An extraordinary poetry emanates from the films of Wong Kar-wai
: the intangible is made tangible. A dull ache of loss and longing seems to pervade the very air his characters breathe, lurking in the shadows of the streets they walk, in the cracks and crevices of their dingy apartments; regret for a past that might never have been, chances missed, possibilities never realized, irrecoverable time. There is a dislocation
in time and space, people forever in the right place, but at the wrong time, or with the wrong people, forever missing the moment. Communication is almost impossible, rendered through music and voiceover rather than through dialogue, isolating the characters in their own disjunctive, isolated little worlds. And yet from somewhere deep within this well of melancholy and sadness, overwhelming beauty rises up. From the most ordinary, the smallest of things, gestures, a glance, the peeling paint on a wall, there emerges a kind of hope, a belief in the world which renders the sadness of his films all the more poignant for this faith in the power of a new beginning.
Wong Kar-wai is one of the most innovative directors to come out of Hong Kong. Part of the second New Wave of Hong Kong filmmakers, alongside Stanley Kwan, Clara Law, Mabel Cheung, Eddie Fong, Jacob Cheung, and Ching Siu-tung, Wong shares much with his contemporaries: their bent for experimentation, the move away from the traditional, worn-out action movies, devoid of content, which are constantly churned out by the commercial Hong Kong industry, in favour of narratives of more substance, exploring themes relevant to the political and social situation of a Hong Kong in transition.
Wong's aesthetic shares much with that of the French New Wave, particularly to Jean-Luc Godard, to whom Wong has often been compared. Like these filmmakers, he takes apart the conventions of storytelling specific to filmmaking - the language of the linear narrative, the smooth camera style, the role of the hero. He uses improvisations in camera techniques, editing, dialogue, plot, and performance. He shoots on location, using the characteristics of the spaces he shoots in to enrich his films with life and authenticity; celebrating the energy and colour, at once garish and enchanting, of neon-saturated urban cities, the vibrancy and bustle of Hong Kong's street markets, the claustrophobia of its cramped apartments.
His narratives are fragmented, elliptical, (sometimes confusingly so, as in Ashes of Time, and often episodic, refusing to be pinned down by a conventional chronology: this is ensured by the use of a fast-paced editing style, frequent cross-cutting, freeze-frames and jump cuts. His scripts are almost invariably improvised, actors receiving their lines only on the day of shooting, freshly written that morning or the night before.
Like Godard, Wong plays with the conventions of genre and narrative. Each of his films explores and experiments with a different genre. Heavily influenced by Scorsese's urban gangster films ( Mean Streets in particular), Wong's first film As Tears Go By (1988), challenges popular audience expectations of the traditional triad genre, "showing more interest in the existential motivations and feelings of the films two protagonists than in the workings of the triads and their victims."1
Days of Being Wild (1990) is a nostalgia film set in Hong Kong in the 1960's, in which Wong combines the character types of the delinquent rebel from Cantonese youth films of the 1960's with that of American youth movies of the sixties. Yuddi, the protagonist, is introduced as the typical Ah-Fei character type ( a greasy-haired, macho, wayward youth) of Cantonese movies such as Teddy Girls (Lung Kong, 1969), but is imbued with a "vulnerable, sensitive dimension...a tortured soul which evokes James Dean's Rebel Without A Cause...turning him into an abstract everyman, the undefined soul of Hong Kong who seeks to find himself an identity he can respect."2
Ashes of Time (1994) is an explosion of the martial art sword-fighting genre (wuxia pian), which unconventionally shows little of the actual fighting. There are also strong elements of the western in the setting (a remote desert in southern China), and particularly in the music, which Wong wanted developed along the lines of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western scores.
Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995) defy categorisation in terms of genre; the narratives of both films are episodic, and were originally planned as parts of the same film. They deal with different aspects of frenzied modern life in Hong Kong, and are, in part, urban crime stories.
Happy Together (1997) has been dubbed Wong’s “gay road movie”, however, though the film’s two lovers may start out on a road trip to the Iguazu Falls, they get lost on their way there and return to Buenos Aires, where they have recently emigrated, but which looks and feels much like the Hong Kong of Wong’s other films, the characters typically occupying the same spaces as they would at home (cramped one room apartments, the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant, city strips of neon and billboards, street corners): thus, in any respect, the road movie is stunted almost before the film even begins.
