Ways of seeing wild: the cinema of Wong Kar-Wai

by Robert M. Payne

Of all the Hong Kong filmmakers to achieve worldwide recognition, the most anomalous is Wong Kar-Wai. Rather than reify movie genres and story conventions, as most of his colleagues do, Wong defies audience expectations. Like the directors of the 1960s New Wave cinema, he makes his viewers clearly conscious that they are watching a film, that the story being witnessed is primarily a mediated event and not something to be instantly accepted at face value. But he does this without obliterating the pleasures of the narrative: the centrality of the story, the psychology of the characters, the passionate performances by the actors. Swimming against the seemingly irresistible conservative currents of contemporary cinema, Wong Kar-Wai’s films seek to reclaim the perceptual possibilities of the moving image on the popular screen.

Following As Tears Go By (1988), his first feature as a director (after years as a script writer), Wong’s mature work is marked by oddball images and disjunctive story lines largely held together by the characters’ voice-overs. On first viewing, Days of Being Wild (1991), Ashes of Time (1992-94), Chungking Express (1994), Fallen Angels (1995), and Happy Together (1997) all verge on the incomprehensible. Story lines seem to meander. Narrative trajectories are aborted in mid-flight. Characters—even the main characters— sometimes appear out of nowhere and vanish just as suddenly. Cinematography stretches the perceptibility of the screen image more often than it conveys a clear view of the characters. As Larry Gross describes them:

The first time you see Wong Kar-Wai’s movies, you feel you are watching the work of a delicious visual mannerist indifferent to narrative structure....The sheer hedonistic absorption in architectural surfaces, in light sources, in decor of every possible fabric and material, and the absence of overtly literary seriousness in the plots, make you feel trapped in the world of a super-talented hack. Then you go back and take another look, and the movies change, more drastically than any I know of. They seem richer, more intricately organised, more serious....[1]

What makes Wong’s movies even more remarkable is that they come out of the Hong Kong film industry, which discourages such a sensorially seditious cinema. Although Hong Kong movies (like any other form of dominant cinema) carry their own potentially subversive subtexts, their primary function is to make a return on their investment by pleasing as large an audience as possible, as quickly as possible. Given the island’s economic evolution as a ruthlessly dog-eat-dog laissez-faire trade and manufacturing center, this movie-making environment (much like Hollywood’s) was never conducive to the development of “art” films. However, the frivolous quality of Hong Kong’s popular cinema is internally contradicted by another, more serious impulse: a desire to put forward and explore—however indirectly —a Chinese identity. The problems of such an identity, of course, became most acute in 1984, when the British government—which had wrested Hong Kong from the Chinese in 1841—agreed to return the colony to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. Poised between two “empires,” the British and the mainland Chinese, Hong Kong cinema has unavoidably become a textual field where crises of identity are implicitly set up and played out. As Stephen Teo explains:

Towards the late 80s, Hong Kong critics were already referring to a ‘post-1997’ sentiment. The best films at the time exerted a double impact: film-makers asserted their identity in terms of its difference from what they presented as China’s, but they at the same time attempted to come to terms with China. There was an inherent contradiction in wanting to be different and yet feeling a nationalist empathy with China, a tension which increasingly became the point of reference for identity questions. Although Hong Kong is not a country, its residents possessed a form of national identity increasingly identified as Chinese even though artists expressed their Chineseness in ways that were certainly different from the way artists in China negotiated theirs.[2]

Cinematic expression of “national” identity was complicated by the colonial government’s passage of the 1987 Film Censorship Bill, a law that restricted “[motion] pictures which damage relationships with other countries”; filmmakers took this as a tacit reference to China in particular.[3] Although it was later repealed, the censorship law heightened hand-over anxieties—as it simultaneously veiled their expression on the screen. Consequently, as numerous other critics have noted, the “1997 issue” became a vague, unspoken omnipresence that has permeated all of Hong Kong cinema since the early 1980s.[4] The issue infuses even those movies that never explicitly acknowledge any uneasiness toward national identity, just as the Great Depression implicitly infused all Hollywood (and international) cinema of the 1930s. So, issues of nationalism in Hong Kong film are (to use an overworked phrase) always/already present.[5]

This is true even for Hong Kong’s best-known type of film: its dynamic, disorienting action cinema, which some have referred to as the Hong Kong “New Wave,”[6] exemplified by such adrenaline-pumping directors as Tsui Hark (Peking Opera Blues, 1986), Ching Siu-Tung (A Chinese Ghost Story, 1987), Ringo Lam (City on Fire, 1987), and John Woo (Bullet in the Head, 1990). Due to its historical situation, the explosive energy of Hong Kong action movies serves to displace the emotionally combustible anxieties surrounding the countdown to Chinese control, and this lends the films a subtext of subversiveness. But as fascinating as they are, the subversive undercurrents in the films of Tsui, Ching, Lam, and Woo remain just that: undercurrents, something beneath the surface, something to be searched for, and maybe not found at all. Oblivious audiences can easily enjoy these movies for their spectacle alone. Rather than employing new filmic techniques to explode and problematize the generic conventions of cinema (as the 1960s New Wave directors had), the Hong Kong New Wave shakes up the cinematic image merely to reinvigorate—and thereby perpetuate —the industry’s popular genres. This is a “New Wave” that rolls in a very old direction.

Regrettably, any controversy over the appropriateness of the “New Wave” label is now moot. Since the mid-1990s, Hong Kong cinema has experienced a precipitous decline. Where domestic productions once regularly outgrossed imported offerings— even Hollywood’s—Hong Kong movies have become a victim of their own success. Once filmmaking became such a lucrative investment, many neophyte producers soon flooded the screens with substandard productions, which quickly alienated the Hong Kong audience’s carefully cultivated loyalty to domestic movies. Worse, rampant video piracy has cut catastrophically into the profitability of the remaining high-quality films. As if that weren’t bad enough, the industry now faces a potentially fatal drain on its talent. Apparently jittery over the depressed Asian economy, interference by local gangsters, and possible Communist Party control of the industry, many of Hong Kong’s best-known actors and directors have sought work overseas, especially in Hollywood. Although some newer Hong Kong filmmakers are struggling to revive the industry, they have a lot of lost ground to reclaim.[7] Despite this, Wong Kar-Wai has reportedly announced that he intends to remain in Hong Kong.

Unlike the action movies of the “New Wave,” the most striking feature of Wong’s films is their willingness to stress the materiality of the image. They often work against the principle of visual “seamlessness” by utilizing self-reflexive elements on the screen: hand-held cameras; intrusive, out-of-focus objects in the foreground; intensely grainy frame enlargements; achronological editing; cutting between color and black & white. Although the frenetic pacing of Hong Kong action movies offers its own form of disruption, visual cohesiveness is still mandatory. Wong’s willingness to work against visual and narrative seamlessness suggests that he wants to demystify the filmmaking process and thereby make his audience active participants in the narrative.

Because the films’ visual elements are so important, Wong’s most crucial collaborator is the Australian-born cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who has shot all of Wong’s films to date since Days of Being Wild and is now regarded as a world-class master of the movie camera. Over the years, Doyle has pushed his camerawork beyond the painterly to achieve striking results.[8] Between them, Wong and Doyle have developed a visual motif that appears in all of their films together: some strategic scenes are shot at a slower film speed (“undercrank” in Hollywood jargon), so the action is speeded up; then, the frames are step-printed at a slower speed onto the finished film, so the action is restored to its real-time duration. The undercrank/step-printing method gives these scenes a haunting sense of simultaneous animation and suspension. Stephen Rowley describes the visual result as “a lurching style that proceeds at (or close to) normal speed but smears between moments of clarity: the effect is somewhat like viewing freeze frames and fast motion in rapid alteration.”[9] Together, the director and the cinematographer have fostered a visual style that is self-reflexive without being completely alienating: today’s polychromatic equivalent of black & white. Without Doyle, Wong’s films would be as unimaginable as, say, Bernardo Bertolucci’s best-known works without Vittorio Storaro. Indeed, Wong has sometimes used substitute cinematographers when Doyle was away on other projects, only to reshoot many of those scenes once Doyle became available again.[10]

Strangely, Wong himself downplays the significance of his disruptive visuals:

People are always very curious about the visual effects in my works. The not so romantic truth is that lots of those effects are in reality the results of circumstantial consideration: if there is not enough space for camera maneuvering, replace the regular lens with a wide-angle lens; when candid camera shooting in the streets does not allow lighting, adjust the speed of the camera according to the amount of light available; if the continuity of different shots does not link up right for a sequence, try jump cuts; to solve the problem of color incontinuity, cover it up by developing the film in B/W… Tricks like that go on forever.[11]

But Wong’s protestations seem disingenuous: dominant cinema seldom strives to make the viewer conscious of the photography. Wong’s repeated use of images that call attention to themselves—that acknowledge their own creation and thus destabilize the diegetic illusion—is as heretical to Hong Kong as it is to Hollywood. His willingness to work against such a basic tenet of dominant cinema cannot be attributed simply to “circumstantial consideration.” Due to his visually disruptive approach, Wong’s films would be virtually impossible to follow if it weren’t for the disembodied voices drifting from their soundtracks, voices that help us interpret what transpires on the screen. But the voice-overs do more than merely hold the stories together: they comment on the action, vocalize what’s happening inside the characters’ heads, and affirm the presence of what the camera can’t capture—providing a parallel narrative of the intangible. Indeed, these voices do as much to expand the story as they do to contain it. And the characters’ thoughts usually touch upon an issue that is Wong’s most central concern: unrequited love.[12]

Although Wong’s films invariably portray unrequited love as a motivating problem, falling in love and turning it into a traditional romantic relationship isn’t portrayed as a panacea. In the world of Wong Kar-Wai, requited love—or at least its possibility—is equally problematic. Unlike the generic romance, Wong’s work refuses to settle for romantic (or familial) union as a pat answer to the myriad emotional problems his characters face, and this gives his films a probing, provocative edge. At the same time, Wong’s movies rarely give into an anti-romantic pessimism. Instead, they usually bristle with a dogged optimism that sees the characters’ singleness (“loneliness” isn’t the right word) as full of energetic possibility—as an undiminished source for reviving and renewing human connectedness.

