Ashes of Time (Hong Kong, 1994/2008)
Chinese director Wong Kar-wai, whose films are visually intense, almost hallucinogenic, had a long-time love of the wuxia genre, and in the early ‘90s, when he was having trouble raising money for his production company, he agreed to make a historical martial arts film based on the classic Condor Heroes stories. Excited by the story but wanting it to be perfect, he spent almost three years on the project, but the result was Ashes of Time (1994), one of the most beautiful films ever to come out of Chinese cinema.
However, Wong nearly broke himself (and his cast) in making it, so he took a break to produce a spirited parody of the Condor Heroes story with essentially the same cast, The Eagle Shooting Heroes (1993), also covered below. It’s a hoot. Finally, I’ve added the undeservedly obscure Journey to the Western Xia Empire (1996), which though shot in the same western Chinese wastes as Ashes of Time is a different visual experience entirely.
And with that, we’re at the end of the ‘90s wuxia film boom, so next time, it’s back to classic swashbucklers!
Ashes of Time
Origin: Hong Kong, 1994/2008
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Source: Artificial Eye Blu-ray
This masterwork of arthouse wuxia is one of a kind, poetry where the usual historical martial arts film is prose. Its style is impressionistic, its storytelling elliptical and recursive, its characterizations striking but elusive. The visuals are lush and intense, with bright saturated colors and painterly compositions, some shots lingering, some momentary and staccato, in dreamlike settings that are distinct and memorable but somehow vague around the edges, as if fading off into unreality.
The subjects of the story are longing, loss, and self-discovery, as expressed through the unlikely medium of the lives of heroic characters drawn from Louis Cha’s novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes (1959), one of the foundational texts of modern wuxia literature. A sort of prequel to the novel, Ashes of Time tells the stories of the youthful relationships of some of the book’s major characters: Ouyang Feng the Western Venom (Leslie Cheung), an assassin-for-hire and aloof master manipulator; Huang Yaoshi the Eastern Heretic (Tony Leung), Feng’s friend and rival; Prince/Princess Murong Yang/Yin (Brigitte Lin); whose two aspects passionately love and hate Huang; the Blind Swordsman (Tony Leung), whose wife Peach Blossom (Carina Lau) is Huang’s true love; and Feng’s mysterious sister-in-law (Maggie Cheung), torn between desire for Feng and a need to deny him.
The stories of these characters (and a couple more), interwoven and overlapping, are told in circular form in four short chapters representing the seasons of the year, from spring through winter, with a final coda once more in spring. As the scenes unroll the pieces of the mosaic gradually fall in place, and the characters work out their fates and arrive at their destinies. The effect is mesmerizing, and though the meaning of some scenes is initially unclear, all is gradually revealed and the streams flow together with the inevitability of dream logic.
There’s even action, of a sort, scenes of lightning swordplay choreographed by the great fight director Sammo Hung, violence sudden and vicious but shot in a blur of color like quick strokes of a paint brush, because the fact of violence and its after effects is more important to director Wong Kar-wai than the exact sequences of fencing moves. Surprisingly, that doesn’t make the fights any less exciting, and it emphasizes the fact that what unites these characters is that they’re all bringers of sudden death, remorseless killers — because all their remorse has been spent on forlorn love.
Note: This review is based on the director’s 2008 reconstruction and revision, Ashes of Time Redux, because that’s the only version available in America and Europe.
The Eagle Shooting Heroes
Origin: Hong Kong, 1993
Director: Jeffrey Lau
Source: Artificial Eye DVD
This gleeful send-up of wuxia movies is the work of many of the finest actors and filmmakers in Hong Kong cinema, mainly because they were already straining to complete Wong Kar-wai’s masterwork Ashes of Time, and the great director thought everybody could use a break. Like Ashes, this is loosely based on Louis Cha’s classic wuxia novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes, and many of the same characters appear in both films, though the actors mostly switched around their roles for Eagle. And they really cut loose: Eagle Shooting Heroes doesn’t gently parody wuxia tropes, it kicks them in the face a thousand times over.
The cast is staggeringly good, the actors showing a talent for broad comedy you’d never expect if you’d seen them only in their similar roles in the oh-so-serious Ashes of Time. Leslie Cheung plays swordsman hero and universal love interest Huang Yaoshi as a clueless sap, with “Small” Tony Leung as his nemesis, the evil Ouyang Feng, and “Big” Tony Leung as the doofus Duan who is searching both men and women to find his one true love. In fact, there’s a lot of comic gender-bending in this film, but gender-fluid Brigitte Lin is one of the few actors who plays it straight as the bitchy Third Princess. Add in Jacky Cheung as Beggar Hong, Joey Wong as Huang’s saccharine beloved Suqiu, and Maggie Cheung as the Imperial Master, and you’ve named nearly every big star in ‘90s Hong Kong cinema.