In The Mood For Love (2000), a period film, again set in Hong Kong in the 1960’s, draws on influences very different to his earlier Days of Being Wild. Here, Stephen Teo suggests that Wong draws on elements of the Chinese melodrama (wenyi pian) (though more associatively than narratively)3. I would also suggest that it draws on the “Mandarin Duck and Butterfly” literature of the 1920’s, such as Jade Pear spirit, in which “woman characters are seen willingly to resist personal desires or to give up their own lives in the name of chastity and morality.”4 In combining elements of these individual different literary and dramatic sources, and creatively deforming them with his highly individual aesthetic and technical style, Wong defies generic conventions and categorisations, continually challenging audience expectations. His latest project, 2046, is reported to be a science-fiction movie set 50 years after the handover of Hong Kong to China, proving that Wong Kar-Wai is not afraid to tackle any genre and re-create it with his own inimitable stamp.
If the mark of a true auteur is the creation of distinctive, personal themes and an individual style that can be seen running throughout a filmmaker’s body of work, then Wong Kar-Wai is the auteur par-excellence. Wong Kar-Wai has one of the most distinctive styles of any modern film-making; so much so, in fact, that in an interview for Sight and Sound, Wong himself commented to Tony Rayns that “too many other directors are ‘doing’ a Wong Kar-Wai these days, so I have to do something different.”5. In collaboration with his long-time cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Wong’s film’s have developed a number of trademark visual characteristics: the use of distorting wide-angle lenses, strongly coloured lights (sickly, fluorescent greens, cold blues, warm yellows and oranges); seemingly unmotivated switches between colour and black and white stock; the use of highly kinetic, flashy, hand-held camera, unusual shooting angles and camera movements.
One of the most trademark of Wong and Chris’ visual style is their manipulation of film-speed, often shooting in slow or fast-motion for different effects, having the actor move really slowly during shooting, while filming at a slower frame-rate, so that when projected, it seems as if the character is moving at normal speed, while the rest of the world rushes by. They have also developed a unique technique which they have used in all their films together to date: particular scenes are shot at a slower frame-rate so that the action is speeded up; the frames are then step-printed at a lower speed onto the finished film to restore the action to its real-time duration.6 The resultant images are ethereal and disorientating; scenes play and actions take place as if in normal speed, but yet there is a distortion; images seem to bleed into one another, lurching slightly so that one may think the action is taking place in slow-motion before realizing it is not. The effect is strangely dream-like, blurring colours and lights, seeming to simultaneously freeze action while it continues to move in front of our eyes.
Several key themes have been developing in Wong Kar-wai's work, from his first, and most conventional film As Tears Go By, right through to In The Mood For Love. A nostalgic regret for things past that can never be recovered anchors his characters in a deep sense of loss and regret: memories haunt the characters like a spectre they cannot free themselves from. Many of his characters are unwilling or unable to commit to relationships, and whether by choice, or by fate, loneliness and longing overtake his characters when they least expect it.
Identity is constantly questioned and confused. Geographical dislocation appears in the form of characters who constantly drift; many of his characters living in Hong Kong are from other regions of the colony, or other Asian countries (Macao, Kowloon, Taiwan, Shanghai, Japan), and many leave Hong Kong to travel elsewhere (Argentina, California, Taiwan, Japan). Similarly, characters are dislocated in space, destined to forever miss crucial moments at which their lives could have taken another path. His characters constantly rush about, yet most of his films are spent in a state of waiting for something. These themes of loss and longing, regret, memory and nostalgia, dislocation and suspension share a common thread: this all-encompassing theme is Time, in all its incarnations and associations.
Time as an overriding concern in Wong Kar-wai’s films is evidenced not just in his themes, the concerns of his characters and their metaphysical debates on memory and temporality, but in the often confused and elliptical temporalities of his narrative and editing styles, in the visual slowing down and speeding up of action, having action taking place on different temporal plains within the same frame, and the lurching, temporarily disorientating camera techniques
unique to and so characteristic of a Wong Kar-Wai film.
Within his films, Wong refers to the importance of time in the preponderance of clocks, watches, calendars, dates, deadlines and expiry dates which count out the passage of his narratives (the Book of Days with which Ouyang Feng measures the passing of time in Ashes of Time, the proliferation of clocks and watches in Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express is a virtual hourglass, its various clocks, expiry dates, deadlines all counting down, slipping away, running out, the noting of various dates punctuates Fallen Angels, the imposing Seimens clock in Mrs. Chan’s office in In The Mood For Love). In dialogue his characters place great weight on the measuring of time in dates and minutes, particularly in Days of Being Wild, Fallen Angels and Chungking Express.
