“Sometimes they think the way we work is very stylish and romantic, but actually it’s the way we can survive and make the films. We can work with the things that we get, but not the things we wish we had.” (Wong Kar-wai)
Hong Kong is a product of relentless migration, globalisation and social change. The forces that shaped Hong Kong’s personality were huge, within a space that was too small and self-contained. Fierce population growth and movement dissolved any demarcation between commerce and culture. The impatient desires on which the colony was founded have created a society where movement and adaptation is all important, where fast living and relational identities reflect the rapid fluctuations of market forces. A sizeable portion of the population derives income from some form of stock, currency or property speculation. Appearance and attitude, obsession and commitment, keeping up with the times: these are issues of the Hongkie identity. Consequently, living there cultivates a loud, fluid existentialism at odds with the expectations of Western critics.
Wong Kar-wai’s characters’ lack of roots and painful personal stories reflect the political and social uncertainty faced by Hong Kong over the years, first with the 1997 handover to China and what it will mean in the future (mainland China has promised 50 years of capitalism, a period ending with the year 2046). While the characters suffer, it is interesting to note that there are no disasters – all accept their fates with varying degrees of stoicism and acceptance, perhaps reflecting the director’s own optimism about the future, his embracing of Western and Japanese pop culture and belief that Hong Kong can forge its own identity. His characters chart their existence against the disappointment and regrets of failed relationships and the hopeful chase for new ones – the accidental meetings that, strangely enough, provide them with a sense of security, fate and happiness.
Though he is a much successful filmmaker now, he started his career as a graphic designer. As a graphic designer he adored the still photography of Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was also the main inspiration behind Satyajit Ray’s work, and the sleek fashion work of Richard Avedon. Martin Scorsese and the American and European new waves were a huge influence, but it was fellow director Patrick Tam who perhaps made the greatest practical difference; Wong Kar-wai wrote Tam’s Final Victory (1987) and in return, Tam nurtured Wong Kar-wai’s directing aspirations, even supervising the editing on Days Of Being Wild three years later. Interestingly, Wong Kar-wai claims that his non-linear shooting style came, not from film, but from a novel called The Buenos Aires Affair, by the Argentinian novelist Manuel Puig.
Below I will discuss three of his major creations: Chunking Express, In the Mood for Love and 2046.
Chungking Express (1994) blends the genres of romantic comedy and film noir in two adjacent tales. The first of these follows an undercover cop known as “Cop 223” (Takeshi Kaneshiro), whose girlfriend May has left him. Cop 223’s spiral of melancholy is interrupted when he spends a platonic evening with a mysterious woman (Brigitte Lin), who is, unbeknownst to him, a drug trafficker. The second tale follows another lovelorn cop, plainclothes officer “Cop 663” (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), who has a habit of talking to inanimate household objects. A regular customer at the Midnight Express takeaway bar, Cop 663 fails to notice that the cashier, Faye (Faye Wong), has fallen for him. He remains oblivious when she breaks into his apartment periodically, tidying and rearranging things. Finally he catches her in the act, and the two agree to a date at the California Bar. However, Faye departs for the “real” California instead, returning one year later to issue him a “boarding pass” consisting of a paper napkin.
Despite its grounding in the context of mainstream Hong Kong cinema, Chungking Express displays a variety of specifically foreign cultural references. The predominant tone of the film is informed by European and Japanese modernist art cinema. In particular, the breezy disregard for plot structure, the frequent musical interludes and the emphasis on style over psychology are reminiscent of the French New Wave films of Godard and Truffaut.
The notion of time is a pervading concept in all of Wong’s films. His preoccupation with capturing time is constantly evident, his camera doting on specific moments and intent on finding difference in repetition.
Wong effectively highlights the fact that people (who make up part of the postmodern pastiche) are in close physical proximity, but can be so far apart, and indeed are so very far apart, at the same time. His penchant for voiceover monologues and written captions are also part of his signature compositions. The isolation of his characters often gives way to voiceover monologues in which his character’s status as outsiders is constantly reiterated. The alienating space of the city is often the backdrop for inhabitants who struggle to mentally articulate their own sense of place and identity within the urban landscape. This translates to a visual pastiche of deeply drenched colours and stylised camera shots. Chungking Express adopts this rhetoric by using MTV editing vocabulary and by constantly manipulating visuals. Wong finds “creativity in the astute articulation of the pause and rewind modes,” another postmodern emblem of the late 20th century.
Chunking Express is a rare film which, although it takes inspiration from Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami’s The Second Bakery Attack and Manuel Puig’s novel, Kiss of the Spiderwoman, is also peppered with pop culture references, and features ordinary folk in situations which are at once mundane and absurd. There is a great bit of film noir flavour added to it. The absence of a cohesive plot emphasizes the gap between the French characters and the Hollywood fantasies which they are aping, and a certain comic energy is generated in this way.
Indeed, the end of the film makes this metaphor literal, when Faye returns from the real California, stating that it is “nothing much.” Her journey has obviously changed her (she is now wearing the uniform of an air hostess), yet the changes have been complicated by her own interpretation of what she has seen and experienced.
In the Mood for Love (1997) sees Wong Kar-wai returning to a Hong Kong setting, and further exploring the boundaries of regional identification. Set in the 1960s, the film follows the odd friendship which develops between two neighbours whose spouses are engaged in an affair. Trying to understand how the affair developed, Mrs Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr Chow (Tony Leung) enact the romance of the adulterers (whose faces we never see) – and begin to fall in love themselves. He’s a journalist who dreams of publishing martial arts novels and she is a secretary at a shipping company. Their eventual coupling is obvious from the beginning but the pleasure here is the way that Wong Kar-wai ambiguously paints such a journey with his grand masterstrokes. Their neighbours soon suspect that the pair’s platonic relationship is anything but chaste, a social pressure which forces them to part. In the following years, they almost cross paths a number of times. Finally, Chow finds himself in Cambodia in 1966 during De Gaulle’s state visit. Wandering amongst the ruined temples of Angkor Wat, Chow whispers a secret into a hole in an old stone wall. The film’s basic narrative formula (a couple’s love is pitted against the institutions of society, and is thwarted) is familiar from US melodrama, and its precedents in European theatre.