Of course, it takes the masters of a genre to really take it down, but this film also partakes of another tradition of Hong Kong cinema, the mo lei tau, or kung fu slapstick comedy, in which the gags come quick and fast, and no joke is too old or too low for inclusion in the mix. Thus, we get ancient routines of mistaken identity, mistargeted aphrodisiacs, cartoon jealousy, and toilet humor, mixed with kung fu gags like mystic attacks that make events run in reverse, dazing blows that cause embarrassing hallucinations, and a magical floating head (that gets used as a kickball). There’s a love song warbled to the tune of The William Tell Overture, and the mystical Scroll of Yin is guarded by three goofy creatures flopping around in the cheapest possible rubber monster suits.
But what we’re here for is comical swordplay and wacky kung fu combat, and boy, do we get it, courtesy of master fight director Sammo Hung, who practically invented a lot of the moves mocked herein. Every character has their own fighting style, of which Feng’s hopping toad kung fu is the best, with an honorable mention to Third Princess, who wields what you might call Stooge-fu, with Brigitte Lin miming Moe Howard’s slaps and eye-pokes. The funniest sequence comes in the final boss fight, where instead of using camera slo-mo to show off their lightning attacks, Huang and Suqiu pretend to fight in slow motion, complete with long drawn-out kiais — it’s hilarious.
Then, just when Feng has all the lovers on the ropes, there’s an actual deus ex machina in which Duan, who had earlier ascended, comes down from the celestial heights to sort things out. But don’t worry, the goofy monsters get away.
Journey to the Western Xia Empire
Origin: China, 1996
Director: Lu Wei
Source: Knight Mediacom DVD
This fascinating Chinese film is unlike anything else in the Cinema of Swords lexicon. In the 11th century, the western Xian Empire, at war for generations with the Khitans, is running so short of men for its army that it’s reduced to sending teams of soldiers beyond the borders to kidnap boys and bring them back to Xia in a “human blood tax.” A squad of cavalry commanded by an unnamed imperial officer is sent to a remote village at the western end of the Great Wall with orders to return with ten abducted male children — or else.
The Xians run into opposition from Khitan patrols and are only able to collect nine boys, so they add a heavily pregnant woman to their take in hopes that the child she bears will be male. It is, and they take the newborn boy, leaving his mother behind — but she refuses to be separated from her son and pursues the Xian troop across the arid expanses of the western desert, desperate to be reunited with him.
Some setup, eh? This tale of the tragedy and triumph of maternal devotion is set in the hardscrabble towns and bleak wastes of far western China, and the details of its medieval setting and the lives of its soldiers are completely convincing. You can almost smell the horse urine. The cavalry troopers, slaves to the military bureaucracy, are as much the victims of imperial tyranny as the villagers they raid and the children they kidnap, soldiers driven to extremes and doomed to execution if they fail — assuming the fierce Khitans don’t get them first.
But the human spirit can’t be quenched: the troops are loyal to their commander, flawed though he is, and there is no sacrifice the newborn boy’s mother won’t make to recover her baby. And eventually, despite every discouragement, she begins to win the grudging respect of the hard-boiled Xian troopers.
The cinematography in this film is quite remarkable, depicting the landscape of western China and its people in almost documentary detail; the scenes, all shot in natural light, are framed with consummate artistry, and some of the visuals are simply unforgettable. That said, there sure is a lot of it, almost two hours of travel across the desert and high plateaus, and we’ve seen it before in John Ford’s Westerns from the 1940s. The scenes of combat between the Xians and Khitans are unsparing and brutal, but there aren’t many of them and you couldn’t call this an action movie. However, if you’re interested in the history of medieval Asia in the Silk Road period and have wondered what that looked, felt, and smelled like, you’ll never see a better recreation.
Where can I watch these movies? I’m glad you asked! Many movies and TV shows are available on disk in DVD or Blu-ray formats, but nowadays we live in a new world of streaming services, more every month it seems. However, it can be hard to find what content will stream in your location, since the market is evolving and global services are a patchwork quilt of rights and availability. I recommend JustWatch.com, a search engine that scans streaming services to find the title of your choice. Give it a try. And if you have a better alternative, let us know.
Previous installments in the Cinema of Swords include:
LAWRENCE ELLSWORTH is busily promoting the Cinema of Swords compilation from Applause Books that was born right here at Black Gate! The volume out now covers swordplay movies up through the ‘80s, but Ellsworth is continuing with new material for a Volume Two and is now working his way up through the 1990s. These later reviews are being published weekly on his new Cinema of Swords Substack blog, at cinemaofswords.substack.com
Meanwhile, Ellsworth soldiers on in his mega-project of editing and translating new, contemporary English editions of all the works in Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers Cycle; the sixth volume, Court of Daggers, is available now as an ebook or trade paperback from Amazon, while the seventh, Devil’s Dance, is being published in weekly installments at musketeerscycle.substack.com. His website is swashbucklingadventure.net. Check them out!
(Ellsworth’s secret identity is game designer LAWRENCE SCHICK, who’s been designing role-playing games since the 1970s. He now lives in Dublin, Ireland, and is Principal Narrative Designer for the Dungeons & Dragons videogame Baldur’s Gate 3.)