Tag Archives: Wong Kar-wai

Chungking Express (1994)

Blackouts are always a bummer. This one, particularly, because it lasted 24 hours and included both my apartment and my family’s home. The last time we had one that lasted this long, I spent most of it squinting at Noli me Tangere by candlelight and thinking, how very appropriate. This time, I watched Chungking Express alone at midnight and felt the same. Somehow, the atmosphere is better when it’s dark inside and a strange quiet hangs in the air.

Chungking Express opens with a chase. He Qiwu, or Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), runs through crowded passageways to nab a criminal, pushing past an older woman (Brigitte Lin) whom he claims he will fall in love with 57 hours later. At the end of this episode (which lasts for half the movie), he briefly encounters another girl called Faye (Faye Wong) at a snack bar, and tells us that six hours later, she will fall in love with someone else. What follows is her story with Cop 663 (Tony Leung).

I expected this to be like all the other Wong Kar-wai movies I’ve watched: sad, serious, tricky with the camerawork. It certainly seemed so at the beginning. The liquid swathes of color, combined with eerie music, create an impressionistic illusion of hurry. (At this point, with an attentive viewer, the point is already established.) But Chungking Express is different. It’s definitely lighter, although that doesn’t make it any less profound. Throughout the film we see momentary intersections of lives, mere points in the long line of our existence. We all lead tangential lives, and we spend most of it searching for that someone with whom we can share our solitude, someone whom we will return to, again and again, across distances and even after the passing of time.

Towards the end of the movie, there is one scene which seemed like a suitable ending: Faye alone in a restaurant, one year after. Outside, it is raining, and the camera slows down to capture droplets sliding down a window. The scene freezes. Desperately, I hoped that it would continue, although I knew that an ending right there would have worked as well. At that point I realized—with shocking disclosure—that whichever conclusion the film chose, I would still like it. Apparently, I had gone beyond being an objective viewer. Chungking Express had already gripped me, and it wouldn’t let me go.

Every day we brush past so many other people. People we may never meet, or people who may become close friends.

This was the closest we ever got. Just 0.01 of a centimeter between us. But 57 hours later, I fell in love with this woman.

We’re all unlucky in love sometimes. When I am, I go jogging. The body loses water when you jog, so you have none left for tears.

Somehow everything comes with an expiry date… Is there anything in the world which doesn’t?

I’ll fall in love with the first woman who walks in here.

Knowing someone doesn’t mean keeping them. People change.

If memories could be canned, would they also have expiry dates? If so, I hope they last for centuries.

I didn’t open the letter. Some things need time to sink in.

Days of Being Wild (1990)

Typically, my self-declared Hollywood hiatus begins with Wong Kar-wai. Days of Being Wild constitutes the first part of an informal trilogy, along with In the Mood for Love and 2046. Playboy Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) has a habit of seducing women only to abandon them afterwards. Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung) and Mimi (Carina Lau) deal with their heartbreak separately. Li Zhen confides in a policeman called Tide (Andy Lau) while Mimi lashes out to Yuddy’s friend Zeb (Jacky Cheung), who happens to love her. Unlike them, Yuddy finds no trouble moving on: to deeper problems and further shores. After convincing his adoptive mother to divulge a secret, he flies to the Philippines to seek out his roots, not knowing that traces of his past will follow him even there.

Compared to other Wong Kar-wai movies I’ve watched, Days of Being Wild offers a faster-paced storyline and more diverse characters. Its provocative opening drew me right in. “You’ll see me tonight in your dream,” Yuddy tells Li Zhen after she rebuffs him. One of my favorite scenes: the two of them looking at Yuddy’s watch, sharing a minute together, him telling her, “April 16, 1960, one minute before 3:00 p.m., you are with me. Because of you, I’ll remember that one minute.” This idea of momentary love develops into a recurring motif. All throughout we see relationships that are bound not by emotions, but by time. This reflects in the cinematography: clocks figure in several shots, and many angles capture two people on different planes.

At least three times Yuddy mentions the story about a bird without legs, one that must constantly fly because death awaits it upon landing. The reference is obvious enough; Yuddy seems at least self-aware. Yet he continues to live destructively. He has no real connections, no commitments. The only relationship that matters to him is nonexistent: his real mother does not want him. (There is a famous extended shot related to this, very poignant.) Eventually Yuddy reflects: “I used to think there was a kind of bird that, once born, would keep flying until death. The fact is that the bird hasn’t gone anywhere. It was dead from the beginning.”

Although I still prefer its sequel, I really enjoyed Days of Being Wild. Not just simply interesting, it offers an affecting exploration of the intersections of human lives and the unavoidable separations that result from them.