Why this near obsession with all things temporal? Culturally and socially, time has become a prevalent concern for Hong Kong society. Since 1994, the prospect of the 1997 handover of the British colony of Hong Kong back to Chinese sovereignty has been a cause for concern to all Hong-Kongers. This has heightened the social and cultural perception of time as the colony waited (and still waits, to an extent) to see how their lives would be affected both in the lead-up to the handover, and after its occurrence. The themes of geographical and temporal dislocation, linked to the search for identity in Wong’s films, are also deeply embedded into the social and cultural history of Hong Kong, a colony which “has always been a place to which Mainland Chinese migrated, with people crossing the border when circumstances were bad in China, always expecting to return when they improved.”7,8
Postmodern and Marxist theories can resonate with Wong’s treatment of modern life and characters, and his treatment of time reflects his experience of the frenetic lifestyle of one of the most commercially driven, consumer-based cities in the world, where people constantly rush around, not even sitting down to eat, but standing to grab convenience food at stalls and takeaways on their way from one place to another.
Wong’s recurring insistence on the examination of time in his films is not just a reflection of the social, political and cultural issues of modern society, however. In an interview with Jimmy Ngai, Wong Kar-wai reflects on his personal philosophy of time. He says:
Time, to me, forever brings a loss of innocence. As you go through time, you are bound to look back with hindsight; you begin to reminisce about things that you dreamed about doing but didn’t get to do, you begin to wonder what would have happened on that particular day if you had taken a different turn on the road. You have no answer for sure, but you are distressed by the possible outcome of things you didn’t do. You cannot help but regret.9
Wong’s treatment and philosophy of time is, I feel, the overriding influence on his cinematic aesthetic and narrative. In further nodes, I’d like to examine the treatment of time in Wong Kar-Wai’s films, and look at how his personal philosophy of time has deepened and matured over the course of his career.
My idea is that Gilles Deleuze’s philosophical study of the changing nature and representation of time and thought in cinema ("Cinema 2: The Time-Image") can be a framework for this discussion.10 It has been argued that Wong’s treatment of time is based in a postmodern philosophy.11 I myself feel that there is much to be said in this respect, particularly regarding Baudrillard's and Jameson’s writings on nostalgia for the past, and the schizophrenic experience of time in postmodern society.12 However, Deleuze’s philosophy richly, deeply and directly relates to Wong Kar-wai’s films in a way that a postmodern study would not reach. It reaches inside the images and their integral relations to unravel a perception of time that I think is grasped in the films of Wong Kar-wai.
1Leong, Toh Hai, "Wong Kar-wai: Time, Memory, Identity", Kinema, Spring 1995.
2Teo, Stephen, Hong Kong Cinema : The Extra Dimensions, London: British Film Institute, 1997. pp 193/4.
3Teo, Stephen, "Wong Kar-wai's In The Mood For Love:Like A Ritual In Transfigured Time".
4Chow Rey, "Rereading Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies: A Response to the 'Postmodern' Condition" in Postmodernism: A Reader, Thomas Docherty (ed.). London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993, pp 471-489.
5Rayns, Tony."Wong Kar-wai - Charisma Express", Sight & Sound, 2000.
6Payne, Robert M., "Ways of Seeing Wild: The Cinema of Wong Kar-wai". cf. "undercrank/step-printing method"./
7ldham-Stokes, L., & Hoover, M.,City On Fire: Hong Kong Cinema. London/New York: Verso, 1999, p.5.
8Since 1939, Hong Kong has seen four major migrations of mainlanders into the colony, and two mass exodus, each of these bringing their own wave of problems for those who live there, and problematizing the idea of a fixed 'Hong Kong' identity.
9Ngai, J & Wong Kar-wai. "A Dialogue with Wong Kar-wai: Cutting Between Time and Two Cities" in Wong Kar-wai. J. Lalanne et al. Paris: Dis Voir, 1997, p.85.
10Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Deleuze, Gilles & Tomlinson, Hugh(Trans.) Univ of Minnesota 1986.
11See Mazierska, E & Rascaroli, L., "Trapped In The Present: Time In The Films of Wong Kar-wai", Film Criticism, Vol. XXV, No.2 (Winter 2000-01), pp.2-20:a postmodern discussion of time in the films of Wong Kar-wai.
12Postmodernism: A Reader
, (Thomas Docherty (ed.). London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993) contains writings by both Jameson and Baudrillard on the subject of the postmodern experience of time.