During the film's long-delayed production, Wong produced a parody of the same novel with the same cast titled The Eagle Shooting Heroes.
Due to the original prints being lost Wong re-edited and re-scored the film in 2008 for future theater, DVD and Blu-ray releases under the title Ashes of Time Redux. The film was reduced from 100 to 93 minutes. Both the original and Redux versions can still be found on Asian markets, while only the Redux version is available to western markets. Several criticisms of the Redux version have been noted, such as poor image quality and color mastering from the source material, cropping and removal of portions of the bottom image, poor English translations, and the re-scoring.
Leslie Cheung as Ouyang Feng, the Western Venom
Tony Leung Ka-fai as Huang Yaoshi, the Eastern Heretic
Brigitte Lin as Murong Yang / Murong Yin / Dugu Qiubai
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as Blind Swordsman
Carina Lau as Peach Blossom, Blind Swordsman's wife
Charlie Yeung as Girl with mule
Jacky Cheung as Hong Qigong, the Northern Beggar
Maggie Cheung as Ouyang Feng's sister-in-law
Li Bai as Hong Qigong's wife
Collin Chou as Swordsman
The story is a prequel to the renowned novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong, as it follows the book's main antagonist Ouyang Feng as a young man crossing paths with other important characters from the book. In the process, the movie humanizes Feng and depicts the events that lead to his venom and ruthlessness. He crosses paths with some of the most powerful wuxia masters in the novel – Eastern Heretic (Huang Yaoshi), Northern Beggar (Hong Qigong) and Dugu Qiubai. The film also introduces new characters not from the novel: the Blind Swordsman, his wife Cherry Blossom, and Girl with a Mule.
The film takes liberties with events set before the beginning of the story in Yong's novel. It sometimes completely flips the intended meaning of the novel, as in Feng's copulation with his sister-in-law, which is depicted as sinister and taboo in the book but is shown as true love in the film; the longing for her serves as a common theme that echoes throughout the movie.
Sets in ancient China, Leslie Cheung plays a young Ouyang Feng (the main antagonist in the novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes) and serves as a common link to the other young characters from the novel when he crosses paths with them. Feng serves as the narrator of the film.
The story begins many years after the main events that take place later in the film, with Ouyang Feng – now known as the Western Venom due to his spitefulness and mercilessness, and hailing from the western province – effortlessly toying with and disposing of a group of henchmen in brutal fashion. He narrates that he is venomous because he is enraged with jealousy.
The story then backtracks many years to the times when Feng was younger and before he was known as the Western Venom, working as a broker for assassins in a seemingly remote and desert region. He narrates that he has a friend from the East who visits him every year around this time.
Huang Yaoshi (Eastern Heretic) kills a brand of bandits just to take one of their horses. He arrives at Feng's and delivers to him a bottle of wine called "Forgotten Love" that he said was presented to him by a close friend. Huang's friend claims the wine can make a person forget the past and start each day anew, free of past burdens; he proceeds to drink the wine while Feng declines. That night, Huang begins to lose his memory, hurriedly leaves and chases after a shadowy woman who had awoken him in his sleep. The shadowy woman may be a fragment of his dream or imagination.
Huang arrives at a shallow river filled with trees on both sides. A woman named Cherry Blossom is standing in the river and tending to her horse. Huang seemingly still retains memory of her, looks smugly at her while she steals glances at him. Neither one speaks.
In the next scene, Huang is drinking with the Blind Swordsman. Huang is losing his memory and asks the later how they got to know each other. The Blind Swordsman tells him they used to be best friends but Huang stole the former's wife. As he is leaving, the Blind Swordsman narrates that he would have killed Huang if not for the fact that he is losing his sight and cannot see at night.
Huang is drinking alone at an establishment when an argument is taking place between two patrons, one being Murong Yang. Yang tries to draw his sword when Huang interjects and urges him to clam down. Yang pretends to cool down but quickly unleashes his sword and inadvertently cuts Huang. Huang retreats outside, leans on a wall, and sees that there is blood coming from his lower abdomen. Inside, Yang is laughing hysterically. Feng narrates that when Huang is a young man, he is charming and rebellious. He breaks women's hearts just as easily as they fall in love with him.
