The Jianghu is the fictional alternative universe coexisting with the actual historical in which many Chinese wuxia stories are set. It seems jianghu, a literary tradition going back to the Ming Dynasty, can easily be explained as collective unconscious in which the Chinese universal themes which run through all human life. Inwardly, the whole history of the human race, back to the most primitive times, lives on in us and the wuxia stories are myths bringing the archetypes of the collective unconscious. A strong element in the structure of jianghu, is the line between good and evil, right and wrong, is crystal clear; it is absolute, an in this movie you can see the Archetypes of the shadow, animus and anima of the personal unconsciousness. Typically, the heroes in Chinese wuxia fiction do not serve a lord, wield military power or belong to the aristocratic class. The Chinese wuxia stories can be contrasted with martial codes from other countries, such as the Japanese samurai’s bushido tradition, the chivalry of medieval European knights and America’s Western but moral and laws of physics my not apply in this grene.
One example is the cult movie Ashes of Time, Wong Kar-Wai’s wuxiapian is the most uncompromisingly complex film of thinking man’s martial arts melodrama with very little action outlined like a greek tragedy. It features some of the biggest stars in Hong kong Cinema and Christopher Doyle’s usual magnificent visuals, and William Chang’s predictably sublime art direction, derived from the two characters from Lois Chas’s novel The Eagelshooting Heros: Xidu (Emperor of the West) and Dongxie (Emperor of the East). One is the anti-thesis of the other, they are implemented as the two negative Archetypes Ouyang (The Magicician) and Huang (The Lover).
Wong’s goal is focusing on the psychological and emotional reasons that brought the characters to the behavior we see in the novel. The most striking example is the principal character Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung). In the film he’s still a man who trusts people, and is not completely selfish. His troubled relationship with a woman (the famous Maggie Cheung) shapes his character, and leads to his change to an evil and treacherous man. The movie took a de-humanized world (where heroism was often more important than sentiments) and injected humanity into it. We’re presented with allegedly invincible characters who turn out to crumble under the pressure and pain of rejection and memory.
It’s pointless trying to write about Ashes of Time’s plot, as doing so would be entirely too superficial, and leave out important facets of the story. With a careful eye and a few repeated viewings the film’s story is not so hard to grasp. What’s important is the mood Wong Kar-Wai creates, and the symbols and Archetypes we feel in each and every character. For those who seek metaphors, the movie presents the eye as well as the illusions of vision. One character is nearly blind. Another, a swordsman, goes blind in the middle of a horrendous battle. Two characters, Yin and Yang—one presented as a man, the other as his sister—are identical. And there is a brief appearance by a legendary sword fighter who hones his skills against his own reflection. Plenty of visual symbolism , from the Yin/Yang character to the motifs of water and the desert landscape. Two women hopelessly in love with the man who pines away for the woman who will never be his (and whom we do not learn about until the very end).
|Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing) the fallen swordsman commissioning assassins later known as the Poison of the West.||The impotent Lover becoming the (cruel) Magician|
|Hong Qigong (Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau) the young idealistic swordsman, going north with his wife||The Warrior in its fullness – The Hero|
|Murong Yin (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia) daughter of Murong clan; Murong Yang the Brother one schyzophrene personBrother want to have Huang killed because of rejection of Murong’s love she his brother||Animus and shadow under control of ego|
|The Blind Swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai)
||The (weak) wandering King – Ödipus at Colonos|
|Ouyang Feng’s love (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) she married his brother, because he asked her too late and waits her whole live for him||The Mother Earth – center of the pentagon|
|Huang Yoshi (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) adventurous swordsman and longtime friend of Ouyang Feng Huang is a burnt-out womanizer later he will be known as the Evil of the East.||The (addicted) Lover|
|The girl with the mule (Charlie Young Choi-Nei)||The virgin (Maria?)|
|Hong Qigong’s wife (Li Bai)||The loyal wife|
|Blind Swordsman’s wife (Carina Lau)||The queen|
Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing, Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia, Carina Lau Ka-Ling, Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau, Charlie Young Choi-Nei, Lau Shun
Occurring over the five months of the Chinese calendar, Ashes of Time spends most of its length with two characters in particular, Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) and Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-fai). Old friends who meet once a year to catch up and drink a magic wine, the two serve as the nexus for the film’s overlapping narratives, mired in their own emotional crises. Ouyang Feng’s inn is the center of the action, as the stories are told by and about the visitors in the great Chaucerian tradition. Ouyang is morally bankrupt, yet manages to come up with some of the most poetic observations of human nature in his ruthless monologues.The story is not circular, despite the essentially equivalent monologue delivered by the protagonist at both ends of the film. Ashes of time is a study of personalities and as such follows the convoluted logic of human relationships. For the first half of the film characters come and go in seemingly pointless chaos. Yet, the travelers at the inn are connected, and their fates intertwined by the simplest passions. In a bizarre twist, one woman is the reason for Feng’s self-imposed hermitage, for he rejected her to marry his older brother even though they had both been in love and connects all main characters.
Raised by his elder brother, Ouyang’s ambition is to become a famous swordsman and faced with a choice 10 years earlier between the said woman he loves and martial adventures, he chooses the latter. Ouyang becomes cynical and materialistic, runs a small inn at the edge of the desert, commissioning assassins by hiring young but poor swordsmen. Every year during the season in which peach trees blossom a close friend visits him, Huang Yaoshi. This year Huang brought something for his friend Ouyang, a magical wine that would make one forget the past.
