The Cinema of Wong Kar-wai – A ‘Writing Game’ Various April 2001 Wong Kar-wai Issue 13 Compiled by Fiona A. Villella Collaborating with stock company (Chris Doyle, William Chang, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung) and shooting haphazardly, in constant improvisational mode, Wong Kar-wai has brought to our cinema screens over the last ten years images of modern living, urban alienation, and forlorn love in a dazzlingly intimate, fluid, poetic and fragmented formal register. A call was recently put out for impressionistic contributions on any aspect of Wong’s career: a single film, a particular character, a moment, a stylistic aspect, the way his work gets critically discussed, his key collaborators, his shooting style and so on. Each entry was required to centre upon, or use as a starting point, a one-word title. The final statements collected below range from the personal to the political, the deeply heartfelt to the bluntly critical. * * * The Entries: Backside Blue Creation Dali-esque Time Desire Emotion Look Love Possibility Repetition Space Third-World Time Wrongheaded * * * WONG KAR-WAI filmography: As Tears Go By (1989), Days of Being Wild (1990), Ashes of Time (1994), Chungking Express (1994), Fallen Angels (1995), Happy Together (1997), In the Mood for Love (2000) * * * Backside Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love is a radiant homage to the neglected posterior. I don’t mean to detract in any way from Maggie Cheung’s overall highly nuanced and restrained performance when I say that she is almost deliberately, it seems, defined by the coy welcome offered by her lustrous buttocks in glorious retreat. The physicality of her acting and the phenomenal space she occupies on the screen is, for me, what makes this one of the great mime performances in film, equal to that of Marlene Dietrich in The Devil Is a Woman (Joseph von Sternberg, 1935). As Cheung sashays into the distance, one high-heeled foot sartorially censoring the other, she takes on the aspect of a dominatrix moulded in showers of light. Like Renoir’s paintings of servant girls, her skin and garments attract the light as her director sheaths her in tight, high-necked dresses that deny the body, yet hint at the promise beneath. Placing her squarely in the battlefield of love, the director must then camouflage his star for combat. At his bidding she imitates wallpaper, curtains, jungles, tropical beaches, the promise of blue skies. At times her lower body blends so effectively with the background that she becomes a supernatural presence – nothing but a floating, disproportionately large, head out of a Chinese ghost story. But inevitably, the eye is drawn down the length of her spine again to her backside, offering an enticement that can only be yearned for but never fully satisfied. The beauty of her performance is that, restricted by convention, and unable to openly express her desire, Cheung resorts to the subliminal use of body language. She freezes her face but liberates her tail, which speaks more eloquently of her inner yearnings and turmoil than does her dialogue. Watching this startling display, one is reminded of the way Garbo used her hands and body in her pre-sound days. Maggie Cheung is a mime of extraordinary subtlety as she proffers her protuberant flesh to the nostalgic ardour of Tony Leung. Her bottom is a beauty of regal proportions, communicating her character to the spellbound audience. To her bewildered lover, she must seem a priestess of fecundity or an immodest Venus in retreat. by Dmetri Kakmi back to list of words Dmetri Kakmi is an essayist and a critic. He works for Penguin Books Australia as an editor. * * * Blue Blue is the color of the rain soaked streets on a languorous summer night as the paths of Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung) and Tide (Andy Lau) cross in Days of Being Wild. But there is no spark in their passing encounter. Like the accursed ghosts of Greek tragedies wandering the earth without purpose or direction, they walk aimlessly to pass the lonely hours, to fill the void of unnerving silence. They speak dispassionately, as the saturating weight of sadness that ladens the atmosphere seems to exhaust even their deepest thoughts, and all that is left is the polite exchange. Blue is a sense of regret – of a chance encounter and missed opportunity that forms a closed, perpetual cycle of incompletion, loss, and want. It traces the shape of an imperfect circle – a hollow vessel, an oblate soul. It is a fragmented glimpse of infinite possibility from the omniscient windows of an unoccupied telephone booth: a failed attempt at connection, stifled by inaction. Like a spiritual bremsstrahlung, their souls have passed through the influence of a greater life force, and have now lost their energy. Now weak and unnecessary, there is only the shell of existence, the fading memory. It is a truncated portrait of a drifter – a tale of hopelessness and despair – of the figurative blues. It is an inertia that will not yield against the potential of true love, but instead, contaminates like a virus, and