Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Ashes of Time (Wong Kar-Wai, 1994)

This bizarre wuxia movie brings to your mind some clichés. This is inevitable; because you find yourself blank by the time you finish the movie. You are at a loss for words, for memory, even ideas. You don’t take sides; like all good movies, it presents life with stunning fidelity. The plot confuses you, but it really is a direct story, only the story loops around at the end, so you’re left with the searing realisation that you’ve actually started much farther into the future than is convenient for you. Everything is mixed up, and time, understandably, is distorted by memory, in memory.

In passing, I would like to point out that Yimou’s Hero was made in 2002, and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon in 2000, and Yimou’s own Shanghai Triad and House of Flying Daggers (the first one is a gangster movie and the second one wuxia) were made in 1995 and 2004 respectively. Though wuxia is ever in vogue in Hong Kong, this was a trailblazer of sorts; it is easily the pick of the lot.

Visually, there have been more striking films; of course, Yimou is a master at locating the subject at its grandest (some shots from Hero are unforgettable; quite understandably, Hero has done more business in the international market than any other Chinese movie to date). In contrast, Ashes of Time is a low-budget movie (at least as far as special effects are concerned), employed rising stars (who would become Wong’s regulars and superstars). Creditable attempts have been made in providing thrills, but the main attraction is, and will remain, Wong’s inimitable existential storyline and incredible screenplay. He taps into everything oriental—cyclical time, reversal of time, the ‘tunnel-vision’ provided by time; there’s also the seething undercurrent of loneliness, as virtually everyone realizes that man’s greatest gift as well as burden is his memory. Deep in the wake of a self-inflicted separation, a woman comes to the grinding realisation that without love, which she easily chucked on a fancy a few years back, she is nothing; even her son does not count. The protagonists are nearly all similar in that everyone needs to forget his or her past or reclaim it and relive it; their helplessness leads them into individual ways of pursuing ways to hurt others. In the process, they realise the futility of their own lives, the futility of war, the senselessness of personal glory and fame.

Ouyang Feng, the hero of the story, is a good storyteller. He often lends his place (as storyteller) to the others, if only to insulate him or to make the others express their stories better. The movie as a whole is a journal, with the entries filled in occasionally by the guests. Ouyang Feng astonishes us with his omniscience; he reveals little of the story, little of himself, and only as much of the other players as is absolutely necessary. So, in time, he leaves us with a stunning montage of what could be called a truly postmodern narrative wherein the men and women, heroes and heroines all, are all self-obsessed, selfish, vainglorious, and ultimately tragic. The lives of these are contrasted favourably with those who grabbed at the chance of leading a natural, risky life and perished. The story...is that of the winners, the bookish calculators who nevertheless lose out in the end to their own wiles. Ouyang Feng, the most calculating, the wiliest, and also the most detached, must be crowned king in the end but it matters so little. He has outlasted them all because he alone kept himself detached, never indulging his weakness, never giving in to his passion, always his own master, always sure of himself, always the egoist. It is a hollow victory, and even he seems remorseful when he reminds us, in his own words, that he will outlast them all.

True to tradition (well, this must have been the making of that tradition), Wong’s men are brooding, active, heavy-drinking, and very decisive (they either kill or get killed, the exception being Feng who is always in control of the strings). Women are their undoing: they are led by their passion, and their passion is their downfall (Feng being an exception, of course). Women are needy because the language spoken by the world is essentially one of the swords, not of the heart. They manipulate men, and emerge victorious; but it is a hollow victory because they simply see their men killing each other and getting killed. In a monumental passage, Maggie Cheung, as ‘Peach Blossoms,’ tells Huang Yaoshi, Feng’s friend, of her loneliness and her fateful decision to spite Feng by rejecting him out of whim. The ashes of time has laid her waste as well, and she regrets her failed life, one in which she failed to be the one she loved the most during her best years. Ruefully, she notes Yaoshi’s extreme ‘honesty’ to Feng in not telling him she’s still waiting. It is a staggering monument to acting employing kabuki, wrenching sentimentality, and immensely tricky screenplay.

Ashes of Time is also a love triangle (quadrilateral? pentagon?) which is never resolved. Lives bleed into one another and are finally resolved by death or decay. Each one loves, fails, decays, and suffers a death in due time, their life (and love) spent, wasted. Sexual identity is meaningless; man becomes woman becomes both, and at times, men and women seem merely conveniences imposed by visual reality. What they see in their half-dazed, sun-stroked desert mornings and afternoons, are but visions, and in those visions they hear voices, colours, but not real men or women. The hit-men dream about new contracts, spiteful lovers dream about revenge, and these dreams and hopes bulge out and bend reality; only the heat and the hunger are real. In the end, the swords speak, there is clangour and the spurt of blood, and men are scattered dead. In their dying breaths, men see a new wisdom, and they die happy. The women are left to rue their men, and they mourn themselves dead.

Feng is unique among the characters as he alone desires not to forget. He is an orphan, and has learnt to protect himself by not allowing others in. He knows that only the dear ones can hurt; so he rejects everybody. In so doing, consciously registering those moments which he could grasp to return to a normal life, he knows that he is a slave of the rules and the rulebooks (his favourite is an almanac, from which he quotes time and again to prove to us the sagacity of his travelling choices). In the end, he succeeds, reclaiming his home and hearth and clan, defeating his friend Yaoshi. And in the process, he leaves a bloody trail of mangled lives, smouldering in the ashes of time.

[1140 words in 55 min]

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