There are certain movies that simply defy genre conventions, films such as Walkabout, or 2001 a Space Odyssey, films which even defy explanation. Ashes of Time is just such a film.
The film takes place on the edge of a vast desert, where assassin Ou-yang Feng (Leslie Chueng) has come to seek solace and solitude from the mistakes of his past. Whilst here, he is visited by a variety of characters, the presence of each of them making him reflect on various aspects of his past, and the weight of the love he lost. This probably does not sound like much of a plot to those cine-files raised on a steady diet of Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower (and before anyone gets angry, I am not saying there is anything wrong with those aforementioned films, except maybe Curse of the Golden Flower), but Ashes of Time is a much deeper and satisfying movie experience than any of the above.
Taking his time with character development, director Wong Kar Wai has crafted a beautiful and intimate film, the sort of mesmerising experience that happens all too rarely in cinema. Dealing with love, loss and regret, the slightly fractured nature of the film can seem confusing at first, but each character is essential to the feel of the film, and each character leads Ou-yang Feng to his final revelation.
And what superb characters they are. Aside from Leslie Cheung in the title role, we have Tong Leung Ka Fai as Huang Yao-shi, Fangs friend and confidante who has much in his past to regret, a superb and more than a little disturbing Brigitte Lin as the highly conflicted Murong Yin and Murong Yang (no clues in the names then?), Jacky Cheung as Hung Chi, a wandering swordsman whom Feng takes under his wing and trains to be like him but who ultimately can only be himself, and Maggie Cheung as the unnamed woman who is the love of Fengs life and the source of his sadness, to name but a few of the stellar cast on show.
Visually, the film is never less than breathtaking to look at, shot through with a golden hue that gives the film an almost otherworldly quality. Filled with lingering wide shots and paced with an aching attention to detail, even the few action sequences are done in such a way as to make them almost dreamlike in their feel. Painstaking and beautiful in its examination of its central themes, this is truly a film to be cherished.