In cinematic narrative, romantic love raises contradictory issues. On one hand, it affirms the psychology of individuality by asserting personal desire as a central concern. On the other hand, the ability to be in a reciprocal romantic relationship and live with another person necessitates an identity beyond the self. Traditional concepts of romance frequently reinforce the idea that one can’t live completely alone, and this problematizes the very concept of individuality. In short, the issue of romance asks questions of the individual’s relationship to the “other”—not only the other individual in the partnership, but to society at large. And an individualistic identity, paradoxically, can only exist within a mass social order that encourages such a conception of the self. So, romantic love in narrative may highlight the interdependence of individualism, otherness, and the larger social order, including the nation. Romance narratives may also put into play the contradictions that arise when the individual is upheld as an “autonomous” entity supposedly divorced from larger social forces. Although contradictions between individuality and society are sometimes foregrounded in romantic dramas of “forbidden love” (stories of racial or cultural taboos, etc.), such contradictions tend to be elided by the romantic “happy ending,” especially in comedy.

This essay —written by someone not steeped in Hong Kong culture—explores Wong Kar-Wai’s singular cinematic vision in relation to his films’ recurrent engagement with the idea of romantic love and its implications for the issue of nationalism, which is always/already just beneath the surface. This exploration traverses Wong’s three most fascinating films: Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, and Happy Together. But to best understand them, they must be seen in the light of the director’s most disappointing effort, Ashes of Time.

Ashes of Time

Ashes of Time is Wong’s only directorial contribution to one of Hong Kong’s most popular genres, the martial-arts movie (or to use its Mandarin name, wuxia pian). This genre can be divided into two subgroups: the kung fu or “unarmed combat” film (whose best-known stars are Jackie Chan and the late Bruce Lee) and the Chinese sword-fight film (which first came to the West’s attention with the 1975 success of King Hu’s A Touch of Zen at Cannes).[13] Ashes of Time is inspired by the swashbuckling characters in the popular martial-arts novel The Eagle-Shooting Heroes by Jin Yong (active as a novelist from 1955 to 1972),[14] a specialist in the literary genre known as wuxia xiaoshuo:

Wuxia xiaoshuo remain among the most popular books published in Asia today— the equivalent of American pulp fiction, only with white-haired warrior queens and renegade swordsmen rather than hardboiled detectives, grizzled cowboys, and space-faring star explorers. These tales…with their grim and flamboyant depiction of the liquid fickleness of life in a world where the only thing to be trusted is the edge of a blade, have also inspired some of Hong Kong’s most fantastic works of the silver screen.[15]

In Hong Kong, the martial-arts film is perhaps the genre where the construction of Chinese “national” identity is given its most mythic treatment. “Certain forms specific to Chinese civilisation are unique in world history,” Sek Kei bluntly writes. “One such form is Chinese martial artistry.”[16] So, Chinese martial arts are understood to be emblematic of Chinese culture as a whole. Typically, the martial-arts film will pit its Chinese hero(es) against either markedly non-Chinese antagonists or fellow Chinese with rival—and thereby treasonous—values systems. Consequently, martial-arts sequences in Hong Kong cinema act as a performative site of nationalistic assertion, however provisional or problematic such nationalism might be. Still, the result of this generic trope is ultimately to conflate “national” identity (or at least a sense of “Chineseness”) with acts of killing or brutality.

Granted, the conflation of “Chinese identity” with “martial arts” is not without its complications and contradictions (associating a national identity with fighting automatically suggests a subject position under siege). Nevertheless, the general effect of the (classical) Hong Kong martial-arts film is to reify the Chinese identity as that which is best expressed by feats of violence (those which are portrayed positively), and this, conversely, naturalizes violence as a desirable enactment of nationalism. For example, all of Bruce Lee’s star vehicles feature his Chinese protagonists as either working overseas or living under foreign domination —thus placing his acts of kung fu in a specifically national context and thereby portraying them as assertions of an oppressed Chinese identity.[17] Therefore, in its creation and reification of a “national” identity within acts of violence, the Hong Kong martial-arts film functions in a mythological manner not incomparable to that of the (classical) Hollywood Western in the context of the United States.

However, rather than merely mimicking the conventions of the wuxia pian, Ashes of Time incisively criticizes them. Employing an all-star Hong Kong cast, Wong’s film is no martial-arts adventure, but a chamber drama that ruefully meditates on the destructiveness of the “swordsman” ethos. The episodic story concerns a lovesick swordsman, Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung, who is male), as he watches the comings and goings of several doomed martial artists from the solitude of his desert home. The elliptical action is made comprehensible largely through the use of the characters’ voice-overs. Time is disrupted in two ways: the editing occasionally cuts between scenes with no chronological relation, and intertitles awkwardly intrude upon the action to disclose the (usually unpleasant) fate of the characters, thus robbing the story of any progression or suspense. But time—and the genre—are also disrupted in a third way: Wong and Doyle shoot most of the sword-fighting scenes in their trademark undercrank/step-printing style. This slows down the martial-arts choreography and deprives it of momentum: instead of drawing the audience into the action, the film keeps us at a distance and demands that we witness these self-destructive dances of death with a critical eye. We see characters condemned to live out their short, suffering existence following the dehumanizing dictates of an illogical, isolating “warrior code.” By the end, Ouyang Feng learns to harden his heart against the memory of the woman he loved and lost (because he couldn’t bring himself to tell her that he loved her). He picks up his sword again, and the Hong Kong audience knows that his further adventures (as well as those of the other characters) will be recounted in The Eagle-Shooting Heroes.

Ashes of Time foregrounds what most Hong Kong (and Hollywood) action movies relegate to the background: the formation of the action hero’s psychology. While many “actioners” will often give their heroes a scarred, somewhat neurotic personality, this is typically used as a perfunctory pretext for the hero’s derring-do (he can be cool under fire because some past trauma has numbed his emotions, etc.). What action movies seldom show is the emotional cost of such a trauma. Indeed, Wong volunteers that his film was inspired by John Ford’s Western The Searchers (1956), which hints at an unspoken emotional attachment between the John Wayne character and his sister-in-law without explicitly acknowledging it (Rayns, “Poet of Time,” 14). By exploring the hero’s psychology with the modernist disruptions of the art film (Howard Hampton nicknamed the movie “The Seven Samurai at Marienbad”—Dannen and Long, 337), Ashes of Time insinuates that the genre-driven lives of action heroes are actually very empty.

Because it employs characters from The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, a wuxia xiaoshuo classic, Wong’s film resists being seen as an “autonomous” work. The novel has inspired several straightforward movie and T.V. adaptations and at least one big-screen parody. So, the appearance of these canonized characters in such a subversive context extends Wong’s criticism to the entire martial-arts genre (both literary and cinematic), and his film re-envisions the characters as trapped by the genre’s lethal expectations, particularly the emotional isolation required of the heroes. In order to fulfill the demands of the martial-arts genre, and thereby become the courageous combatants of the pulp classic The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, the characters of Ashes of Time must renounce their humanity and forfeit the happiness of intimate relationships. In other words, to kill another in martial combat, one must first kill one’s own emotions. To Wong, the confines of the martial-arts genre—and the popular prestige that goes with it—are inherently dehumanizing. By depriving its audience of both the cathartic thrills of the action movie and the acceptance of its homicidal ideology, Wong disturbs the deep-seated acceptance of violence as a desirable vehicle for the assertion of a “Chinese” identity. Ashes of Time is not merely a revisionist martial-arts film, but an anti-martial-arts film. Not surprisingly, it failed at the Hong Kong box office.

