. Instead of that, we are hurled into one surreal scenario after another in accordance with a mysterious oneiric logic. More than anything else, Ashes of Time is an experience that exposes the true power of cinema. The force of natural elements like wind, fire and water are weaponised to their fullest extents with a precision that is comparable to Kurosawa’s works. Wong Kar-wai insists that the narrative is secondary to the questions that the film raises, questions about ethics, memory and love. It is a poetic lamentation of not just the sins of the characters but all the sins committed by humanity throughout the history of our civilisation.

Ashes of Time is a wonderful thought experiment that tries to figure out whether we would be better off with the existence of a drink that could make us forget our past. Maybe we would forget how to be evil and focus on being true to ourselves. Sadly, the conclusion it arrives at represents a paradox that ensures the continuation of this vicious cycle: “The more you try to forget, the better you’ll remember.”

Far Out is currently the BFI media partner for the brilliant Wong Kar-wai season taking place in London, with tickets on sale now. At Far Out, we’ll continue to bring you all the news, reviews and detailed coverage in the coming weeks.