Based on the immensely popular wuxia epic, The Legend Of The Condor Heroes (射鵰英雄傳), the first part of the Condor Trilogy (射鵰三部曲), written by Louis Cha aka Jin Yong (查良鏞), Ashes Of Time (東邪西毒) (1994) is the fourth movie by WKW. In fact it would have been the third, if not for the problem laden filming and production. In between sorting out the issues, WKW went on to film Chungking Express in two months, and then continued to wrap up Ashes Of Time. I remembered watching this movie in the cinema, and after it ended, the guy next to me complained within an audible distance, in a Cantonese explicit laden comment which could only be roughly translated as "What the *&^% is this movie about??!!!". I reckoned that majority of the first wave viewers went to catch it because they believed that it was a faithful adaptation of a portion of the epic. It wasn't. Secondly, mass marketed HK martial art movies popularity were peaking during that period, thus WKW un-conventional visual style and non-linear storytelling may have flipped them off. It is a commercial failure but remained a favourite amongst critics. The film speed manipulation is applied to the hilt in the battle scenes, resulting in almost blurry shadow movements yet beautiful to ogle at. The editing is also tight, albeit in positive manner, and the coloration of the visuals are gritty, yet almost psychedelic, like a pop wuxia movie. It is not easy to understand, but after several sittings, again it would all fall together and again about memories but easily the most destructive imaginable undertaken by the characters. Another interesting part is the narration is interspersed with remarks from the Chinese Almanac aka Tong Sheng (通勝). The soundtrack is one of my favourite, capturing the mood perfectly, resulting in me hunting it high and low during those times, eventually managed to secure a copy from now-defunct Tower Records at KL.
WKW sort of borrowed selected characters from The Condor Heroes and re-imagined how their younger days would be like. The main character is Ouyang Feng (歐陽鋒) aka Western Venom (西毒)(the late Leslie Cheung). A friend of mine commented what a good looking Venom (because those who grew up on the epic sort of identified Western Venom as a vile looking old man). His nickname applied on two levels. One, his main martial art is called Divine Toad Stance (蛤蟆功) which enable him to absorbed poison and increase his internal qi. Second, his personality is said to be wrought with jealousy and malice, like a poison. Two of his contemporaries also appeared in this movie. One would be Hong Qigong (洪七公) (Jacky Cheung) aka the Northern Beggar (北丐) and the other, Huang Yaoshi (黃藥師) (Tony Leung Kar Fai) aka the Eastern Heretic (东邪). Together with two others, Wang Chongyang (王重陽) aka Central Divinity (中神通) and Duan Zhixing (段智興) aka Southern Emperor (南帝), they are collectively known as The Five Greats (天下五絕) of the martial arts world in the epic. Curiously, WKW also included the never appear before mystery swordsman only known as Dugu Qiubai aka The Defeat Seeking Loner (獨孤求敗), also from the Condor canon.
The story began with Ouyang Feng arriving at a desert from White Camel Mountain and started a tavern for travellers. At the same time, he acted as an agent for people seeking to engage the service of a swordsman or assassin to do their dirty deeds. Sometimes he would undertake the service himself. Around a certain period of each year, an acquaintance by the name of Huang Yaoshi would drop by his place. He always appeared from the eastern direction. WKW portrayed him as a very proud and confident character, true to the epic. He also does not like to conform to rules and traditions, which earned him the nickname. He brought with him a wine to be shared with Ouyang which is said to be able to erase memories. Huang muses that memories are men's biggest headache. Ouyang did not try it but it worked for Huang, who began to forget lots of things. He left shortly after and never return again. Soon, a woman by the name of Murong Yin appeared ( WKW characterised this persona as from the Murong clan of Gusu - 姑蘇慕容氏, which is in reference to another Louis Cha's novel called Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils - 天龍八部) and requested Ouyang to assassinate her brother, Murong Yang, who refuse to allow her to marry Huang. But Ouyang soon put the puzzle together and it turned out Murong Yang and Yin are the same person suffering from severe split personality. It was revealed that Huang had earlier flirted with her in an inn at Gusu but she took it too seriously. She eventually became a recluse known only as the mysterious Dugu Qiubai (this individual is mentioned only in selected novels, and one of the heroes, Yang Guo (楊過), stumbled into a cave where his tomb is and his only companion, a giant condor, taught Yang Guo the loner's heavy sword stance) who practised against her own reflection.