Still, as intriguing as Ashes of Time is, it doesn’t quite imagine an alternative vision—an alternative identity—beyond its critique of martial-arts strictures. Despite its deployment of modernist art-movie tropes (achronological narrative, introspective voice-overs, self-reflexive cinematography), the film doesn’t create a life-affirming discourse in contrast to the nihilism that Wong sees at the heart of the wuxia pian. Ironically, as much as it tries to rise above them, the film is as trapped by the confines of the martial-arts genre as its characters are. As a result, Wong remains detached from both his characters and his film, which consequently never comes to life. Standing pessimistically apart from the implicit optimism of the director’s other films, Ashes of Time remains an ungainly anomaly in Wong’s canon.

Chungking Express

Wong struggled for two years to edit the ponderous Ashes of Time—and the struggle shows. During the interim, in an effort to take a break from the martial-arts marathon, the director dashed off another film “which went from first day of shooting to premiere in almost exactly three months.”[18] Ironically, it’s a film that many regard as a vastly superior work: Chungking Express. This light-hearted contemporary comedy breezes across the screen with an apparent absence of effort. However, the film is no trifle. A startling confluence of sound and image, this movie thwarts audience expectations in its own way, most obviously by tacking together two completely unrelated stories: one a crime drama, the other a romantic comedy. Moreover, the movie concludes the first story and begins the second approximately half-way through the running time and does little to integrate them. This is clearly a film in which seamless narrative closure is not a top priority.

Chungking Express takes it title from the two stories. The first starts out in the Chungking Mansions, a shabby shopping-arcade-cum-flophouse with a reputation as a den of thieves. An unnamed, blonde-wigged Drug Smuggler in dark glasses (an unrecognizable Brigitte Lin, Hong Kong’s highest-paid actress before her early retirement) hires some Indian locals to hide a heroin shipment for her, only to have her couriers sneak out on her at the airport. After running around the city looking for them, the weary Smuggler bumps into a lovelorn cop, He Qiwu (Taiwanese pop star and actor Takeshi Kaneshiro), and the two spend a chaste night together at a hotel. The next morning, the Smuggler guns down the North American Contact who double-crossed her. The second story is set around a fast-food take-out joint called the Midnight Express. A second cop, known only by his badge number, 633 (Tony Leung),1[9] is dumped by his flight-attendant girlfriend, who leaves his apartment key at the take-out. Working there is Faye (pop star Faye Wang), a free-spirited young woman who is secretly in love with 633. Rather than tell him her feelings, Faye repeatedly uses the key to break into 633’s apartment and gradually redecorate it, until the oblivious cop catches her. 633 asks Faye out on a date, but instead, she leaves for California.

Although the two stories draw upon two different genres, the crime drama and the romantic comedy, the film’s tone is light throughout. The two stories’ main “unifying” element is that they are both about lovesick policemen, He Qiwu and 633. Wong says that he chose police protagonists “because Hong Kong movies are supposed to be action-oriented; they’re full of cops and gangsters…” (in Rayns, “Poet of Time,” 14). However, there’s very little crime-fighting in Chungking Express: the cops are usually moping about their love lives. Qiwu spends most of his time buying canned pineapple slices with the expiration date of May 1 to commemorate the one-month mark since his break-up with his own girlfriend. When Qiwu meets the Smuggler, he’s so smitten by the idea of being in love with her that he doesn’t realize the woman he’s chatting up is someone he’s supposed to be arresting. This situation inspires much humor, and the boyish Qiwu comes off as naive. For his part, 633 sits around his apartment in his underwear talking to his household objects. He rationalizes Faye’s decorating changes as his apartment expressing its own sadness over his break-up. For a cop, 633 isn’t very logical. These two policemen would certainly be out of place in a John Woo-style policier.

Chungking Express begins with striking—but very simple—visuals: Brigitte Lin’s blonde-wigged Smuggler stalks through the crowded labyrinths of Chungking Mansions looking for drug couriers. The photography (begun by Lau Wai-Keung, completed and partially reshot by Doyle) films her in Wong’s trademark undercrank/step-printing style. Where the step-printing slowed down the martial-arts scenes in Ashes of Time, here it allows us to take in these more mundane (but somewhat exotic) sights with a new appreciation: step-printing is not how we experience the outside world. By slightly suspending the passage of these moments, Chungking Express asks us not to take these blurry scenes for granted. Then, over real-time shots of the Kowloon skyline, we hear He Qiwu’s voice say: “Every day we brush past so many other people, people we may never meet or people who may become close friends.” We soon see a step-printed Qiwu chasing a fleeing suspect through Chungking Mansions. Coincidentally, he brushes past the Smuggler. “This is the closest we ever got,” his voice-over reminisces, “just 0.01 of a centimeter between us. But 57 hours later, I fell in love with this woman.” Qiwu’s voice-over instantly sets up the tension between the desire to get close to other people and the frustration when 0.01 of a centimeter is the closest one ever gets. Again, Wong Kar-Wai establishes a story of lonely people destined never to connect.

The word most often used to describe Wong’s characters is “solipsistic.”[20] They seem to be locked in their own insular worlds, unable to hook up with anyone else. Chungking Express may be seen to confirm this criticism: although it holds out the possibility of pairing Qiwu with the Smuggler, and 633 with Faye, the film frustrates these outcomes. Qiwu and the Smuggler ultimately walk away from each other, and Faye runs out on 633 just as their relationship has the chance to become serious. The story ends with an epilogue, where Faye returns to Hong Kong a year later as a flight attendant, a coda which suggests that Faye and 633 (now a civilian) might still get together. But unlike the typical romantic comedy, this resolution remains unfulfilled. The inability of the characters to connect with each other is a consistent trope in Wong’s films, prompting some speculation whether Wong views perpetual solitude and unrequited love as the unalterable “human condition.” As with Ashes of Time, the characters of Chungking Express may be seen as forever doomed to wander the earth in a state of constant, unfulfilled yearning.2[1]

Still, Wong seems bemused by his characters’ inability to connect. Instead of seeing their situation as tragic, Wong wrings great humor out of their solitude. This is especially true for the story’s most intriguing invention: having Faye break into 633’s flat to clean and redecorate it. Some viewers may see this quirky contrivance as male wish fulfillment: Faye, it could be argued, affirms the perception of women as having an “innate” predisposition to act as homemakers, an urge they apparently can’t resist. However, on other levels, Faye resists male fantasy. With her close-cropped hair and casual clothes, the pixieish Faye appears androgynous. Indeed, when Faye is first introduced, Qiwu confuses her with a male co-worker. (As a singer, Faye Wang usually performs wearing long hair and flashy costumes, so her appearance in this film works against her off-screen celebrity image.) To break into 633’s flat while he’s away, Faye must play hooky from work, and she comes up with increasingly far-fetched excuses for doing so. In a society with a deeply entrenched work ethic and gender roles, the free-spirited Faye instantly assumes the identity of a recalcitrant social figure.

Moreover, Faye doesn’t only clean 633’s apartment, she also redecorates it with more colorful accessories: new bedspreads, new clothes, new toiletries, new food—she even drugs his bottled water to make sure he gets to sleep. (And we laugh when 633 misinterprets all of these changes.) Faye doesn’t just clean the flat, she pervades it, and in doing so, she gradually changes 633’s lovelorn life without him being aware of what she’s doing. Rather than acquiescing to the role of the stereotypical homemaker (or maid), Faye reclaims the role and teases out its subversive possibilities. In one sense of the word, she is indeed a “homemaker,” but she’s a homemaker on her own terms, and she enacts the role without being tied down by the other roles attendant upon a traditional romantic (or employment) relationship. Although Faye clearly values 633, she values her freedom even more: after he discovers her in his flat and wants to start a relationship, Faye leaves. At the end of the film, we ultimately see Faye looking more “feminine” in long hair and a flight attendant’s uniform (which she first tried on in 633’s apartment, it having been abandoned there by his former girlfriend), but her new attire comes off as just one more costume. Becoming an “air hostess” to preserve her freedom, Faye appropriates yet another traditional female role for non-traditional purposes.

The thwarting of romantic closure is equally important in the first story. Qiwu collects soon-to-expire pineapple tins as a reminder of his lost love (a love he hopes to win back). The cans and their common expiration date become indexes for both the passing of love and the passage of time. Ackbar Abbas has already argued that the passage of time in Wong’s films intimates the countdown to the 1997 hand-over,2[2] which gives the pineapples a peculiar political dimension. Intriguingly, the blonde-wigged Smuggler also uses expiry dates on cans to communicate with her (ultimately disloyal) Western Contact, who, after meeting with the Smuggler early in the story, spends most of his time avoiding her.

In an unconscious effort to purge his love for his ex-girlfriend from his body, Qiwu eats the spoiled pineapple and throws up. Ready to fall in love again, he bumps into the Smuggler at a bar and puts the moves on her by asking if she likes pineapple (ironically, this is just after she has killed some of her double-crossing couriers). Discouraging his advances, the Smuggler says to herself: “Knowing someone doesn’t mean keeping them. People change. A person may like pineapple today and something else tomorrow.” The scene then cuts to the Contact in another bar as he makes out with an Asian female Bartender. The Bartender playfully puts on a blonde wig (like the Smuggler’s), and she and the Contact become more passionate. Later, Qiwu takes the tired Smuggler to a hotel, where she promptly falls asleep. The next morning, Qiwu leaves her. The Smuggler wakes up, tracks down the Contact, and pumps five bullets into his body. As this first story concludes, the last shot is of a sardine tin that expired that day (1 May 1994), its sell-by date prominent in the frame.

