“The only thing to be trusted is the edge of a blade.”

Brigitte Lin, seen also above, plays a dual role as crossdressing twin sisters, or a man and a woman, or a multiple personality seen in her various states.

Lin as a swordsman avenger

The lovesick swordsman, Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) seeks oblivion to forget his unrequited love.

Tony Leung Kar-Fai also takes the wine of “dreams and oblivion.”

Maggie Cheung, as the woman both men love, has a cameo with a ten-minute monologue that recapitulates many of the film’s themes.

Ashes of Time

Ashes of Time is Wong’s only directorial contribution to one of Hong Kong’s most popular genres, the martial-arts movie (or to use its Mandarin name, wuxia pian). This genre can be divided into two subgroups: the kung fu or “unarmed combat” film (whose best-known stars are Jackie Chan and the late Bruce Lee) and the Chinese sword-fight film (which first came to the West’s attention with the 1975 success of King Hu’s A Touch of Zen at Cannes).13 Ashes of Time is inspired by the swashbuckling characters in the popular martial-arts novel The Eagle-Shooting Heroes by Jin Yong (active as a novelist from 1955 to 1972),14 a specialist in the literary genre known as wuxia xiaoshuo:

Wuxia xiaoshuo remain among the most popular books published in Asia today —the equivalent of American pulp fiction, only with white-haired warrior queens and renegade swordsmen rather than hardboiled detectives, grizzled cowboys, and space-faring star explorers. These tales…with their grim and flamboyant depiction of the liquid fickleness of life in a world where the only thing to be trusted is the edge of a blade, have also inspired some of Hong Kong’s most fantastic works of the silver screen.15

In Hong Kong, the martial-arts film is perhaps the genre where the construction of Chinese “national” identity is given its most mythic treatment. “Certain forms specific to Chinese civilisation are unique in world history,” Sek Kei bluntly writes. “One such form is Chinese martial artistry.”16 So, Chinese martial arts are understood to be emblematic of Chinese culture as a whole. Typically, the martial-arts film will pit its Chinese hero(es) against either markedly non-Chinese antagonists or fellow Chinese with rival—and thereby treasonous—values systems. Consequently, martial-arts sequences in Hong Kong cinema act as a performative site of nationalistic assertion, however provisional or problematic such nationalism might be. Still, the result of this generic trope is ultimately to conflate “national” identity (or at least a sense of “Chineseness”) with acts of killing or brutality.

Granted, the conflation of “Chinese identity” with “martial arts” is not without its complications and contradictions (associating a national identity with fighting automatically suggests a subject position under siege). Nevertheless, the general effect of the (classical) Hong Kong martial-arts film is to reify the Chinese identity as that which is best expressed by feats of violence (those which are portrayed positively), and this, conversely, naturalizes violence as a desirable enactment of nationalism. For example, all of Bruce Lee’s star vehicles feature his Chinese protagonists as either working overseas or living under foreign domination —thus placing his acts of kung fu in a specifically national context and thereby portraying them as assertions of an oppressed Chinese identity.17 Therefore, in its creation and reification of a “national” identity within acts of violence, the Hong Kong martial-arts film functions in a mythological manner not incomparable to that of the (classical) Hollywood Western in the context of the United States.

However, rather than merely mimicking the conventions of the wuxia pian, Ashes of Time incisively criticizes them. Employing an all-star Hong Kong cast, Wong’s film is no martial-arts adventure, but a chamber drama that ruefully meditates on the destructiveness of the “swordsman” ethos. The episodic story concerns a lovesick swordsman, Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung, who is male), as he watches the comings and goings of several doomed martial artists from the solitude of his desert home. The elliptical action is made comprehensible largely through the use of the characters’ voice-overs. Time is disrupted in two ways: the editing occasionally cuts between scenes with no chronological relation, and intertitles awkwardly intrude upon the action to disclose the (usually unpleasant) fate of the characters, thus robbing the story of any progression or suspense. But time—and the genre—are also disrupted in a third way: Wong and Doyle shoot most of the sword-fighting scenes in their trademark undercrank/step-printing style. This slows down the martial-arts choreography and deprives it of momentum: instead of drawing the audience into the action, the film keeps us at a distance and demands that we witness these self-destructive dances of death with a critical eye. We see characters condemned to live out their short, suffering existence following the dehumanizing dictates of an illogical, isolating “warrior code.” By the end, Ouyang Feng learns to harden his heart against the memory of the woman he loved and lost (because he couldn’t bring himself to tell her that he loved her). He picks up his sword again, and the Hong Kong audience knows that his further adventures (as well as those of the other characters) will be recounted in The Eagle-Shooting Heroes.

Ashes of Time foregrounds what most Hong Kong (and Hollywood) action movies relegate to the background: the formation of the action hero’s psychology. While many “actioners” will often give their heroes a scarred, somewhat neurotic personality, this is typically used as a perfunctory pretext for the hero’s derring-do (he can be cool under fire because some past trauma has numbed his emotions, etc.). What action movies seldom show is the emotional cost of such a trauma. Indeed, Wong volunteers that his film was inspired by John Ford’s Western The Searchers (1956), which hints at an unspoken emotional attachment between the John Wayne character and his sister-in-law without explicitly acknowledging it (Rayns, “Poet of Time,” 14). By exploring the hero’s psychology with the modernist disruptions of the art film (Howard Hampton nicknamed the movie “The Seven Samurai at Marienbad”—Dannen and Long, 337), Ashes of Time insinuates that the genre-driven lives of action heroes are actually very empty.

Because it employs characters from The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, a wuxia xiaoshuo classic, Wong’s film resists being seen as an “autonomous” work. The novel has inspired several straightforward movie and T.V. adaptations and at least one big-screen parody. So, the appearance of these canonized characters in such a subversive context extends Wong’s criticism to the entire martial-arts genre (both literary and cinematic), and his film re-envisions the characters as trapped by the genre’s lethal expectations, particularly the emotional isolation required of the heroes. In order to fulfill the demands of the martial-arts genre, and thereby become the courageous combatants of the pulp classic The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, the characters of Ashes of Time must renounce their humanity and forfeit the happiness of intimate relationships. In other words, to kill another in martial combat, one must first kill one’s own emotions. To Wong, the confines of the martial-arts genre—and the popular prestige that goes with it—are inherently dehumanizing. By depriving its audience of both the cathartic thrills of the action movie and the acceptance of its homicidal ideology, Wong disturbs the deep-seated acceptance of violence as a desirable vehicle for the assertion of a “Chinese” identity. Ashes of Time is not merely a revisionist martial-arts film, but an anti-martial-arts film. Not surprisingly, it failed at the Hong Kong box office.

Still, as intriguing as Ashes of Time is, it doesn’t quite imagine an alternative vision—an alternative identity—beyond its critique of martial-arts strictures. Despite its deployment of modernist art-movie tropes (achronological narrative, introspective voice-overs, self-reflexive cinematography), the film doesn’t create a life-affirming discourse in contrast to the nihilism that Wong sees at the heart of the wuxia pian. Ironically, as much as it tries to rise above them, the film is as trapped by the confines of the martial-arts genre as its characters are. As a result, Wong remains detached from both his characters and his film, which consequently never comes to life. Standing pessimistically apart from the implicit optimism of the director’s other films, Ashes of Time remains an ungainly anomaly in Wong’s canon.



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