Huang Yaoshi, has, like Ouyang, also a sad love story to tell–he once had an unconsummated affair with the wife of his best friend – which turns out the blind swordsman – at Peach Blossom Land. Over the next year, in the different seasons, many travellers pass by the inn each bringing their stories, many of them being about lost love and why would one wish to forget the past. Ouyang becomes an assassin contract from the schizophrenic Murong Yang/Murong Yin (Sister and Brother). He meets the down-and-out swordsman with failing eyesight (who turns out to be Huang’s friend who seduced his wife); an impoverished young girl with an mule who wants to avenge her brother’s death; and Hong Qi, another aspiring poor swordsman, and his loyal wife.
Murong Yin/Yang (Brigitte Lin) at first it appears as if Yin and Yang are brother and sister, the brother wanting to kill the womanizer Huang for rejecting his sister, and the sister wanting to kill her brother for interfering with her relationship. As it turns out, however, Yin-Yang are one and the same physical person, who has developed a severe split personality disorder because of Huang’s rejection of Murong’s love.
The Blind Swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) also suffers from rejected love, his wife having been seduced by said Huang on their wedding night. He wishes to complete one last job to raise the money to return home to see the “peach blossom,” later revealed to be the name of his wife, before his creeping blindness ensures he can never see her again.
Carina Lau, playing the Blind Swordsman’s wife is shown wordlessly caressing her horse with such tenderness that the stallion becomes as much a symbol of virility and sexuality, The Blind Swordsman’s last job has him saving a village from a swarm of bandits, and the ensuing bloodbath is more visceral than anything to crop up in the last decade’s boom of arty martial arts films. Yet even that sequence is undercut by Wong’s directorial flourishes, the image bleeding into white when the swordsman looks up and has his already weakened vision bleached out by the sun. The entire scene builds less a sense of heroism than a mounting futility.
The other two strangers, Hung Chi (Jacky Cheung) and the Young Girl (Charlie Yeung), arrive separately only to influence each other’s lives profoundly. She wants to hire Feng to arrange the murder of some men, who have killed her brother. She has nothing to offer except eggs and her mule and Feng refuses to help, but suggests that her body is more marketable than her pitiful eggs. She refuses to yield and waits for someone to agree to help her. The young Hung is a master swordsman, but also a bit of an idealist. He works for Feng for a while but eventually takes pity on the girl and goes on a murderous rampage, slaughtering all those who had participated in the killing of her brother. In the brawl he loses his finger and thus the ability to wield a sword. He is undeterred, however, and when Feng refuses to send for a doctor hinting to the Girl again that she might have to prostitute herself for the sake of Hung, he forbids her to do so. He picks up where the Blind Swordsman fails. Where he has spent his entire life counting the money of each job to collect wealth, Hong redeems himself when he helped the poor village girl who paied him a single chicken egg. The girl, the virgin with the donky leaves without trace. Visually, she is almost like a distorted Eastern Version of the Virgin Mary. She is also the only one not interconnected in the pentagon. After he recovered Hung, heads with his loyal wife north, leaving Feng in envy of fulfilled love.
In the books to which Ashes of Time serves as a prequel, the Ouyang and Huang are hard-hearted and violent, Huang someone who still believes in love but can never have it himself, Ouyang a man who rejects love entirely. Ouyang has fled from the woman who loves him, while Huang never follows through with the love he inspires . Maggie Cheung arrives near the end of the film to deliver a devastating monologue to Huang. Ouyang’s ex-lover, Cheung’s character ultimately married the man’s brother because she tired of waiting for Feng to return to her. She clarifies the reasons for Huang and Ouyang’s annual meeting and the woman who links them in pain, and her speech, framed in a simple, wide-angle close-up without trickery that lets all focus rest on her words, speaks directly and piercingly to the pain of unrequited love. When the story comes full circle and the two main characters discover the uselessness deception of themselves, that the attempt to forget only further ensconces painful remembrances in memory, Cheung’s pain is fully visited upon Ouyang and Huang. Maggie Cheung’s five-minute are the undisputed centerpiece of the film both in terms of story (she is the one link between most of the characters) and acting. Wai’s camera stares intently at her while she gazes beyond time and relives the past full of regret.
Maggie is an accomplished actress, but this performance was beyond description.
Her subtle agony is expressed obliquely and the one has to look into her eyes to touch the intensity of her feeling. Ouyang’s ex-lover, Cheung’s character gives Huang the wine to forget and dies soon afterwards. When she dies, the expression is beyond visual. Her body seems to become colder and shrinks, the eyes close, the flower wilds. She dies as there is no reason to live.
The mesmerizing tale of lost chances, fear of abandoning oneself to another, and pain of betrayal stops by the individuation when Oyuand returns to White Camel Mountain after finding out that his beloved has died. Where in the youth he saw mountains only as obstacles that concealed a wonderful world behind them, where he would climb them, leaving his love to seek this world, where once there he would find that there’s nothing worth seeing; he now no longer wondered what hid behind the mountains. He burns his inn and moves back later be known of the Poison of the West.
The cinematography is out of this world. There is so much imagery that repeated viewing is a must. Complicated tracking shots, abrupt editing, impressionistic pastel-like blurred images, and static scenes, all mix together in a veritable whirlpool of technique and ideas. Christopher Doyle is perhaps one of the best, most imaginative, and daring cinematographers out there. Seeing is believing.
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