Because pineapples and expiry dates are associated with love, the film insinuates that the Brigitte Lin character had a romantic relationship with her Western drug Contact. By donning a blonde wig, the Bartender teasingly evokes the Contact’s past relationship with the Smuggler. The relationship has certainly soured with the Contact’s treachery: just as one’s feelings for pineapples may change, the Smuggler’s feelings for the Contact have changed. By concluding the story with a shot of another expiry date, the film suggests that the Smuggler’s love for the Contact has also expired. But it should be remembered that the film only intimates this subplot; it isn’t explicit. If this interpretation is correct, the Smuggler uses her wig not only to conceal her identity from the authorities, but she also uses it to make herself more attractive to the Contact—as the Bartender assuredly does. (This interpretation is supported by Fallen Angels, where a different female character also uses false blonde hair—a dye job this time—to win back the heart of the man she lost.) After the Smuggler kills the Contact, she doffs her wig and walks out of the narrative, out of the film (and Brigitte Lin, who retired from acting after making this movie, walks out of cinema). The audience only catches an oblique, blurry glimpse of the Smuggler’s face and real black hair in a fleeting step-printed shot.

This scene takes on an added resonance in the context of colonialism and its shaping of dominant narrative discourse.[23] Following Abbas’ argument, the countdown to the cans’ expiration plays upon the countdown to the hand-over. If the Western Contact can be taken as an emblem of Western colonization of Hong Kong (which began with Britain smuggling another drug—opium—into China), then the scene of the Contact’s execution may be seen as the death of Western domination. So, a Hong Kong/Chinese identity (as represented by movie-star Lin)[24] no longer needs to fashion itself in the West’s image, as the Smuggler does with her wig. Because the Contact speaks with a North American accent (the accent of Hollywood) and because Lin’s face is never fully exposed to the camera, Wong seems to connect this issue to the cinema and narrative per se. Throughout the film, Wong keeps the highest-paid actress in Hong Kong covered in dark glasses and a blonde wig—and in her valedictory performance, no less. The audience never gets a good look at this pricey performer. This must have been very frustrating to the many Hong Kong viewers who bought a ticket to see their favorite female movie star in her last film. Apparently, the death of the Western “master” (master of the heart, master of the state, master of the cinema) implies not only the death of dominant narrative conventions, but an opportunity to re-think the politics of the visible from the ground up. However, as the last, indistinct shot of Lin implies, a fully alternate mode of discourse —and an empowered “Chinese” identity to go with it—has yet to be fully envisioned.

Wong’s refusal to unite his characters at the end of Chungking Express touches directly on the issue of narrative closure. And like the last shot of Lin, this carries deep implications for the very idea of cinematic representation. Wong’s original script concluded with the four main characters all converging in an airport lounge: this would have tied up the loose ends, giving the story a sense of wholeness and completion. But when Wong couldn’t secure the location he wanted for the scene, he simply decided not to shoot i. (Rayns, “Poet of Time,” 16). Such a decision is mind-boggling: Isn’t the ending an inextricable part of any film? Apparently, for Wong, wholeness and completion aren’t the point. Instead, the film ends with flight-attendant Faye’s return to Hong Kong. 633 has quit the police force and bought the Midnight Express. Faye’s nervousness and voice-over imply that she’s still in love with 633, but she appears to discourage his romantic interests. She makes a hand-drawn boarding pass for him. “Where do you want to go?” she asks. “Wherever you want to take me,” he replies. Suddenly, the closing credits roll over Faye Wang’s voice singing an up-beat Cantopop cover of the Cranberries’ song “Dreams” (which had earlier accompanied scenes of Faye redecorating the apartment). Rather than concluding with the finality of romantic union, the film remains poised on the brink of possibility. Chungking Express playfully encourages us to go wherever we want.

Indeed, Chungking Express is almost the complete antithesis of Ashes of Time. Like the people in the martial-arts movie, the characters in Chungking Express suffer from loneliness, frustration, and the loss of love. However, they overcome these problems in unconventional ways. Where the martial artists of Ashes of Time are trapped by the confines of an illogical warrior code— extended extradiegetically to the confines of the action genre—the characters of Chungking Express refuse to conform to the expectations of the police movie and the romantic comedy. The characters’ lack of romantic resolution at the end of the film suggests the still-evolving component of the Hong Kong identity, an identity which, the film implies, is free to take off in any direction. Where Ashes of Time merely casts a disapproving eye upon the constraints of martial-arts conventions, Chungking Express knocks down generic conventions from the outside and tells stories where the constraints of the policier and the romantic comedy no longer apply. By working against genre, Chungking Express liberates itself from the pessimism that ultimately weighs down Ashes of Time. As a result, Chungking Express offers an alternative vision full of human potential—and in doing so, opens up cinema viewing to greater perceptual freedoms.

Fallen Angels

If Chungking Express is the antithesis of Ashes of Time, then Fallen Angels is their synthesis. Like Wong’s dashed-off masterpiece, Fallen Angels also combines two very different stories, a crime drama and a romantic comedy. However, Wong now integrates these two disparate tales much more thoroughly. And like Wong’s martial-arts movie, Fallen Angels portrays characters who are trapped by the demands of genre. But where Ashes of Time dooms its characters and itself with no vision beyond nihilism, Fallen Angels borrows the optimism of Chungking Express and leaves its characters room for escape.

Set in contemporary Hong Kong, Fallen Angels follows a laconic hired killer, Wong Chi-Ming (Leon Lai), who employs a beautiful female Agent (Michelle Reis) to stake out his targets. Although the Agent is clearly attracted to him, Chi-Ming insists that they not get emotionally involved. However, a bleach-blonde sprite called “Baby” (Karen Mok) eventually seduces Chi-Ming into a sexual relationship. When the two women find out about each other, Chi-Ming breaks up with Baby and terminates his business relationship with the Agent. She asks him to kill someone as a parting favor, but Chi-Ming turns the hit into a suicide mission and dies. This dark story is intercut with the light-hearted adventures of He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro, the actor from Chungking Express, playing a different character with the same name), a mute trickster who makes money by breaking into other people’s businesses. He falls in love with Charlie Young (played by an actress with the same name: Charlie Young), a garrulous young woman obsessed with winning back her soon-to-be-married ex-boyfriend. But Charlie suddenly stops seeing Qiwu. Wistful over the death of his Father (Chen Wanlei), Qiwu offers a ride one night to the Agent, who is now equally wistful over the death of Chi-Ming. However, the film ends with the two characters acknowledging that they will never get together romantically.

Yet again, Wong gives us a story of people unable to connect. Expanding on an idea that was originally to have been the third story in Chungking Express, Fallen Angels tantalizingly offers several opportunities for its five main characters to pair off into permanent relationships, but they never do. Qiwu chases after Charlie, who chases after her ex-boyfriend; both Baby and the Agent chase after Chi-Ming, who insists on staying emotionally distant from both of them. The only deep emotional connection to be made is between Qiwu and his Father— but only after the Father’s death: while he’s alive, the Father and Qiwu have a semi-antagonistic relationship. For one more movie, Wong’s characters make do with yearning and unrequited love.

Rather than conveying these relationships through exchanges of dialogue, Wong relies heavily on voice-over, more than in any of his other films (although Qiwu is mute on camera, his voice speaks freely on the soundtrack). The character with the most dialogue is the motor-mouthed Charlie who has one-way conversations with the mute Qiwu (though she seems to be able to read his mind). To construct the story, we must put these fragments of character together for ourselves. Moreover, as Tony Rayns has noted, the narrative jumps wildly in tone between the somber story of Chi-Ming and the comical antics of Qiwu (“Fallen Angels,” 42). And although Chi-Ming’s gunplay and Qiwu’s shenanigans evoke the “heroic bloodshed” and slapstick-comedy genres, respectively, Wong treats their most photogenic actions as incidental: cinematic spectacle is important only insofar as it illuminates the protagonists’ personalities. The story is clearly not built around the expectations of genre. Wong once again insists that we view these characters with a critical eye.

Wong and Doyle manifest this “critical eye” on a visual level. They shoot virtually the entire film with the actors in close proximity to the camera’s wide-angle lens, which distorts the figures with a “fisheye” effect. The cinematography blends with the intentionally garish set design (by William Chang) to produce images that relentlessly refuse a naturalistic appearance. In addition, Wong and Doyle punctuate these images with either step-printing or swift snippets of black & white, which Rayns regards as “the film’s convention for marking the isolated moments of truth between the characters” (30). Fallen Angels’ visual strategy has been criticized because “it verges on being an exercise in mere style” (Abbas, 71). And indeed, part of the film’s appeal lies in the conscious virtuosity of its cinematography and the pleasure of seeing so many cool young men and attractive young women skulking across the screen in fashionable outfits. Had the film used these elements for their own ends, the charge of being a mere stylistic exercise might have been apt. However, the visual overload cannot be divorced from the narrative.

