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It Came from the Sinosphere: Ashes of Time


This movie is a critics’ darling and a box office flop. It often gets placed on lists of “Best Chinese-Language Movies”—for example, this movie is ranked at #35 in the Hong Kong Film Awards list of 100 Best Chinese Movies (this is a bit like the AFI 100 list).

This movie is also plain weird.

The Story

Ouyang Feng contracts sword fighters and martial artists to carry out paid assassinations. His best friend is Huang Yaoshi. Someone called Murong Yang wants Ouyang Feng to kill Huang Yaoshi for jilting his sister. Then Murong Yin (the sister) comes to ask Ouyang Feng to kill Murong Yang (her brother) for getting between her and Huang Yaoshi, and … *sigh* … I quit this synopsis.

A shot of Ouyang Feng

I don’t want to spoil anything, and even if I did write a comprehensible plot summary (which would be spoilerful), it would completely miss the point. Just know that this takes place in a desert, there are love polygons, and that the men, at least, are all skilled fighters.

More Background

This is a film by Wong Kar-wai, one of Hong Kong’s most recognized film directors. He’s the only Chinese-language director who has won an award at the Cannes Film Festival. He’s famous for making movies with lots of lush visual imagery that explores personal relationships and memories, which describes this specific film to a T.

This film also features many of Hong Kong’s top stars of the era.

This movie is supposedly a prequel to Jin Yong’s Condor Trilogy. Indeed most of the main characters (Ouyang Feng, Huang Yaoshi, and Hong Qi) are also significant characters in the trilogy, and a few of the plot points in this movie (specifically Ouyang Feng’s relationship with his brother’s wife) are also mentioned in Jin Yong’s work. But this movie is so different, that I would describe it as fanfiction loosely inspired by the Condor Trilogy rather than an actual prequel (though being a work of fanfiction doesn’t mean that it has any less merit).


It took a lot of time to shoot this movie, which caused it to go over-budget. To try to get some more cash, the makers of this movie spent about a week putting together a spoof of the The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, which ironically made more money than Ashes of Time itself.

In 2005, Wong Kar-wai put together Ashes of Time Redux. I haven’t seen it (I saw the original film), but I’ve read that the story is easier to understand in the “redux” version.

The Cinematography

I generally don’t talk much about cinematography or editing, since I know close to nothing about such things. However, even someone like me who has never taken a film class in her life can tell that this movie has great imagery. This movie also makes creative use of moving light/show, such as in scenes where light shines through a twirling wicker cage, which causes the light to shine in moving lines across the actors’ faces.

Wicker cage shadows!

Wicker cage shadows!

Another example is this scene with a woman on horseback, in which the light reflected off the water makes the woman’s face look almost white (the whiteness of her face is starkly contrasted with her otherwise dark surroundings).

The woman on horseback with light reflecting off the water (this is really hard to convey in a single screenshot)

The woman on horseback with light reflecting off the water (this is really hard to convey in a single screenshot)

Reflections in the water is actually a theme in this movie.

reflection in the water

reflection in the water

And the desert is … very scenic. I won’t say “beautiful,” since that’s not the intention, but it certainly has visual impact.

landslide in the desert




I’m sure somebody who actually knows something about cinematography could make more insightful comments.

Position in Wuxia

This is obviously a wuxia film, and it’s the kind of wuxia film which defies what many non-Asians imagine wuxia is. Though there are a few furious fights, they are also furiously brief, therefore I can’t enjoy this film in the same way I would enjoy a Lau Kar-leung film for the exciting kung-fu choreography. It’s also not a tearjerking melodramatic romance. This, in a way, makes it the opposite of a Jin Yong story, since Jin Yong stories tend to be very high in technically-detailed fighting and melodramatic romance (soap operas with swords!)

This is a quietly-meditative kind of wuxia story, which uses the psychologically heightened setting of wandering fighters to look at personal relationships (I’ve seen this before in novels, though not in a movie—in fact, I’m impressed it works at all in a film format). The relationships aren’t there to make drama; the drama is there to reveal the relationships.