each hopeless, unrequited lover inevitably succumbs to a lethargy of the will. It is an ache of passivity that hovers innocuously through the impersonal city, and only the restless who venture into the empty evening streets find themselves incurably infected, inducted into some reluctant, nocturnal fraternity, eternally condemned to perform this somnambulistic, melancholic waltz of the wounded heart. by Acquarello back to list of words Acquarello is a NASA Design Engineer and author of the Strictly Film School website. * * * Creation Is it really possible for a commercial filmmaker to create his work in the same way as a novelist or a playwright? In the Mood For Love may be the most luxuriant film because it seems that Wong Kar-wai had the luxury himself to endlessly recreate the work until a ‘final’ version appeared. He seems to have been able to film and refilm, think and rethink, and use a multitude of apparently interchangeable collaborators (most notably cinematographers), before he has pronounced the film, for the moment, at an end. Part of his process of ‘elaboration’ has also been to remove and eliminate, most notably the physical love scene. When it was ‘finished’ he continued to elaborate by issuing the film’s ‘visuals’ in a book, Duidao (a novella by Hong Kong writer Liu Yichang), which tells a different story. It exists like one of those little fish that live in the big fish’s mouth. The In the Mood For Love website goes beyond the usual puffery and stills. Here, we can find, under the ‘Kitchen’ link for instance, details of Maggie’s meals when dining alone, Maggie’s summer and winter meals for her home and her snacks and fruits home according to the seasons. I wonder, do Wong Kar-wai’s films ever cease being created? Chungking Express started life as a Chinese art-house noir and went on to become both a Tarantino video (that surely has negative implications) and the inspiration for a Tarantino movie. After Tarantino, it has dribbled into the consciousness of a thousand actual and would be filmmakers some not a million miles away. Then (in rebellion?) Wong Kar-wai turns everything upside down again and makes the coolest, most enigmatic love story in which so little actually happens that the audience spends its time wondering whether what they are seeing or have seen actually took place at all either on screen or off. by Geoff Gardner back to list of words Geoff Gardner was once a film distributor and, twenty years ago, director of the Melbourne Film Festival. * * * Dali-esque Time What do you do when you meet the spouse of the person your spouse is having an affair with? Complicated? Should the two pained souls succumb to their carnal desires and have an affair themselves? We would clearly forgive them this infidelity. Or should they retard this dilemma and have it slowly grow into an emerging tacit love, and replay the painful love forever and ever? They would gain our utmost admiration. But should we even be privy to what lies in their hearts? Secrets, melancholia, and the passing chance at love not seized become the central emotions in Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood For Love. Like an orchestral conductor, Wong Kar-wai plays these emotions by manipulating what Andrei Tarkovsky referred to as the ‘time-pressure’ inherent in every shot. So that the rhythm of each succeeding image becomes bathed in a glorious hue of temporal indeterminacy. The images in In the Mood for Love do not narrate, they linger, describe, and emote. The time of the images does not slow down, it ‘melts down’ from the burning passion of the two would-be-lovers, as they tease each other with hushed glances and sexually charged quotidian encounters. These ‘chance’ moments of physical proximity on staircases and hallways become ‘what if’ memory-images suspended in time and space and protracted to a level of pure character subjectivity, a consciousness of Time heightened by ‘banal’ moments that attain monumentality through the temporal ‘melt down’ of the filmic image. by Donato Totaro back to list of words Donato Totaro is editor of Offscreen. * * * Desire In the Mood for Love Wong’s leads, from Faye in Chungking Express to Mr Chow in In The Mood For Love display a repressed desire. In several ways, Wong’s films are all about submerged passion and hidden desires. Ironically, they are also fused with a saturated emotion that resonates in every scene. It is in the characters’ repression of desire that emotion can be felt most. It is about what is not said or acted upon on screen, that which the audience is aware of but not shown. There is a three dimensional depth that exists behind every character and every door. Loneliness, isolation and yearning consume protagonists Mrs Chan and Mr Chow in In The Mood For Love. Their characters’ status as outsider is constantly reiterated as they often choose to eat alone, and avoid human contact and interrogation. Mrs Chan enjoys going to movies and both protagonists share a love for martial arts fiction, another form of escapism. Shots of narrow hallways, people slamming doors, and narrow staircases highlight