The opening shot of Fallen Angels—one of the most stunning and startling in recent cinema—instantly warns the viewer that this film is not to be watched passively. Distorted by the wide-angle lens, the Agent sits in a canted, claustrophobic close-up with Chi-Ming behind her in a less distorted but soft-focused medium shot. The gnarled placement of the two characters within the monochrome frame creates an acute visual disparity between them. The nervous, seemingly strung-out Agent immediately asks Chi-Ming if they’re still “partners,” a word with both professional and romantic implications (cf. Gross, 6). Without answering her, Chi-Ming reflects on how business partners shouldn’t become emotionally involved. Clearly, these are characters who can’t see eye to eye—despite their feelings for each other. Moreover, the black & white photography, the low-key lighting, the underworld ambiance, and the ubiquitous cigarette smoke all evoke the artificial atmosphere of film noir. Combined with the contorted composition, these elements self-reflexively declare their condition as outgrowths of the cinema—as products of photography, narrative, and (film) history—an effect made all the more explicit when the monochrome cuts to color in the next scene. From its first shot, the film proclaims that the cinema is an integral part of its narrative, and the viewer is made uncomfortably conscious of this.

Early in Fallen Angels, we see the Agent—decked out in a black leatherette mini-dress and fishnet stockings—cleaning Chi-Ming’s hide-out. For the second time, Wong shows us a woman who cleans an absent man’s dwelling to displace her romantic feelings for him. The incongruity of the Agent’s sexy party outfit and her mundane domestic task is both startling and humorous. Over this image, we overhear North American-accented television announcers (from a T.V. in the hide-out) talking about the Vietnam War and the 1960s protest movement, thus giving the scene a pointed political undercurrent. Abbas argues that the Agent “is doubly caught in the stereotyped images of genre and gender, of femme fatale and housewife” (74). But like the androgynous Faye in Chungking Express, the the hyper-feminine Agent is negotiating these roles, playing with them. The visual disparity between her appearance and her chores—coupled with the politically conscious T.V. voices—suggests at least as much resistance as surrender to these stereotypes.

After Chi-Ming impassively kills several people at a gambling den, the Agent cleans the hide-out of any evidence and then rifles through his rubbish in an effort to learn more about the man she loves. Later, the Agent goes to a bar frequented by Chi-Ming (who isn’t there), and she sits in his favorite chair to feel close to him. At the same time, she rationalizes not being with him: “There are some people you can never get close to. Get too close, and you’ll find him boring.” The Agent then plays a languid Laurie Anderson song on the bar’s juke box, and Doyle’s camera spends the next two and a half minutes (an eternity on the screen) lingering over her slender, alluringly attired body. The scene shifts to the hide-out, where the Agent—alone and fully clothed— masturbates on Chi-Ming’s bed. Doyle films this scene largely from the foot of the bed, his wide-angle lens staring up at the Agent’s fishnetted, high-heeled legs, which are brutally prominent in the foreground. The severity of the diagonal composition stuns the eye: we become acutely aware that the extravagance of the Agent’s apparel overcompensates for the absence of her desired object, Chi-Ming. In this way, the film acknowledges the Agent’s elaborate attire as a fetish for her unfulfilled sexual desire, and by extension, the wide-angle lens’s elaborate distortion of space serves as a perceptual projection of the characters’ lack of fulfillment.

The frustration of the characters’ desire is also echoed by the recurrent use of achronological editing. As Larry Gross observes:

In Fallen Angels, [Wong] shows the killer’s agent preceding him through the scene of an assassination, but later he intercuts their movement to condense and smash the logical temporal sequence altogether. He cannot bring them literally together, so the editing process illustrates their proximity, their desire and the impossibility of its fulfillment. (8)

The visual elements in Fallen Angels, then, have a distinct narrative function. This is not an “exercise in mere style.”

A hired assassin unable to admit his love for a woman, Chi-Ming is the modern-day counterpart of Ouyang Feng in Ashes of Time. And like the swordsman, Chi-Ming’s emotional entrapment is marked by the confines of genre—in this case, the “heroic bloodshed” film exemplified by John Woo (who moved to Hollywood in 1993).[25] With the resounding success of A Better Tomorrow in 1986, Woo inaugurated a multitude of Hong Kong movies that portrayed unflappable gunmen upholding a chivalric “code of honor” as they coolly riddled everyone around them with bullets in elaborately staged choreography. Stars such as Chow Yun-Fat and Simon Yam became synonymous with the genre. The bullet-riddled bodies that litter these movies may signal their own subversive subtext about the permeability of the national subject, but as Abbas says of the genre:

We do not find in the end a critique of moral values coming as a response to new social conditions, but rather a return to a less complex moral system that largely precludes the need to register any ambiguity…. John Woo’s films are essentially conservative and sentimental—which is one reason for their successful transplantation to Hollywood. (52)

Chi-Ming in Fallen Angels is no hero, however. He claims to have become a contract killer because he is “lazy” and likes to have others make decisions for him, so he is not presented as the upholder of a moral code. As we watch him stalk to the scene of his first hit in the film, the camera shows him walking in slow motion, a standard convention of the “heroic bloodshed” genre. When he comes upon his targets in the gambling den, Chi-Ming unholsters his guns and fires upon them. In the typical “heroic bloodshed” film, the photography and editing would play upon the excitement of the gunplay and the writhing, blood-gushing bodies. This would be enhanced by choreography and costuming (such as wind-blown raincoats) that heighten the movement within the scene. But in Fallen Angels, the cutting is quick and fragmentary, jumping between grueling slow motion and alienating step-printing. Moreover, Chi-Ming stands as still as a statue as he empties his clips into the men and women in front of him. The scene is ruthlessly void of dynamism or derring-do. And since we never learn why any of Chi-Ming’s victims are marked for death, our emotional involvement in the action is undermined further. We witness a cold-blooded killing by a man who takes life because he doesn’t know how to enjoy it. And any sense of “heroism” in this scene is instantly undercut in the next, when Chi-Ming bumps into a talkative former classmate who tries to sell him (of all things) life insurance. This otherwise funny scene drives home Chi-Ming’s toxic insularity. Unwilling to forge relationships with either the Agent or Baby, the killer agrees to make one last hit as a favor to the Agent. And in a step-printed shoot-out totally void of heroism, Chi-Ming allows himself to be gunned down. Like Ouyang Feng in Ashes of Time, Chi-Ming cannot bring himself to tell either of the women in his life that he loves them, so he dies to himself. His physical death is a mere formality. The nihilism that Wong saw at the heart of the martial-arts genre in Ashes of Time also lurks in the “heroic bloodshed” movies.

Because it started out as part of Chungking Express, Wong intentionally sprinkles Fallen Angels with references to his earlier film. The most obvious is the use of Takeshi Kaneshiro to play another character named He Qiwu. Moreover, this Qiwu also has a bad reaction to eating canned pineapple, lives in Chungking Mansions, eventually goes to work at the Midnight Express, and falls for a woman who becomes a flight attendant and leaves him. But the Qiwu of Fallen Angels is on the other side of the law (the first Qiwu’s badge number becomes the second’s prison number). Unable to speak (he went mute from eating the pineapple), Qiwu makes money by breaking into other people’s shops at night and forcing hapless passers-by to buy things. Somehow, Qiwu always gets away with this, and the film takes humorous delight in showing this silent clown forcing his wares upon unwilling “customers.” Like Faye in Chungking Express (whose body movements he mimics behind the counter), Qiwu frolics in the flip side of Hong Kong’s prized work ethic. In a comical manner, he takes what Teo calls the colony’s “can-do attitude” to its logical extreme: Qiwu becomes the impish embodiment of capitalism as coercive compulsion.

However, Qiwu changes his ways when he falls in love with Charlie. The two strike up a rapport when the single-minded young woman insists that he help her track down the fiancée of the ex-boyfriend she desperately wants to win back. Unable to find the fiancée, Charlie and Qiwu end up harassing the other tenants in the elusive woman’s apartment building and beating up a blow-up doll. The fiancée’s nickname is “Blondie,” so the blonde-haired blow-up doll becomes an appropriate target for their frustrations. Once again, Wong raises the issue of Western beauty standards being more desirable than Asian features, and the futility of finding Blondie suggests that such standards remain equally elusive for Asian people. However, at the height of Qiwu’s love for Charlie, his hair turns blonde all on its own—only to become black again after Charlie stops seeing him. Fallen Angels parallels this story with that of Baby, who dyes her hair blonde to win back Chi-Ming (she succeeds, but only temporarily). Viewing these stories alongside that of Chungking Express’ blonde-wigged Smuggler, Wong seems to suggest that inner fulfillment for Hong Kong won’t come from unthinkingly adopting Western standards (standards of beauty, standards of the cinema). Just as Qiwu’s black hair has the mysterious power to turn blonde, so the Hong Kong Chinese possesses their own innate attractiveness and ability.

