Ashes of Time (Wong Kar-wai)

Rating: **1/2 (out of ****)

Let me confess at once that I don't know what the hell is happening in this movie. I tried hard to follow the plot, but it was impossible; whether this was due to an inherently incoherent quality in the film itself, or to my own ignorance of the martial arts genre generally and The Eagle Shooting Heroes (a popular Hong Kong novel from which this film was loosely derived) in particular, I can't begin to say. All I know for sure is that every time I thought I had a handle on what was going on, something would happen that would utterly baffle me. This made it very difficult for me to warm to the movie in the same way that I did to Wong's much more accessible and playful Chungking Express, although Ashes of Time is every bit that film's equal in its technical brilliance and aesthetic flair. Nominally a martial arts saga, Ashes features comparatively little action; Wong's primary interest seems to be in what happens to his heroes during the calm period between storms -- a refreshing alternative to the path taken by Twister (yes, every single review I write for the rest of my life will point out that the film in question improved upon Twister in some way. That's how dumb Twister is.) As in Chungking Express, the loneliness and melancholy are almost tangible, and I found myself repeatedly drawn into this rather forbidding world...only to back out again, perplexed, as the narrative once again suddenly lurched in some inexplicable, apparently random direction. I ended up admiring the film without ever caring much about its characters and their dilemmas -- not an unpleasant time at the movies, but not a terribly memorable one, either.