Despite being an elite swordsman himself, Murong Yang approaches Feng to hire an assassin to kill Huang. Yang claims that Huang breaks his sister's heart and deserves to die. Later, Yang's sister, Murong Yin arrives at Feng's and attempts to call off his brother's order. She says that her brother is in love with her but she loves Huang, who tells her in return that she is the one he loves the most.
After much back and forth between Feng, Yang, and Yin, it is revealed that Yang and Yin is the same person - a woman who sometimes dresses as a man and using the names Yang or Yin depending on her presentation at the time.
In a flashback, one night after rounds of drinking, Huang tells Yang that if the later has a sister he will marry her. Yang, already infatuated with Huang, tells him he will presents his sister to him. Yin goes to the rendezvous, dressed as a woman, but Huang does not show up; it is implied that Huang disappeared after that night of drinking. The event sends Yin into a rage and she seeks to have Huang killed, although she goes back and forth on her decision. She subsequently leaves Feng, still with a broken heart.
Feng narrates that people who have been deeply hurt in love sometimes do very strange things to soothe their wounded hearts, and that no one has seen Yang or Yin since; but shortly after her disappearance, a strange and powerful swordsman named Dugu Qiubai (who likes to practice her sword play with her own reflection) appears on the stage. The film then shows Dugu Quiba as Yang and Yin interchangeably.
The Blind Swordsman approaches Feng asking for a job to help pay for his journey back home to see the cherry blossom. Feng offers him the job of protecting the villages from the band of bandits seeking revenge for the comrades that Huang killed earlier in the film.
The Girl with a Mule solicits Feng's help in hiring an assassin to exact revenge on a group of imperial guards who killed her younger brother for unknowingly offending one of the guards. She is a poor peasant who can only offer an old mule and a basket of eggs as payment. Feng coldly brushes her off saying no one will kill for such a petty sum but he implies she can offer her body as compensation, a suggestion that disgusts her. Undeterred, she sits outside Feng's front yard hoping to solicit assassins who walk through the gate. While observing her through his balcony, Feng laments that from this vantage point, she looks like his lost love,
Feng notes that The Blind Swordsman has a very orderly and rigid daily routine, but he knows that even though the later lights a candle at night, he cannot see in the dark.
During the course of fighting the bandits, the weather changes to heavy overcast, the Blind Swordsman completely loses his sight and is killed in battle.
Feng comes across an exhausted and dirty young man (Hong Qigong) who runs out of food and money. He offers him food, shelter, and a job to work as an assassin. Hong begrudgingly accepts.
Hong's first job is to kill the bandits, who are returning to cause havoc in the area after being impeded and suffering casualties in the battle with the Blind Swordsman. Hong successfully disposes of the bandits and receives compensation from Feng. Feng notes that Hong is a man with integrity and will not stay in this profession for long.
Hong's wife appears at Feng's looking for her husband. Hong angrily ushers her away to return home; instead, his wife stands outside and waits for him. Hong tells Feng that he cannot takes his wife along while he is getting his hands dirty fighting and killing for a living, and notes that every wuxia master he encounters rides alone. Feng replies that there are always exceptions and tells Hong he once had a woman waiting for him but she ended up marrying his brother in his absence.
Hong accepts the Girl with a Mule's egg and kills the imperial guards to exact revenge for her brother. In the battle he suffers serious injuries, including losing a finger, and is nursed back to health by his wife. While Hong is still in critical condition, the Girl with a Mule begs Feng to hire a doctor to tend to Hong. Feng refuses, saying that a doctor cost money and suggests again that she sells her body to raise money. A bed ridden Hong urges the Girl with a Mule not to do anything stupid, and says that she doesn't owe him anything since he has accepted her egg as compensation.
Feng berates a bed-ridden Hong and asks him if it is really worth it losing body parts for an egg. Hong smiles at him and says he is using his wuxia for good instead of greed. He shoots back that the cold and calculating Feng would never accept such a task and he feels alive for doing a good deed. Feng leaves Hong's bedside speechless for he knows Hong is right.
After Hong returns to health, he and his wife embarks on their journey together and leaves Feng. While watching them disappear over the horizon, Feng thinks of his own shattered love life and feels a great sense of jealousy.
Feng notes that Hong purposely heads north against the south-blowing wind. The caption narrates that Hong later becomes the leader of the Beggars Sect and engages in a fierce battle with Feng.
Feng pays a visit to the Blind Swordsman's hometown to see the cherry blossom and is surprised to learn that the place has no cherry blossom. Cherry Blossom turns out to be the Blind Swordsman's wife, who breaks down crying after she learns from Feng that her husband has been killed in battle.