Like the story of Chi-Ming, the story of Qiwu also utilizes the undercrank/step-printing motif. One shot in particular, when Qiwu realizes that he’s in love with Charlie, is the most lyrical in the film. We see Qiwu and Charlie in monochrome as they sit at a table behind (what we assume to be) a restaurant window. Charlie stares off into space, her thoughts an enigma. Qiwu hovers next to her, taking in her presence, barely daring to touch her. A blurry, indistinct mass of people seems to stampede in the background. Rain pelts the window from outside, and a languorous blues tune smolders from the soundtrack. Without cutting, this single take occupies the screen for two and a half minutes. This is a considerable amount of time for a single, relatively static scene with no on-screen dialogue, but the shot is never boring. The frame creates internal tension between Qiwu’s slow, almost ethereal movements and the maddening rush of bodies behind him. The bleary streaks of rain ebb and flow across the figures, creating pulsating rivulets of haziness and clarity. “They say women are made of water,” says Qiwu to himself. “So are some men.” This amazing image shows Charlie’s effect on Qiwu: by loving her, he absorbs her liquescent spirit, and it floods the entire frame. More than any other image in Wong’s canon, this shot magnificently envisions the rapture of human connection.

The step-printing appears again in the final shot. For unknown reasons, Qiwu has just been beaten up in a restaurant. Quickly recovering, his voice-over paraphrases his opening lines in Fallen Angels and those of the other He Qiwu in Chungking Express: “We rub shoulders with many people everyday. Some may become close friends or confidants. That’s why I’m always optimistic. Sometimes it hurts. Not to worry—I try to stay happy.” Qiwu sees the Agent, his neighbor, at the restaurant. He finds her “alluring,” although he knows that they’re not each other’s type; they’re not destined to be together. The lonely Agent asks for a ride home on Qiwu’s motorcycle. The step-printing kicks in as the two speed through the Cross-Harbor Tunnel from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon. Obviously still recovering from Chi-Ming’s death, the Agent’s weary face is extended in time as she rides behind Qiwu on his bike, her head on his shoulder. She says to herself: “I haven’t ridden pillion in a long time, nor have I been this close to a man in ages. The road home isn’t very long, and I know I’ll be getting off soon. But at this moment, I’m feeling such lovely warmth.” Following a waft of smoke from Qiwu’s cigarette, the camera tilts up as the ceiling of the tunnel gives way to the Tsimshatsui skyline, its towers seeming to touch the sky. This final, fleeting image— with its buildings pointing heavenward—hints at something larger than the two characters, something connected to the “lovely warmth” the Agent feels. The spiritual connotations of the last shot add to the spiritual connotations of the film’s English title, Fallen Angels,[26] and this encourages the viewer to look back on the relationships between the characters in light of the inner fulfillment that they do or do not provide.

The relationships in the film, however, are marked by very little “warmth.” The most meaningful emotional connections in Fallen Angels are Qiwu’s new appreciation for his Father, once the older man dies, and a Japanese restaurant owner’s love for his absent family. As in Chungking Express and Ashes of Time, Wong presents the romantic possibilities between his characters as highly flawed: given their obsessiveness and self-centeredness, they seem to be looking for partners who would only affirm their solipsism, not challenge it. It’s easy to believe that any attempt at romance between the men and the women would only run aground on their narcissism. By filming their stories in such a distancing manner, Wong seems critical of these relationships, and they become difficult to root for. The director suggests that he wants his characters to discover something more fulfilling, a sense of genuine connection and intimate understanding. And seeking one’s identity in relation to others touches directly on the idea of the nation.

Happy Together

Wong clearly links romantic love and national identity in his last pre-hand-over film, the ironically titled Happy Together, a fragmented story of two gay men from Hong Kong—Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung) and Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung)— who take their troubled relationship to Argentina. The episodic narrative seems to ramble without a clear sense of direction, but a closer look reveals a discernable logic. In an effort to renew their endangered romance, Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing leave Hong Kong and begin the film in Argentina. They plan a romantic trip to the Iguazu Falls but lose their way. The temperamental Po-Wing impulsively breaks up with Yiu-Fai, and the two begin scraping out separate existences in Buenos Aires. Po-Wing appears to make his living as a gay gigolo, and when he turns up battered at Yiu-Fai’s apartment, his former lover takes him in. No longer sleeping together, the two resume their tempestuous relationship, punctuating their vociferous bickering with moments of serene tenderness. However, Yiu-Fai grows jealous of Po-Wing, who gets restless being cooped up in the flat. When Yiu-Fai strikes up a platonic but deeply felt friendship with Chang (Chang Chen), a young Taiwanese man at work, Po-Wing leaves him. Only when he comes to terms with himself and his relationships to others does Yiu-Fai feel ready to return to Hong Kong.

By transplanting two Hong Kong characters into an incongruous Latin American setting on the eve of the hand-over, Wong puts problems of nationalism in the forefront. This is, after all, the story of two people who feel the need to leave their homeland in order to “start over” with each other. Wong observes this relationship even more dispassionately than those of his other films: by focusing on a dysfunctional same-sex romance, the director estranges heterosexual identification and advises the viewer to be critical of the characters’ rapport.[27] Doyle’s eye-arresting camerawork aids in distancing the audience from the characters with its ostentatious use of harsh lighting, saturated colors intercut with black & white, non-naturalistic color filters, wide-angle lenses, and varying camera speeds. Colluding with Wong’s disjointed storyline, Doyle’s cinematography deliberately disavows a cohesive visual field, and this undermines a solid sense of setting. The visual strategy reinforces the film’s narrative concerns, however, because Happy Together questions nationalism by problematizing the very concept of place.

The issue of nationalism is introduced in the very first shot: a close-up shows anonymous fingers (presumably those of an Argentine immigration officer) flipping through Yiu-Fai’s and Po-Wing’s passports. The photographs of their distinctly Asian faces are glimpsed inside. The fingers then point to the lines that read “British national (overseas)” before stamping them with an immigration seal bearing a prominent date (12 May 1995). Afterwards comes the film’s main title, “Happy Together,” followed by a shot of Po-Wing next to a night table. On the table (among some garbage) are a lamp of Iguazu Falls and some pictures of Po-Wing and Yiu-Fai together. From the outset, Wong stresses the issue and problem of nationality. The passport is a supreme signifier of both nationalism and personal identity. Wong literally underlines these issues by having the officer’s finger point out the document’s claim that these two Asian men are “British national[s].” And the date on the stamp (like the expiry dates on Chungking Express’ pineapple tins) indirectly hints at the countdown to the hand-over. In the context of 1997, the year of Happy Together’s release, the question is implicit: To what extent are Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing “British nationals”?

In the next scene, the problem of nationalism segues into the problem of relationships. The juxtaposition of the painted Iguazu Falls lamp and the photos of the two lovers link their relationship to the waterfalls—or at least to a mediated image of the actual geographic location. Lying in a shabby bed in a shabby room, Po-Wing tells Yiu-Fai that they could “start over.” Until now, all the images have been in color. But the film cuts to black & white when Yiu-Fai gets into bed with Po-Wing and the two men renew their relationship with vigorous lovemaking. We hear Yiu-Fai’s voice-over say that he and Po-Wing have broken up many times but get back together every time Po-Wing wants to “start over.” As the two men “start over,” the film itself seems to “start over” by going back to the monochromatic origins of the moving image. The sex between the two men plays as an alternate act of conception—a renewal of the relationship, of the film, of cinema itself.

The importance of the Iguazu Falls lamp becomes clearer in the next sequence. Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing drive aimlessly around Argentina’s rural highways. The flat landscapes stretch out in endless monotony. Yiu-Fai’s voice-over tells us that after Po-Wing bought the lamp, the couple decided to visit Iguazu Falls. “We wanted to go home after it,” Yiu-Fai says, “but we lost our way.” The two men quarrel, and we can see how stormy their romance is. As Yiu-Fai studies a map on the hood of their beaten-up car, Po-Wing angrily walks away. “I never did find out where we were that day,” the voice-over admits. In a long shot—against a vast, nondescript, Antonioni-like setting—Yiu-Fai tries to coax Po-Wing back, but the two split up, ending their relationship (again). A large truck passes by, ruffling the map on the car. After a quick close-up of a sad, frustrated Yiu-Fai, the film cuts from black & white to a helicopter shot in color of the sought-after waterfall. Lingering on the screen for a minute and a half, the shot is lyrical and ethereal. A slow, haunting Argentine song drifts from the soundtrack. We gradually realize that what we are seeing is not so much Iguazu Falls (though that is indeed the image on the film) but Yiu-Fai’s mindscreen: his idealized fantasy of his and Po-Wing’s dream destination —and an idealized signifier of the relationship itself (cf. Stokes and Hoover, 276). After this shot, the film returns to black & white, chronicling Yiu-Fai’s lonely life as a doorman for a Buenos Aires tango bar.

