Color, 1994, 100 mins.

Written and Directed by Wong Kar-wai

Starring Brigitte Lin, Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Jacky Cheung, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Li Bai / Music by Frankie Chan / Produced by Sung-lin Tsai / Cinematography by Christopher Doyle

Format: DVD - Mei Ah (approx. $35)

Letterboxed (1.85:1) / Dolby Digital Mono

That rarest of beasts, a delicate sword-swinging action film, Ashes of Time revolutionizes the period heroic format in much the same way director Wong Kar-wai created a new vocabulary for '90s urban action and domestic drama (Chungking Express, Happy Together, Fallen Angels, etc.).

Most viewers will have difficulty piecing together any sort of linear narrative for at least the first half of the film, but the familiar character tropes should be enough to at least convey the basic concepts: Ou-yan Feng (Leslie Cheung, of course), a wandering, alienated swordsman; Yin and Yang (the lovely Brigitte Lin), who may or may not be the same person and the object of our hero's vengeful quest; and a blind swordsman (Tony Leung) who uses his other heightened senses to improve his physical skills. Obvious similarities to the films of Sergio Leone abound, of course, ranging from the music to the wide open vistas and jarring close ups. However, a modern sensibility consistently infiltrates the proceedings: the jagged, often dreamlike storytelling techniques; the jaded, unsatisfied attitudes of the characters; and the lyrical sensuality of Christopher Doyle's breathtaking cinematography, which can make the simple image like a woman's leg straddling a rock over a covered stream into an aesthetic creation of exquisite beauty. The seemingly random introduction of fantastic elements, such as an elixir which brings on memory loss and causes numerous subsequent plot complications, are integrated so naturally into the film's fabric that the viewer is never even given a moment to question them. An unusually sensitive and sweeping score by Frankie Chan (thankfully available on CD) fills in the rest of the emotional holes, making this an experience which gains in significance and richness long after the end credits have rolled.

Loosely based upon Louis Cha's classic Chinese novel, The Eagle Shooting Heroes (given a lighter cinematic treatment under its original title one year earlier), Ashes of Time never received as much acclaim or recognition as its director's other films in the U.S., remaining largely ignored outside the festival and cult film circuits. This situation has not been helped by the most widely available U.S. DVD edition from World Video and Supply, a technical and overmatted nightmare that makes the film well nigh unwatchable. Fortunately, the Mei Ah DVD, available from Chinese video shops and online retailers, provides a much closer replication of the theatrical experience. Some distracting print damage remains evident throughout, a sad commentary on the preservation of even the most recent films, but at least the image is framed correctly and features legible English subtitles (burned in, alas). Sound quality is not perfect but acceptable, with the dialogue, music, and sound effects delivered quite well for mono. If ever a film cried out for a 5.1 remix, this would be it; in the meantime, this will just have to do. No extras, but considering this is the only passable way to see the film outside of a theater, viewers will have little room to quibble.

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