the claustrophobia of apartment living. However, they also accentuate the alienation and distance that prevails regardless of physical proximity. In Chungking Express, a sense of detachment is generated by the mere fact that not all the characters are given names – the lady in the blonde wig and policemen whose most identifiable feature is their police number. There is a detachment of emotion, a sense of the characters being simply another set of elements amongst the visual array of urbanity. In The Mood For Love‘s main protagonists are often seen talking to other characters off screen, highlighting the separateness between individuals. Consequently, when characters share on-screen space, it is almost claustrophobic because of the heavy presence of repressed longings and unspoken desires. Intersecting paths and missed moments are the only key to the characters’ true intent. Dictating the arbitrary nature of romance, Wong creates a visual pastiche of eccentric visual rhymes and coincidences. Ultimately, the desires and yearnings of his characters ensure an ambiguity that denies closure. The relationship between Mrs Chan and Mr Chow retains ambiguity, continuing a thematic tradition that runs throughout Wong’s previous films Chungking Express, Fallen Angels and Happy Together. by Elizabeth Wright back to list of words Elizabeth Wright is completing her honours year in film studies at Monash University. Her thesis focuses on the film aesthetic of Wong Kar-wai. * * * Emotion To write anything about Wong Kar-wai is like trying to focus clearly on an object seen through a mighty waterfall. To so much as think of his name is to unleash a mental cascade of the richest, most vibrantly emotional audio/visual material of the past twenty years. Wong penetrates the emotional centres of his lonely characters’ fantasies and feelings, that place in most people least likely ever to connect with the outside world, and sets up his camera there. From this vantage point he sends them spinning out past each other, at perpetual cross-purposes, never connecting, at best colliding for a few ecstatically freeze-framed seconds. They say no man is an island, but in Wong’s work everyone is a self-contained universe, governed by its own laws of desire and following its own eccentric path in search of that ever elusive state: Happy Together. Rather than bewail this hopeless state of affairs from a distance, Wong chooses to celebrate the intensity of these great arcs of emotion through a visceral intimacy only he can achieve. Somehow this makes his films all the more heartbreaking. At their spontaneous best they show us film narrative melting away, leaving us with a cinema of pure feeling. by Maximilian Le Cain back to list of words Maximilian Le Cain is a 22-year-old filmmaker and cinephile living in Cork City, Ireland. He has has written for the magazine Film West. * * * Look For In the Mood for Love especially, Wong Kar-wai has declared one of the decisive influences to be Jacques Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) where impossible love plays itself out between the banality of everyday material concerns (life in a gas station) and a luxuriousness of look. As with Demy’s film, In the Mood for Love is a film with a lush visuality, one in which decor (all those flower patterns on curtains, wallpaper, and dresses) takes off from story and even takes it over (insofar as whatever the free will of characters in the narrative, they will serve most as pieces in the overall visual design). Time slows down; repetition of situations robs actions of their uniqueness; a languorousness enters into the image through slow, lingering pauses, looks, and the meandering ephemerality of steam and smoke that waft lazily through the scenes. By these means, the film impels the spectator to look, to see the film immediately and predominantly as a formal experience. And yet like Demy’s film (where what really makes love impossible is the fact that Nino Castelnuovo has to go away to fight the Algerian war), In the Mood for Love reiterates that beyond form, there is the inescapable presence of the historical and the social. There is intense nostalgia in the film – for example, Nat King Cole on the soundtrack – but it is a nostalgia set against the impositions and transitions of modernity. From the initial premise that a tight housing market brings strangers into proximity to the references at the end of the film to inter-nation migrations and to the Cambodian war, In the Mood for Love reminds us that post-modernity is not only a style but a way of living concrete issues of our contemporaneity. by Dana Polan back to list of words Dana Polan teaches in the School of Cinema-TV at the University of Southern California. * * * Love – Things Wong Kar-wai Taught Me About Love Requited love is an impossibility. You will fall in love only once. Obstacles will prevail. The rest of your life is spent recovering. Eroticising their possessions will be the pinnacle of your sexual fulfilment. Anything that distracts you from the pain of your loss is good. Some people are more successful in this regard