Already, Happy Together has established its most crucial concerns: love, nationalism, geography, and the intermingling of the three. By leaving their homeland, Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing’s dissatisfaction with their romance bespeaks a dissatisfaction with their national identity. But their passports instantly call attention to the disparity between their homeland, Hong Kong, and their official standing as “British nationals.” Apparently, Yiu-Fai imagines that upon reaching Iguazu Falls, the two lovers will reconcile their problems. But more than a romantic vacation will be needed to calm this stormy relationship because the two men have incompatible personalities: the brash, boyish Po-Wing is always looking for excitement, while the more sensible but somewhat uptight Yiu-Fai seeks security. Po-Wing expects others to do things for him and acts in a passive-aggressive manner to get his way. Yiu-Fai grudgingly obliges him but breaks under the strain when his good deeds are taken for granted.

This imperfect relationship reaches its most suitable arrangement when the battered Po-Wing convalesces at Yiu-Fai’s cozy apartment. There, Po-Wing acts the part of the needy, demanding child, and Yiu-Fai indulges him like an attendant parent. Even when Yiu-Fai comes down with a fever, Po-Wing convinces him to get out of bed and cook a meal for them both. Later in the film, Yiu-Fai reflects that this time was their “happiest together.” As if to underscore this sentiment, the cinematography returns to color when the two men are reunited and Po-Wing again asks if they can “start over.” But even in this relatively amicable arrangement, the two still quarrel. Yiu-Fai now wants their relationship to be non-sexual, but Po-Wing keeps contriving for them to sleep together. When he is well enough to go outside the apartment, Po-Wing vanishes for hours at a time, so Yiu-Fai encourages him to stay inside (buying an entire carton of cigarettes, so he won’t have to go out for a pack). This leads to more tension. Yiu-Fai tries to maintain Po-Wing’s dependence on him—which also suggests Yiu-Fai’s dependence on Po-Wing. In short, the love relationship in Happy Together is in a constant state of negotiation.

The film uses “place” as an indicator of the couple’s relationship. The emptiness of the monochromatic Argentine landscape early in the movie signals the emptiness of the two men’s ability to communicate, as the colorful image of the bountiful, overflowing waterfall promises Yiu-Fai a happier union with his lover. Also, the uncertainty of the relationship is marked by the uncertainty of the setting. In contrast to dominant cinema, Wong and Doyle don’t give us a clear establishing shot to anchor the environment. Instead, the locations are nondescript (the anonymous room, the indistinct highway, the near-abstract waterfall), as though they could exist anywhere. Doyle’s hand-held photography, wide-angle lenses, and frequent close-ups further inhibit a clear sense of setting. These visuals mirror Yiu-Fai’s loneliness and confusion. For example, when Po-Wing calls Yiu-Fai and asks to see him, the black & white cuts to quick, barely intelligible color shots of the city, which only add to our disorientation. However, after the end of the black & white segment, when Po-Wing comes to live with Yiu-Fai, the film displays its first extended long shot of a distinctive landscape: a time-lapse image of bustling downtown Buenos Aires. This is as close to an “establishing” shot as we get. The comfort of this traditional filmic device echoes Yiu-Fai’s newfound comfort in being back together with Po-Wing, and Yiu-Fai now works as a doorman with fresh energy and contentment.

All along, Yiu-Fai has invested the places he inhabits and imagines with a value seen in terms of his relationship with Po-Wing. For him, places seem to possess intrinsic meaning and power. This is particularly noticeable in his arranging the apartment as an exclusive “home” for himself and Po-Wing, and in his coveting of the Iguazu lamp, which he sees as an emblem of their love. But at the same time, Wong hints that such an investment is illusory. When the two lovers set out for the falls, they get lost, which suggests that their “destination” isn’t geographical and therefore doesn’t really exist. The flimsiness of their map as the truck rushes by implies the flimsiness of their hopes to repair their relationship. And since the map is not “geography” itself but merely a representation of geography, the image calls into question all constructs of place and the investments we make in them. Like the map, the Iguazu lamp is another representation of geography. As an image of an unseen place which Yiu-Fai idealizes as a stand-in for his affair with Po-Wing, the lamp is merely a fetish of a fetish. Gradually, Happy Together’s insinuation becomes comprehensible: place has no intrinsic meaning, only the meanings we give it.

This idea has profound implications for the concept of the nation. After all, nations are closely associated with geographical locations and boundaries, and appeals to nationalism have frequently called upon a people’s emotional attachments to localities, real or imagined. (Remember the Alamo?) How can one have a “homeland” without the land? By questioning and problematizing emotional investments in “place,” Happy Together implicitly questions and problematizes the very concept of nation, and with it, national identity. Although the gay couple obviously does not allegorize Hong Kong’s relation to mainland China,[28] their constant state of negotiation dramatizes the difficulties and uncertainties of interpersonal affiliation on a microcosmic level.

Appropriately, it’s a crisis of nationality that finally breaks up Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing for good. As Po-Wing recuperates in the flat, Yiu-Fai swipes his passport to prevent him from leaving. Once he’s fully recovered, Po-Wing demands the document back, and Yiu-Fai refuses to turn it over. Of all the scenes in the film, the editing in this moment is the most fragmentary and disorienting: the uncertainty of the cinematic space reflects both the uncertainty of Po-Wing’s national standing and Yiu-Fai’s uneasiness over the possibility of losing his lover. Furthermore, Yiu-Fai’s refusal raises the issue of one individual holding power over another by withholding the conferral of national identity. And Po-Wing’s later search for his elusive passport suggests the elusiveness of nationality itself. Finally, the two men come to blows, and Po-Wing storms out of the apartment and out of the relationship, leaving Yiu-Fai depressed.

Yiu-Fai is helped out of his depression by Chang when the two men strike up a friendship at the Chinese restaurant where they work (Yiu-Fai having quit his doorman job). Although the film presents Chang as sexually ambiguous (he turns down a Chinese woman who asks him out), his relationship with Yiu-Fai never becomes overtly sexual, and Yiu-Fai doesn’t even come out to him. Indeed, it isn’t entirely clear what draws these two men together, except perhaps a shared sense of exile and a need for mutual compassion. Nevertheless, Chang first helps Yiu-Fai out of his funk by challenging his fethishization of Iguazu Falls. Chang tells Yiu-Fai that the falls are fun, even though he’s never been there. “Haven’t been there is fun,” read the subtitles. Chang distinguishes a feeling held for a place from the geographical location itself. He expresses a desire to travel to Ushuaia, a desolate region of Argentina nicknamed “the end of the world,” suggesting the end of “place.” Later, at a bar, Chang impresses Yiu-Fai with his talent for hearing sounds at a distance, a talent he acquired from having poor eyesight as a child. “You know, I think ears are more important than eyes,” Chang tells Yiu-Fai. “You ‘see’ better with your ears.” At first, it seems strange that a character in such a visual—and beautifully shot —film would, without irony, value hearing over sight. However, Chang’s words (like Doyle’s cinematography) invite us to re-evaluate our senses and take stock of what they tell us. The point of this otherwise uneventful and inconclusive scene seems to be that overcoming our attachment to things of misplaced importance begins with altering our perception.

After spending a few more humdrum but peaceful moments with Chang, Yiu-Fai gradually emerges from his depression. One cathartic event comes when Chang offers to record Yiu-Fai’s troubles on a cassette recorder so that they can be exorcised when Chang plays back the tape in Ushuaia. Chang steps away, and Yiu-Fai merely weeps into the tape recorder. After Chang leaves for Ushuaia, Yiu-Fai regains a sense of contentment, only this time, he seems to be satisfied with himself, not investing all of his self-esteem in his relationship with someone else. At this point in the film, the time-lapse “establishing” shot of downtown Buenos Aires returns, again marking Yiu-Fai’s return to solace and contentment. Yiu-Fai agrees to return Po-Wing’s passport to him, but he leaves for Iguazu before seeing his former lover again. Now abandoned and dejected, Po-Wing goes to live in Yiu-Fai’s empty apartment. Unable to move forward with his own life, it is now Po-Wing who keeps up the flat and fetishizes the Iguazu lamp while he woefully waits for Yiu-Fai’s return—which never comes.

At last, Yiu-Fai visits Iguazu Falls. Drenched by its spray, he says to himself: “I finally reached Iguazu. Suddenly, I think of Ho Po-Wing. I feel very sad. I believe there should be two of us standing here.” Despite his sadness, Yiu-Fai now realizes that the falls were secondary to his relationship; they weren’t what he was really seeking. The film cuts to a second helicopter shot of the ethereal waterfall, which is virtually identical to the earlier one reflecting Yiu-Fai’s mindscreen. However, Wong has now contextualized this image of the falls as a geographic space, rather than as an idealized stand-in for a relationship that seemed doomed from the start. The falls are no longer fetishized, so we can absorb their image free from Yiu-Fai’s emotional investment in them. Although this shot of the falls is almost exactly the same as the earlier one, its effect is noticeably different.