In the Mood for Love focuses on the random nature of romance and the notion of the “missed moments.” It offers a certain sadness at the separation of Mr Chow and Mrs Chan, but ultimately turns its back on the characters, finding nothing transcendent in the relationship that might fill the final frames. This sense of dislocation is reminiscent of Antonioni’s film L’éclisse (1962). In both films, there is the disconcerting sense that history has somehow entered the frame, erasing the characters. The tracking shots through the ruins are also reminiscent of the opening moments of Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961), in which the camera drifts like a disembodied presence along the hallways of an opulent building.
In the Mood for Love conducts its exploration of Asian regional spaces. At the core of this enigmatic denouement, we might suggest, is a determination to avoid framing Hong Kong identity directly. First of all, it refers beyond China to Japan. Secondly, the characters themselves travel physically beyond Hong Kong, visiting Singapore (where Mr Chow accepts a job) and Cambodia (where he goes to see the spectacular ruins at Angkor Wat). The film ends with Mr Chow wandering reflectively among the ruins.
Its poetic and surrealistic visuals makes one delve even deeper into the feel of the cinema. Maybe that’s the magic Wong Kar-wai weaves into his cinema. The ending of the film therefore represents a kind of narrative rupture, in which the possibilities for identification (both in terms of transglobal modernity and pan-Asian regionalism) are curtailed. Yet within this disruptive conclusion lies a final possibility for identification. For the political disruption of colonialism is one element that these nations have in common (Cambodia and Singapore, as well as Hong Kong). The clip showing De Gaulle’s visit to Cambodia hints at the fact that although Cambodia and Hong Kong may have distinctly different histories, it is nonetheless true that both have been drastically affected by the intervention of a European colonial power.
2046 (2004) continues In the Mood for Love’s examination of regional identity, while extending its articulation of modernity into the future as well as the past. The film’s title refers to the fiftieth year of the period following the 1997 handover, the end of the period during which China has promised not to alter Hong Kong’s economic and political system. Just as the 1997 handover and the mid-1960s turmoil of Hong Kong generate anxiety in the earlier films, 2046 gestures towards another zone of temporal uncertainty in the future. Indeed, although the contemporary moment is not represented in 2046, 1997 is the fulcrum upon which rest the film’s forays into nostalgia and science fiction. Wong Kar-wai worked for 15 long years on this script.
In 2046, Chow’s real and imaginary spatial trajectories are paralleled by temporal trajectories. The film itself begins with two return journeys, one spatial (Chow returning from Singapore to Hong Kong) and one temporal (Tak coming back from 2046). The intertwining of space and time continues throughout the film. Chow plays a writer who hides his own past pain by pretending to be a casual lover, though doing so is not his nature. He lives in an apartment building where a former lover was murdered by a jealous boyfriend, “2046” being the number of the apartment she lived in, as well as the apartment belonging to his lost love from In the Mood for Love. The writer lives next door, in 2047. To him, it represents a place where memories dwell, so he writes an erotic science fiction story about it, where a futuristic dystopian megalopolis is connected by a series of trains, and the characters go to “2046,” a place where things never change and memories stay the same, so there is no loss or sadness, yet the character in his story is the only person who has chosen to return from there.
Jingwen and Chow establish a platonic relationship, in which she helps him write. During this time, Chow endeavours to write a story for her about what her boyfriend is really thinking. Entitled “2047,” this story involves Chow imagining himself “as a Japanese man,” who falls in love with “an android with delayed reactions.”
The three films I have discussed all negotiate identity, to varying degrees, through encounters with foreign cultures. In each case, transnational travel parallels the virtual vectors of transcultural identification, so that the characters and the films themselves follow trajectories of identification, trajectories that are continually being diverted and interrupted. These trajectories can be plotted along two main thematic axes: one defined by hybridity of different cultures, the other by nostalgia of the past and in the case of 2046, the future.
In the Mood for Love and 2046 show the way that these two vectors of identification (the hybrid and the nostalgic-futuristic) constantly interrupt each other, turning identification back on itself. The closest Wong Kar-wai gets to articulate a stable Hong Kong identity is, finally, to suggest the universality of instability. It is an articulation of identity that produces a certain optimism even as it crushes the possibility for unified identification. This paradox informs both the romantic relationships that drive the films, and the discourse of territorial identity that permeates them.
Wong Kar-wai is yet to win an Oscar, but that doesn’t mean that he or his films have been short-changed. He’s been recognized twice as Best Director at the Hong Kong Film Awards (once for Chunking Express and also for Days of Being Wild), he’s the first Chinese director to win a directing award at Cannes (for Happy Together in 1997), and he was later chosen to work with the Cannes jury. What makes him distinct is his uncanny ability to produce art and commercial success at the same time. Today he is revered as one of the most talented auteurs of modern contemporary cinema across the globe. He says, “For me to make films should be like a circus, we should just go from one town to the other, always on the road, and you stop when you think you should stop.” He remains the obstinate auteur who wears black glasses, insists on his principles and endlessly recreates the script while shooting his films, and then re-edits them afterwards until the final version appears.
Shashank Saurav is a freelance writer and software engineer based in Bangalore, India.