The Pacing

If you haven’t guessed it already, this is a slow movie, and it’s not until the end that the various bits and pieces of the story cohere into something that feels complete.

Being familiar with The Eagle-Shooting Heroes makes it a little easier to understand what is going on, but not much easier. I understand why this bombed at the box office.


On the other hand, I did not find the film boring at any point. Aside from the eye-catching imagery, the individual moments were usually pretty interesting, even though it was sometimes hard to understand what was connecting the various moments together.

And the fact that this film feels so disjointed actually helps make its point. It’s a film about memory and personal reflection, and when we think back on our own memories, we generally think of them in sets of particular vivid moments, rather than a linear narrative.

Personal Relationships and Regret

This movie is basically about how we let our personal relationships deteriorate, how we fail to value the most meaningful things in life, and how we mourn for that loss when it’s too late. The most positive reviews I’ve seen of this movie came from people who watched it after a breakup, and a few people recommend watching it alone (then again, some people recommend watching it in a theater if possible to fully experience the cinematography).


The current state of my life is not such that I can fully appreciate this film. It does not speak to what are currently my deepest personal issues. Therefore, I feel that I haven’t felt the full impact of this film. Perhaps I should revisit this film again when my life is different.


However, the film still has some relevance to my current life. I have spent most of my life in San Francisco, and prior to moving to Taiwan, I had spent all of my life living in northern California (aside from brief trips to other places). Modern technology makes it much easier to maintain the relationships which are most important to me … but not being in the Bay Area has meant that relationships which are not so close, but still valuable, have gradually withered away.

During my first year in Taiwan, I didn’t think at all about returning to the United States since I was still dazzled by the novelty of being on a different continent, but now I often think about returning, and of all the things I should do to re-establish myself before it’s too late (the United States as a whole, and my neighborhood specifically, has changed since I left, and if I wait too long, I will only be able to return as a stranger). The fact that I think so much about returning also affects my relationships here in Taiwan—I’m afraid to go deeper into relationships, lest they break when I leave. Heh, maybe this film is a preview of how I’ll feel after I return to the United States, in which case, it’s a bit scary.

Availability in English

This movie is readily available with English subtitles, and they don’t suck. Since this movie is in Cantonese, I actually used a combination of Chinese and English subtitles to watch it, so I was able to compare the two. While I’m certain the Chinese subtitles are closer to what is being said in Cantonese, most of the departures in the English subtitles make the English feel more natural, and a more literal translation would feel much stiffer.


I think I need to see the film again before I have a conclusion. And seeing the film again right now wouldn’t count—I need to wait at least six months before seeing the film again. I might conclude that this film is really deep, or I might conclude that it’s bullshit dressed up with impressive cinematography. Perhaps I’ll watch the redux version next time.


Next time: Burning Moon (manhua)

Sara K. finally went to Sun Moon Lake. She had been warned that she shouldn’t get her expectations too high, but she thinks Sun Moon Lake is gorgeous, and that Nantou County is fantastic. She suspects the people who find Sun Moon Lake disappointing/boring either have a different temperament from her, were doing/seeing the wrong things, or simply had super-high expectations (Sara’s learned to never have super-high expectations during travel).

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  1. This is a gorgeous movie.. one of my favorite HK movies… Setting wise with Leslie’s character there’s a lot of flashback, and got to know the story before even trying to tackle this movie. I have also seen The Eagle-Shooting Heroes which I thought was a good comedy New Year movie.

    I never though that this movie was a prequel to the Condor series.. if it was a prequel then they would have shown the relationship issues happening other than talking about it as a flashback or as conversational dialogue between two characters. It showed a portion of Ouyang Fung’s life.. that’s for sure.. With your review it reminds me that I must do a marathon of his films…

    What did you think abut the soundtrack? I personally loved the music for this film.

    • Some people do present it as an unofficial prequel, but ‘fanfiction’ seems to be a more accurate description to me.

      I liked the soundtrack, but I didn’t have anything particularly insightful to say about it.

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