than others. Hook up with someone. Live with them. Sleep with them. Tag along. Don’t be fooled. You are only a transitory distraction. Ask for commitment. Declare your love. Watch the set up evaporate. The most potent way to exist is to occupy someone else’s imagination. Desire is kept eternally alive by the impossibility of contact. Modern communication enabling technologies will only heighten your sense of desolation by making you more keenly aware of the fact that no one is trying to call. by Alice Dallow back to list of words Alice Dallow is a long time fan of Wong Kar-wai’s films. In her spare time she makes shorts films and music clips. * * * Possibility The city is an engine of possibility. There are chance encounters lurking in every intersection. No amount of effort on the part of the city dweller can avoid the possibility of possibility. Just being in the city and of the city is enough. Wong Kar-wai’s cinema is the cinema of the city as a machine for possibility. His characters may be loveable or unloveable, plausible or implausible, but they are all expressions of the space of the city itself. The city, which is the real object of love in all Wong Kar-wai films. It is not always love that his characters find. It is not the lover they find or the kind of love they seek. What they find are the possibilities opened up by the city. Characters meet, or rather, collide on this screen of the city. They mingle their affects, create a zone between their bodies in which something happens. Something that is neither the one nor the other’s, but a third creation. His characters are always making something, with someone, other than what they expected. But making something, affirming their powers, enhancing their attributes. That is how it is, in the city, if you are of the city. The city of possibility. The city as possibility. The city of cinema. The cinema of Wong Kar-wai. The love affair of Wong Kar-wai. by McKenzie Wark back to list of words McKenzie Wark is visiting professor in comparative literature at the State University of New York, Binghamton. His most recent book is Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace (Pluto Press, Australia). * * * Repetition “An echo of pain through time”, David Thomas (1) When Tony Leung looks into the mirror in In The Mood for Love, it is ten years after Days Of Being Wild; you can see that he’s aged. Whether he’s matured, I don’t know (“I’m not complicated”, he insists). He doesn’t need the youthful gesture of combing his hair any longer, but he’s still smoking those filterless cigarettes, over and over, thinking about Maggie Cheung, presumably, as he sits behind the glass office door. In another office, is a big clock that echoes the clock from Days Of Being Wild. The woman under it is no longer the young, tender being that seemed to sit at the office box of the stadium forever. She doesn’t dress casually anymore; instead she’s wearing those uncomfortable, classy gowns as if to cover up her fragility. She’s Maggie Cheung and she’s as beautiful as ever, but on occasion she can’t suppress the pain of disappointment any longer. She’s aged, whether she’s matured, I don’t know. They’re both going through an endless series of repetitions, always the same, always slightly different, still trapped in a past that obsesses its chronicler, Wong Kar-wai, to such a degree that he has turned the somber, damp green hues of the older film into a hothouse of colors. They’re both In The Mood For Love and the unidentified quotation at the end seems to be about the filmmaker rather than any of the two. It talks about seeing memories through glass and hoping the glass will break. In one of their rituals, as much about their absent partners as about themselves, Maggie Cheung runs out of frames, as if she could produce the vibrations to shatter the glass. In the repetition her inner turmoil bursts into tears, while Leung’s voiceover says that it’s not real. The feelings on the screen are never real and they’re produced by the repetition of real acts, in different contexts, trapped forever in the material of the film, looking the same, looking different everytime, coalescing past, present and future into a projection. In The Mood For Love may be a projection Wong had in mind when he shot Days Of Being Wild or a repetition of a longing, a mood, a vibrant dream state, condemned to make its eternal loop in the protagonists of Wong’s films. Like them, he’s aged. Whether he’s matured I don’t know. But I think he has and I pray that I’m right, everyday. by Christoph Huber back to list of words Christoph Huber was thrilled at an early age by Roger Corman´s House Of Usher. His biggest fear since is that his writings on film (mainly for Videofreak and cycamp) are nothing but self-therapy. His other biggest fear is interviewing Aki Kaurismäki. From his live album with the 2 Pale Boys, Surfer Girl/Around The Fire, “Meadville”, from 1998 * * * Space A cliché of Hollywood romances, parodied innumerable times is the scene in which two lovers run towards each other on a white beach or across a sunlit meadow, arms outstretched embracingly. Their