In a flashback, Feng tracks down his love the day before she is to be married to his brother and offers to take her away with him. She steadfastly refuses, telling him that he is too late. Feng, not wanting to attend the marriage ceremony, leaves that night and never returns.
Feng receives a note from his family that his true love (also his sister-in-law) had died almost two years ago. Feng now realizes that the "Forgotten Love" wine that Huang brings to him early in the film is a gift from her.
In a flashback, Huang and Feng's love are sitting and talking in her beach side hut. Huang narrates that he is in love with her but she only loves Feng. She sends Huang to visit Feng every year to gather his news for her. Secretly, she hopes that Huang would tell Feng her whereabouts. After Huang tells her he will never tell Feng her location because he promised her not to, she breaks down sobbing. She laments that she always thought she was the winner in love but she now realizes that she is the loser.
Huang narrates that he likes cherry blossom because he gets to see her every year during the season. She dies of illness soon after their last meeting and on her death bed she gives Huang the "Forgotten Wine" to deliver to Feng.
In the present, Huang has lost a lot of his memory. One of the few things he remembers is that he like cherry blossom and he proceeds to become a hermit, resides in an island fills with cherry blossom, and acquires the nickname Eastern Heretic.
Feng waits for Huang to visit even though he knows he will not come now that she has died. After two days, Feng drinks the remaining bottle of the "Forgotten Love". The wine does not make Feng forget his past but instead makes his memory for his love even stronger. He narrates that the more a person wants to forget, the more he remembers; and that the wine is her way of making him always remember her.
Feng burns down his dwelling and returns to his hometown. The caption says he later becomes the leader of his clan and acquires the nickname: Western Venom.
The film ends with brief appearances by the surviving main characters, and references scenes from the novel. It implies that the henchmen killed by Feng in the beginning of the film belong to the Beggars Sect lead by Hong. Hong sets a trap to corner Feng, but Feng is unfazed and smiles manically at Hong. Hong and Feng then engage in a battle. The film then pans to an older Feng in grey beard and hair, fighting and disposing of his enemies.
The music was composed by Frankie Chan and Roel A. García, and produced by Rock Records in Hong Kong and Taiwan. It was released in 1994. The redux version features additional cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma.
When the film opened in Hong Kong it received mixed reviews. Critics found it so elliptical that it was almost impossible to make out any semblance of a plot, something very rare in a wuxia film.
In The New York Times, Lawrence Van Gelder also gave Ashes of Time a mixed review:
For those who seek metaphors, Ashes of Time... presents the eye as well as the illusions of vision. One character is nearly blind. Another, a swordsman, goes blind in the middle of a horrendous battle. Two characters, Yin and Yang—one presented as a man, the other as his sister—are identical. And there is a brief appearance by a legendary sword fighter who hones his skills against his own reflection.
For those who seek battle, Ashes of Time offers intermittent blurs of action, streaks of flying figures, flashing steel, and rare spatters and gouts of moist crimson, all washing across the screen like hurried brush paintings.
Like the attainment of wisdom, Ashes of Time requires a long journey through testing terrain.
Note that this review contains a number of errors as regards the plot of the movie.1995 Hong Kong Film Awards
Won: Best Art Direction (William Chang)
Won: Best Cinematography (Christopher Doyle)
Won: Best Costume and Make-up Design (William Chang)
Nominated: Best Picture
Nominated: Best Director (Wong Kar-wai)
Nominated: Best Action Choreography (Sammo Hung)
Nominated: Best Film Editing (Patrick Tam, Kai Kit-wai)
Nominated: Best Original Score (Frankie Chan)
Nominated: Best Screenplay (Wong Kar-wai)
1994 Golden Horse Awards
Won: Best Cinematography (Christopher Doyle)
Won: Best Editing (Patrick Tam, Kai Kit-wai)
1995 Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards
Won: Best Film
Won: Best Director (Wong Kar-wai)
Won: Best Actor (Leslie Cheung)
Won: Best Screenplay (Wong Kar-wai)
1994 Venice Film Festival
Won: Best Cinematography (Christopher Doyle)
1997 Fant-Asia Film Festival
Won: Best Asian Film – Third Place
Ashes of Time grossed HK$9,023,583 during its Hong Kong run.