‘You always want to keep me with you, so now I won’t let you go.’

Happy Together (1997)

Wong Kar-wai again, I know. Maki’s choice, not mine, but I thought: why not? Happy Together follows the lives of Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung), two men from Hong Kong who share a turbulent, erratic relationship. In one of their many efforts to “start over,” they make a spontaneous decision to travel and find themselves stranded, penniless, in foreign Argentina. There, the two engage in a familiar cycle of breakups and reconciliations, pushing each other to the limits of tolerance until one of them is forced to make a final decision.

I do not understand why I like this film. The landscape is bleak, the soundtrack peculiar, the time jumps undetermined. Most of the time there is no plot, and where there are semblances of it, its elements elude understanding. What do you do with a twenty-second clip of an inverted Hong Kong cityscape? Crazy, experimental, borderline absurd: then again, how could I not have liked it?

Narrated by Lai, the story revolves around a central motif in the form of the Iguazu waterfalls, a place (both literal and symbolic) where Ho and Lai have always wanted to go but never manage to reach together. Instead they remain trapped in a relationship where feelings are tossed around like a ball at play in soccer (an oft-depicted game in this film)—enjoyable for a time but meaningless in the end. Despite its English title (the Chinese one means “the exposure of something indecent”), a constant dissatisfaction with life permeates this movie’s atmosphere. In one scene, Lai’s friend from work Chang (Chang Chen) says, “I promised Fai to leave his sadness here [in this lighthouse]. I don’t know what he said that night. Maybe the recorder broke. I can’t hear anything on the tape. Just some strange noises, like someone sobbing.” An unhappiness so profound it cannot even be recorded, that’s how Maki described it.

I’m probably not supposed to compare, but this movie feels more plot-progressive than the first Wong Kar-wai film I watched. But although Happy Together commanded my attention better, In the Mood for Love trumps it in terms of concept, and if I had to decide between the two, I would undoubtedly choose the latter. Still, that does not detract from my enjoyment of this film, and I look forward to others from the same director.

‘You can pretend to look happy, but your voice reveals the truth. Listen closely and you can tell.’

‘I don’t know what to say.’ ‘Whatever. Anything from the heart. Even something sad. I’ll take it to the end of the world.’

‘I heard there’s a lighthouse down there. People who are heartbroken go there and leave their unhappiness behind.’

I always thought I was different from Po-Wing. Turns out that lonely people are all the same.

In the Mood for Love (2000)

Of course the title made me cringe, but I trusted Maki anyway. I probably should have, but I hadn’t heard of Wong Kar-wai before. He seems like the kind of director I should get to know better. In the Mood for Love begins with two married couples moving into neighboring apartments on the same day. Over the next months, Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. So (Maggie Cheung) arrive at the common realization that their partners are engaged an illicit affair, and through this connection come to cultivate an unconventional relationship of their own.

The movie runs for a standard length of 90 minutes, but its atmosphere feels like a short film because of its subtle cinematography. With its use of spontaneous stills and unusual camera angles, In the Mood for Love presents a unique viewing experience, especially for Wong Kar-wai virgins like me. The camerawork intrigued me the most. I enjoyed its fascination with staircases, doorways, street corners—junctures that serve as meeting places for the two protagonists. Also, it continually finds new angles to shoot from, so you never even see the main characters’ spouses—a device I found poignant and telling.

Although generally very quiet and subdued, tension permeates almost all the scenes in this film, a quality enhanced by its unsettling soundtrack. Lying somewhere on the border between friendship and romance, Mr. Chow and Mrs. So’s relationship is marked by constant reenactments, which started with a seemingly innocent enough statement: “I wonder how it began.” In an attempt to understand their partners’ betrayal, they reenact scenes they deem pivotal to the affair and use this setup to rehearse their own plans for confrontation or departure. But throughout the movie, both characters exercise tremendous restraint. They resist obvious temptation not out of fear for public reprimand (though that concern remains) but because they do not want to engage in the same infidelity as their spouses: “We won’t be like them.”

According to Wikipedia the movie’s original title literally means “the age of blossoms” and refers to the Chinese metaphor for the passing time of youth. This corresponds to the film’s repeated emphasis on the end of an age. “That era has passed,” the caption states once. But this awareness only leaves the characters always looking back at those irretrievable moments in the past, forever haunted by the possibility of a different present.

‘You notice things if you pay attention.’

‘I didn’t think you’d fall in love with me.’ ‘I didn’t either.’

‘In the old days, if someone had a secret they didn’t want to share…you know what they did?’ … ‘They went up a mountain, found a tree, carved a hole in it, and whispered the secret into the hole. Then they covered it with mud. And leave the secret there forever.’

He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.