The most lyrical of martial arts films, Ashes of Time is an almost absurdly gorgeous fantasia; it flutters in bounties of gently blowing breezes, glimmering ponds and warm, honey-hued horizons. Its heroes don't fight so much as float, flashing swords and drifting in waves of billowing robes — everything a dizzying blur of motion that looks as if it were shot through a fine silk scarf. And the calmer moments are infused with glorious shafts of light. ...
The film's visual excess and narrative obscurity divided critics upon its 1994 release — many found it exceedingly precious and willfully obtuse, and some simply didn't know what to make of it. The film arrived when innovative Hong Kong directors were expanding the definition of those traditional swordplay soaps called Wuxia, but long before master directors like Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou elevated the genre from the grindhouse to the art house. The film also came fairly early in Wong's career, before 1994's Chung King Express made him an untouchable critic's darling, and before his aggressive use of style-as-substance was fully embraced.
Now, devoted fans and curious film lovers alike get to see what they've been missing; this revised and remastered print comes complete with new music by Yo-Yo Ma, additional scenes and digitally enhanced color that makes the imagery even more otherworldly.
The late Leslie Cheung leads a stellar cast of Hong Kong stalwarts. He plays Ouyang Feng, a martial arts master who recalls times he recruited hired killers for customers (who'd manage to find him at his lonesome desert outpost). One thread involves a traveling swordsman with fading eyesight (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) who wants to see the peach blossoms once more before he goes blind, but accepts what's basically a suicide mission. Ouyang himself has a hidden heartache involving the exquisite porcelain features of the great Maggie Cheung.
All characters suffer from lovesickness and are willing to go to great extremes to blot out their hurtful memories, no matter what the cost. These Chinese boilerplates give Wong a structure with which to play, themes of loss and a rich backdrop to make his lovely, impressionistic brush strokes as sad and broad as they need to be.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237) at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 31, and Saturday, Nov. 1, and at 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 2.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.