I don’t think I’d heard the name Ouyang Feng before I watched Wong Kar Wai’s “Ashes of Time” (東邪西毒), a 1992 movie based on Jin Yong’s landmark wuxia series (what may be loosely understood as Chinese martial arts novels) “The Legend of the Condor Heroes” (射雕英雄傳).
The director Wong Kar Wai (WKW) was notoriously working without a real script, the lack of which caused three separate actors to be convinced they were cast as Ouyang Feng. The movie took so long to finish that all their money ran out. One of the producers, Andrew Lau, was forced to speed-make another movie to rescue the endeavor.
That speed-made movie, based on the same book and recycling the same cast, turned out to be one of the best Hong Kong comedies of all time. And it was Lau’s “The Eagle-Shooting Heroes” (東成西就), not “Ashes,” that drove me to read the original books.
It’s difficult to discuss “The Legend of the Condor Heroes,” the wuxia tradition, or the two movies’ relationship with it in depth, and anyway I don’t yet feel equipped to do so. A topic I potentially could, and perhaps one that I most urgently hope to tackle, is the character Ouyang Feng.
In the books, he’s one of the world’s greatest martial arts masters, nicknamed “Western Venom” (西毒) for his minions of poisonous snakes and similarly venomous ambitions. Siding with the bad guys and constantly interfering with the protagonists’ heroic journey, Ouyang Feng’s villainy becomes increasingly larger than life as the narrative progresses.
Granted, the novel’s character-building comes across as melodramatic as a whole, in part due to its theatrical influences and in part due to its popular readership. But for me, there was a point in which Ouyang Feng became so absurd to me that I began to see him in a new, surprisingly appreciative light. By the end of the novels, he was my favorite character.
Watching “Ashes of Time” for the first time completely confused me, and at the time I blamed it on my lack of knowledge about the original books. But returning to this movie after reading the books didn’t quite redeem it for me. As a WKW fan in general, I struggled to appreciate the fragmentation, romantic brooding and ambiguity that got pushed to an extreme in “Ashes.”
What I became able to appreciate, on the other hand, was the decision to make Ouyang Feng the main character. The books centered on the growing up story of a young man, Guo Jing, and the four great martial arts masters, all in their old age, serve mainly as backdrops and sidekicks to Guo’s adventures.
Guo Jing is a relatable character and far from joyless to follow around, but for me, the four masters are undeniably the most interesting part of the story. Amid so many TV adaptations that faithfully follow the original work, to center a film adaptation on the Masters in their youth is bold, refreshing and honestly what I’m looking for as a fan of the story.
Wong Kar Wai’s Ouyang Feng is played by the infinitely charismatic Leslie Cheung, who assumes the role of a kind of ronin-sleuth-assassin. Heartbroken because his lover (Maggie Cheung) decided to marry his brother, he leaves his home in the desolate White Camel Mountains and settles in an equally desolate desert.
He’s worn and sensitive like most WKW characters, also stingy and morally ambiguous, traits watered down from Jin Yong’s characterization. When he takes in a young wanderer Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung) — who was to become the leader of the “Beggar Clan” and one of the other great masters — a theme of moral adversity is most strongly portrayed.
There was a girl seeking revenge for her dead brother, and Ouyang Feng had refused to help her because she had no money. Hong Qi took on the job, got a finger sliced off, and took for payment only a single chicken egg. When Ouyang Feng asks him if the egg was worth the finger, Hong says, “No, but that is our difference.”
In the books, Ouyang Feng had backstabbed Hong Qi at a moment of Hong’s kindness; they are clearly characterized as the prototypes of good and evil. It is significant, though, that in “Ashes” Ouyang Feng serves as Hong Qi’s first mentor. Ouyang Feng’s role of a resting place, a begrudging but mostly disillusioned island in the storm, is a new addition on WKW’s part.
In a sense, this movie is showing Ouyang Feng before he became stuck on the stereotypically villainous obsession with becoming the most powerful martial arts master in the world. As a prequel, “Ashes” does not really recreate this character from the ground up. It’s possible, and fun, to picture this cynical, philosophizing young man bury his heartbreak, return to his home and grow into what he was first illustrated to be.
That said, this hypothetical character arc becomes much smoother due to the almost accidental existence of “The Eagle Shooting Heroes.” The fact that this movie was literally spawned by WKW’s writer’s block when making “Ashes” seems to me like a sign. Leslie Cheung’s Ouyang Feng isn’t quite complete without the version portrayed by Tony Leung in “The Eagle Shooting Heroes.”
First of all, I personally took an incredibly long time to realize that Tony Leung also did comedies. His longing and melancholy gaze captured by WKW was burnt into my mind, and I assume also much of the popular consciousness. His performance as Ouyang Feng in “The Eagle Shooting Heroes,” by contrast, hits the height of hilarity. This exaggerated performance style stems not only from the movie’s genre, “mou lei tau (無厘頭),” a type of slapstick humor that emerged in late 20th century Hong Kong cinema.
Because in Jin Yong’s books, Ouyang Feng literally goes mad. Attempting to master what is allegedly the best martial arts scripture, he is tricked by the heroine into adopting an extreme and lopsided methodology, which causes him to lose his mind. The ironies as well as humor in Ouyang Feng’s frantic villainy is beautifully showcased in a classic dueling scene between Tony Leung and Jacky Cheung (once again playing Hong Qi) in “Heroes.”
Hong Qi, caught in a heartbreak, claims that he does not want to live, and asks Ouyang Feng to finish him: “It’s worth it to die at the hands of such a great master.” The reality is, no matter how hard Hong Qi tries to refrain from fighting back, his reflexes get the better of him, and in the end Ouyang Feng is beaten to a pulp and begging for mercy.
This sequence is strongly reminiscent of the Ouyang Feng late in the books. He follows the hero and heroine around, an established and respected master doggedly at the tail of two teenagers. And to his disgrace, his efforts are undermined by the heroine’s wit and the hero’s (semi-accidentally acquired) martial arts excellence.
Later in the movie, paralleling his descent into madness in the novel, Tony Leung’s Ouyang Feng is defeated by the good guys, becomes convinced that he is a duck (contributing a brief interlude of “Old MacDonald Had A Farm”), and runs off to live with a band of cave animals (a gorilla, a dinosaur and aptly, a condor).
I would have been happy enough if it were only the symmetry of these two movies that sparked mysterious forces in alignment with the novelistic Ouyang Feng, and resulted in an illustration of one of my favorite villains. But there is one more thing. In Jin Yong’s sequel to “The Legend of The Condor Heroes,” Ouyang Feng emerges again, still mad from the end of the last novel. But this time, his madness takes on a more philosophical spin. He has forgotten even his own name, and had spent all the years off-stage wandering around, asking: “Who am I?”
Now, I once again see a full-circle moment. In “Ashes of Time,” the young Ouyang Feng eventually takes a potion that helps him forget about his lost lover, before returning home and rising to merciless prominence. Nearing the end of his life, he has once again forgotten.
To bring the story to an even more perfect full circle, Ouyang Feng’s life ends in yet another duel with his old friend and enemy, Hong Qi. When their younger selves part in “Ashes,” Wong Kar Wai superimposes a caption as Hong is disappearing into the distance, explaining that years later, they would die together in a duel. When this prophecy is fulfilled, Ouyang Feng regains a brief moment of mental clarity. His story is concluded by an embrace with his opponent, as well as a reconciliation with the fears, ambitions and perhaps love, that had plagued his life.