physical trajectory across the relative vastness dividing them represents their emotional coming together, the space they traverse a special place beyond the daily to-and-fro. In the West these images portray love to viewers in terms of immediately comprehensible realities. But what happens if you inhabit a space where there are no meadows or beaches, where the light is artificial, and you live so close to your neighbour as to be little more than a changing shape on his or her retina. Then you need to create distance, desire needs space to breathe, to detach itself from the frenzy of familiar stimuli, in order to develop into romance. Here, space is calculated in centimetres, not metres, and romance grows not in leaps and bounds but tiny increments, through the smallest of gestures, and the pauses between gestures. In the cramped world of In The Mood for Love, physical space – the foundation of personal space – is a much-valued element. That is why mirrors, which feature prominently throughout the film, are so prized. Where there is no space, they at least give an illusion of it. Wong’s protagonists live in single rooms, work in congested offices and travel the corridors that connect the two, encountering each other on stairs and in alleyways so narrow that they must turn sideways to pass, acutely aware of each other, intimate strangers, deeply connected in their thoughts yet superficially separate. Wong makes many visual references to their dualistic condition by simultaneously juxtaposing and separating Mr Chan and Mrs Chow, as we see one or the other through a screen, in a mirror or bounded by rectilinear lines of walls and doorways of their shared space. When they finally find a place of their own it is a Western-style café, where they sit in a cubicle divided by the bench table between them. The camera pans back and forth tracking their (gastronomic) dialogue, here as throughout, physical space structuring their relationship. In Wong’s film, confinement is both a sociological and psychological condition. In The Mood For Love is a study of love in small spaces, not a miniature world, however, but a prison. Love grows under the watchful eyes of the prison-keepers, and is communicated not with the largesse, even excess of the West, but in its inhabitants’ subtle code, one so muted and circumscribed as to fail them, whose love will finally remain enclosed forever in a tiny sub-let room. by Bernard Hemingway back to list of words Bernard Hemingway’s film review site is here. * * * Third-World Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together might be seen as a turning point in cinematic negotiations of where Hong Kong and Taiwan figure in the global popular imagination. Hong Kong and Taiwan (and also China and Singapore) are still often cinematically represented to Western audiences (especially by American filmmakers) as ‘exotic’ locales, places where the foreign, the ancient, the mysterious and superstitious (martial arts, fengshui, triads, and so on), the black market, and ubiquitous chaotic street markets are shown to be coexisting with the modern, Westernized world of urban high-rises, international finance, Starbucks and McDonalds, international terrorism and intrigue, military technology, yachts, jets, and so on. (for example, see especially action and fantasy films, such as the continuing wildly popular James Bond series). This state of coexistence between the ancient and the modern emphasizes the sense that ‘Asian’ places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, though thoroughly internationalized in many aspects, are however not ‘cosmopolitan’ in the Western sense, but are still in some ways part of the ‘developing/Third world.’ However, the appearance of a movie like Happy Together signals a moment when Hong Kong film has now taken to imagining its own ‘Third-World’ other: representing Argentina as an underdeveloped/exotic place for Chinese to visit, where Chinese fantasies and experiences can be explored in a non-Chinese subaltern space (Note: Wong’s main characters are temporary visitors from Hong Kong and Taiwan, clearly not illegal immigrants forced out of their home countries for economic or political reasons). Argentina, in Wong’s film, is ‘the end of the world’, the place where his characters can go slumming – to escape their own families, society, and geography, to work, and to have exotic and erotic experiences in cheap, spacious, affordable surroundings. This has up until recently been the kind of thing that (North) Americans and (Western) Europeans can be seen doing in some films, but rarely are Chinese represented this way. As such, this film represents a new shared imaginary world where America, Europe, Hong Kong and Taiwan are now more alike than different, at least in terms of development and modernization. For such a story as we see in this film can only take place if less wealthy and less developed countries are simply ‘there,’ ‘waiting’ to be narrative backdrops for the more important events of our own more modernized globe-hopping lives, culture, economy, and society. This takes place at