After this, the second act began where a near blind swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) came to Ouyang, offering his service as a sword for hire in return for money to return to his hometown. Because much earlier, Huang had killed a bunch of horse bandits and they would return anytime soon to seek revenge on the villagers, Ouyang agreed but the swordsman had to prove himself first, which he did successfully. The swordsman could still see if there were sufficient lighting but his time was running out. He wanted to return to his hometown, supposedly to see peach blossom flowers for the final time before he gets totally blind. Eventually, it was revealed that the swordsman's wife (Carina Lau) had an affair with Huang, who was also a friend of his. Because of this, the swordsman left his wife and village to roam aimlessly around. At the same time, a village girl (Charlie Yeung) appeared and approached Ouyang for help in avenging her brother's death at the hands of some militias. He refused as the girl only have some eggs as payment. He cynically advised the girl, she should worth something more herself. She refused to sell herself and cling on the hope that someone would come and help her. The bandits finally strike and the blind swordsman fought furiously but perished in the end when his sight failed as the day became darker, at the hand of a bandit who yielded his sword using his left hand. The wife was shown searching for him and came across Huang but refused to acknowledge him. It turns out her name is Peach Blossom.
The third act began with Hong Qigong engaging some bandits on a river. He is portrayed as a righteous man, who refused to kill a female disarmed bandit, as well as an easy going, simple sort of persona. He was recruited by Ouyang who noticed him resting outside his tavern by enticing him with a bowl of rice. Ouyang brought Hong to examined the corpse of the blind swordsman and warned him of the left handed bandit who took the later's life. He also bought Hong a pair of shoes, as it would bring up his price. In the meantime, Hong took noticed of the village girl as well as being pestered by his wife to return home. He ambushed the bandits and wiped them out to the last person, including the lefty whose hand he chopped off. He then seek out the militias to avenge the village girl's brother for the price of an egg. Hong lost a finger and was wounded in the confrontation. Ouyang severely reprimanded him for being unpractical. Hong countered by saying that he had become sluggish with his sword ever since he got mixed up with Ouyang, that was why he got wounded. He realised that he had slowly become cold and selfish like Ouyang, when earlier, Hong rejected the village girl plead for help. After recuperating, and refuse to continue his service for Ouyang, Hong left with his wife, heading towards the northern direction, where he would eventually become the chieftain of the Beggars Clan (丐幫). True to the epic, it was narrated that Hong and Ouyang would fought each other to the death in their old ages, in front of Yang Kuo, at the Snow Mountain.
The final act began with Ouyang reminiscence of his ex-lover, now sister in law (Maggie Cheung) back at the White Camel Mountain. He regretted the fact that due to devoting his time adventuring, his lover was neglected and eventually betrothed to his elder brother. But not without forcing himself on her first on the night of the wedding, which resulted in the birth of Ouyang Ke (歐陽克). It was revealed that he came to the desert to start the tavern in order to forget her. The vastness and emptiness of the desert reflected the desolation in his heart and persona. In further twist, the wine which Huang brought to him, was actually the last gift from his ex-lover, now dying of an illness. Unknown to Ouyang, Huang had been acting as liaison person for Ouyang's ex-lover whilst secretly infatuated with her. It is also the reason that Huang grew fond of peach blossoms, as the woman seemed to be liking the flower a lot. But he knows that the woman only has heart for Ouyang. He visited Ouyang annually to bring his news to the woman, as well as opportunities to see more of her. The last gift was for Ouyang to forget her totally but in fact, when Ouyang drank it finally, the more he tried to forget, the more he remembered.
Then the final scene showed that after receiving news that his sister in law has passed away, Ouyang burnt down the tavern and returned to the White Camel Mountain, eventually became the lord of the region. Huang suffered from amnesia and became a hermit on the Peach Blossom Island. He would also be known as Master Of The Peach Blossom Island. He chose that island because the last thing he remember is that he loves peach blossom.