The template for Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin, which came out to universal acclaim at the start of this year. Again, the plot is so well known (based on a novel which is like the Chinese The Lord of the Rings) that its explication is felt unnecessary. Again, the martial arts are almost incidental. I think there can only be about 15 minutes of actual fighting in the 90 minute running time. There is ample room for the director's concerns, and flashy style, to predominate.
My sense is that Wong Kar-Wai always ends up preferring to spend his hours examining romantic renunciation. Love in Ashes of Time blooms only in an environment of betrayal. Marriages are cages our heroes yearn to escape from. They never do, which is how Wong builds up the dramatic weight in his films. Instead, we are left holding onto memories – often painful, and constantly fading. That, I assume, is what the film's title refers to.
I'm extrapolating from In The Mood For Love, which I found frustrating. Ashes of Time worked better for me, perhaps because its contrivances are entirely on the surface, and you don't feel like you're being manipulated. The film is elliptical about its plot, but entirely upfront about its themes. The characters tell you, in long soliloquies and monologues.
I guessed that In The Mood For Love left the possibility open for the two suffering lovers to consummate their affair – Maggie Cheung's son being the result. Interestingly, Ashes of Time repeats this motif almost exactly – Cheung (again!) also has a son, whose father may be our protagonist, rather than the man Cheung married. Her reflections as she watches her son out of the window is the most beautiful part of the film (incidentally, it's the only bit shot in a studio).
There is a sense here that a new generation will abandon the stifled, clandestine romantic lives of the past. But Wong appears fixated on them. Happy marriages, like that of the shoeless swordsman, are a joke. They involve compromise. Real love is about not giving in, and being alone – pining nobly for a beloved who is either far away, or dead.