the cinematographic level as well – Wong takes this space that is only a temporary ‘on-location’ background, distorts it through various lighting and camera techniques, and cuts it up as he pleases during editing process. by Nick Kaldis back to list of words Nick Kaldis is Assistant Professor of German, Russian, and East Asian Languages at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where he teaches Chinese Language, Literature, and Film. He has published articles on Lu Xun’s poetry, and on PRC and Taiwan cinema. * * * Time In the Mood for Love, a mysterious, elliptical film, is a modern-day Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945), that is to say a middle-class tale of repression and restraint transformed into a fable of longing and stoicism by the director’s command of potent images. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung are caught in loveless marriages. Through a series chance encounters, which could have been enacted against Abba’s ‘The Day Before You Came’, they meet and over time come to rely on each other for the company and affection withheld them by their respective, absent partners. However, circumstances, entrenched behaviour, and perhaps even a touch of habitual monkish denial, prevent them from embracing the new joy that has quietly entered their lives. Rather than regular furtive collisions scheduled between noodles and a cup of coffee, they settle for languid looks, loaded conversations and small, touching, intimacies that sear the soul. Not since Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book (1995) has such delicate eroticism suffused the very fabric of a film. It’s the kind of impossible romance one dreams into being in the dead of night. Cut adrift and restless, floating somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, life is transformed into a series of fleeting, impressionistic moments to be played with as one wishes. Scenes are replayed and given a different accent, interpretation, and even totally new outcome. Ghostlike, one drifts in slow motion down corridors and up stairways, past curtains billowing with the sighs of love as Nat King Cole croons in Spanish. The world shimmers. The inner eye, transfixed by an irrecoverable and distant past, transforms a tawdry alley, a cramped apartment, a shabby basement eatery, into an exotic, loaded-with-meaning movie set against which the heart can be pierced by tumultuous love. But ‘movie set’ is perhaps not accurate. It may be more correct to say that this is a glossy high-fashion magazine spread dreamt up by Diana Vreeland, full of ennui and obsessive, hypnotic attention to detail. See the fabric drape and reveal the curve and flow of the body beneath. Be mesmerised by the stylised hand gestures that metamorphose a flesh and blood human being into a liquid mannequin of desire. Admire the adherence to ritualised space. If this suggests superficiality to some, I remind them of Oscar Wilde’s maxim that it is only the superficial that believe looks are not important. In Wong Kar-wai, physical reality, if not altogether obsolete, is malleable clay. It can melt, change colour, or vanish to allow the players to stand against a universe of varying shades representative of their complete and utter surrender to the act of yearning. Time exists only in so far as when the loved one will call or depart. As for the flesh and blood human beings suffering for our delectation, they become gods and goddesses, able to transmute the base metal of their anguish into the embodiment of a lost time, of what might have been had fate been on their side. by Dmetri Kakmi back to list of words Dmetri Kakmi is an essayist and a critic. He works for Penguin Books Australia as an editor. * * * Wrongheaded “If I offend, it is better at a distance.” Byron The framework tends, I think, to inhibit rational analysis and encourages precisely the self-indulgent and self-serving attitude of film critics toward Wong Kar-wai to which I referred in my comment on In the Mood for Love. I’m not terribly interested in films that may or may not conjure up a stream of vaguely linked nouns and adjectives. It will be discovered that nearly any work of a certain type will do that. (For example, remove “Hong Kong,” of course, and perhaps “Pop” and “Voice-over,” and see how many films fit the bill. Thousands.) What’s really needed is a critique that begins to link the fondness for such films and filmmakers to the conditions of the booming entertainment industry and stock market of the late 1990s, i.e., an understanding that there are a good many people around with a good deal of time on their hands and without much social or historical knowledge, who are getting rich (or at least quite comfortable) by means they don’t comprehend and who instinctively fear any concrete, probing, urgent look at social life. The Wong Kar-wai infatuation will, I’m convinced, appear absurd in a few years’ time to large numbers of people. It should to more now. by David Walsh back to list of words David Walsh, arts editor of the World Socialist Web Site, has had an interest in films for thirty years.