Noting that the year is now 1997, Chang makes it to Ushuaia, “the end of the world,” and in another helicopter shot, the camera endlessly circles around the vast, barren-looking landscape, a mountainous cousin to the empty, flat highways of the film’s beginning. By playing the recording of Yiu-Fai’s crying, Chang is able to “leave” his friend’s sadness at the end of the world, and by coming to terms with his emotions for his family, Chang feels happy himself. Although this setting is a source of solace, the camera never shows us a comprehensive vista of the mountains: our view keeps shifting. Once again, our sense of place is unstable and uncertain. However, where the film’s visual freneticism was earlier associated with Yiu-Fai’s loneliness and uncertainty, it’s now associated with more positive feelings. This “end of the world” scene is soon followed by Yiu-Fai stopping over in Taiwan on his way back to Hong Kong. The first image is of a T.V. news report announcing the death of Deng Xiaoping, Wong’s most direct acknowledgement of the 1997 issue. So, Happy Together follows “the end of the world [in/as geography]” and the leaving of sadness with the death of an authoritarian political figure. However, Yiu-Fai ignores the T.V. report and doesn’t seem affected by it.

Although the news of Deng’s death is played as brief and inconsequential, it nevertheless comes as a momentous event in the film, a political intrusion into Yiu-Fai’s insular self-obsession, and perhaps an awakening out of his solipsistic introspection and into a greater engagement with the world (he sees the report while waking up—late in the day—from a long sleep). But this only comes after the film’s relentless troubling of the concept of “place” and the character’s letting-go of his disempowering associations with various localities.

To be sure, relationships still have meaning: before going back to Hong Kong, Yiu-Fai visits the outdoor food stall run by Chang’s parents. As he leaves, Yiu-Fai steals a snapshot of Chang in Ushuaia from them. He says to himself : “I don’t know when I’ll see Chang again. What I know is, if I want to, I know where I can find him.” Yiu-Fai is still collecting fetishes, but his attitude towards place has changed: it’s no longer obsessive. Happy Together’s closing images are undercranked shots of Taipei at night. Riding on an elevated train, Yiu-Fai looks content as he listens to a cover version of the Turtles’ song, “Happy Together.” Ironically, Yiu-Fai finally looks happy to be by himself. The final shot displays the track of the train as it moves forward—an image of advancement and possibility. After having “lost [his] way” at the beginning of the film (with his ill-advised relationship to Po-Wing and his over-investment in the concept of “place”), Yiu-Fai has now found himself and therefore can “go home.”[29] However, we never see him get back to Hong Kong. In fact, the only images we see of the colony are in the middle of the movie: street scenes filmed upside-down and presented as another of Yiu-Fai’s mindscreens. Yiu-Fai is now poised to bring his new perception of “place”—and with it, nationality —back with him to Hong Kong. How this might transform the settlement has yet to be imagined, yet to be envisioned, yet to come alive.

Conclusion: Romancing Perception

As one of the few directors of “art” films to work consistently in Hong Kong, Wong’s denial of dominant expectations inspires his audience to look beyond the limits of dominant cinema. Wong thwarts expectation on the visual level through his use of the undercrank/step-printing strategy. This visual motif works effectively in two ways. First, it robs any momentous “action” scenes of their cathartic energy. This estranges the viewer from these scenes and encourages one to contemplate the futility of violence as a solution to life’s problems, as it is so dynamically depicted in so many action films. So, the step-printing helps to undermine the ideological—and by extension, the national—foundations of genre. Second, where dominant cinema treats time as a constant drag on viewers’ attention span, Wong uses step-printing in his films’ quieter moments to allow viewers to regard the passage of time as an elastic continuum filled with myriad perceptual possibilities. As it de-spectacularizes the spectacle, the step-printing discovers the extraordinary in the everyday.

Wong’s characters who are trapped, doomed, unable to change are marked by their dependence on generic conventions. This is especially true for Ouyang Feng, who is confined by the homicidal demands of the wuxia pian in Ashes of Time, and Chi-Ming, who is confined by the conventions of “heroic bloodshed” in Fallen Angels. For Wong, the proscriptions of genre cinema entail a deadening of the senses, which precludes personal and social transformation. By contrast, the characters who show the greatest aptitude for survival resist generic expectations: Faye and 633 in Chungking Express, the two He Qiwus. And his character who makes the greatest personal transformation is Yiu-Fai, the protagonist of Happy Together, Wong’s least generic film. Although these characters touch upon the genre-driven demands of romance (such as the happy ending), they thwart those demands and move on.

By focusing so many of his movies on unrequited love, Wong instantly poses problems regarding each character’s sense of self. In the films, individuality at one level is affirmed by Wong’s trademark use of voice-over, which privileges individual consciousness and psychology. The films also affirm individualism by glossing over the finer points of the plot lines. In Chungking Express, for example, we never learn exactly how the Smuggler’s killing of the Contact solves her problems. (Since she doesn’t get her money or the drugs back, isn’t she still in trouble with her unseen employers?) This strategy shifts the story’s emphasis away from the mechanics of plot and focuses it, instead, upon the agency of the individual. In this way, Wong elevates individualism over narrative causality. His films fit firmly into the tradition of an individual-centered liberal humanism. Such an affirmation of individuality stands in quiet defiance to a China still haunted by the totalitarian legacies of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and Tiananmen Square.

At the same time, however, his characters’ state of romantic unfulfillment at the end of the narratives—a state of physical and psychological “incompleteness” in relation to others—intimates the limits of individualism: an insular life cut off from others is ultimately self-destructive. This is particularly true for those, such as Ouyang Feng in Ashes of Time and Chi-Ming in Fallen Angels, who cling to dubious identities that necessitate their emotional removal from others, identities designated by generic conventions. But it is also true for someone like Po-Wing in Happy Together, who ultimately clings to an ill-fated—and therefore illusory—romantic relationship to rationalize his selfish behavior.

In all his films, Wong suggests that his characters still have more growing to do: they will need to see beyond their own insular concerns and obsessions before they may tap into a more fulfilling sense of connection. One tool that Wong gives his characters for realizing this is memory. Holding others in one’s thoughts intervenes in the onrush of time (and its associations with the countdown to authoritarian control), as it promises the possibility of future human connection, and with it, a capacity for individual growth. “If memories could be canned,” says Qiwu to himself in Chungking Express, fondly recalling the Smuggler, “would they also have expiry dates? If so, I hope they last for centuries.” Qiwu’s memory of the Smuggler helps him to move on with his life. In Ashes of Time, Ouyang Feng clings to the memory of his beloved as his last hope for intimate contact and redemption. But when he hears of her death, he drinks a magic wine to help him forget and thereby continue his self-destructive identity as a swordsman.

So, Wong portrays his characters as unfixed and still evolving: like the new Hong Kong at the end of Happy Together, their ideal relationships have yet to be envisioned. Romance is only one form of human connection, albeit a very important one, and Wong’s films seem to search for a discourse of human bonding beyond the false finality of the romantic “happy ending”—at least as far as it is traditionally depicted in dominant cinema. Dominant preconceptions of romantic love must be overcome, the films seem to say, before true human connection can be achieved. By refusing to give his films happily-ever-after endings, Wong encourages his characters—and his audience—to re-think their individual identities and thus become better equipped to seek out more satisfying relationships in both the personal and interpersonal realms. So, although unrequited love acts as a motivating issue throughout his canon, Wong appears to be as critical of romance movies as he is of action films. But in no way is Wong advocating the condescending concept of romantic love as it was primarily portrayed in mainland Chinese cinema from the 1950s to 1970s: as a flawed force best channeled into something more “ennobling,” such as militant struggle or unquestioning devotion to the Communist Party.[30]

Moreover, the very concepts of the “individual” and “society” become politically charged in the context of Hong Kong. There, the status of the individual has been largely defined by British colonial law and economic practices (the individual as capitalist consumer), in marked contrast to the group-oriented social order of traditional Chinese culture. Also in Hong Kong, as Teo has mentioned, an identity beyond individuality often implies identifying with the people of the Chinese mainland (though not necessarily with the dictatorial Chinese government), and this entails freedom from a colonial identity. In its search for a sense of self beyond the individual, romantic love becomes inextricably bound to issues of national/cultural identity, particularly in Hong Kong.

So, by problematizing romantic relationships, Wong problematizes the concept of the nation on a microcosmic level. In order for a post-1997 “national” identity to emerge in Hong Kong, individuals will need to relate to each other and to the larger society in new ways. Moreover, new concepts of “nationalism” (whether particular to Hong Kong or extended to “China” as a whole, perhaps also comprising Taiwan and the Chinese diaspora) cannot be rooted in either mythologized acts of violence (as reified by generic martial-arts and “heroic bloodshed” movies) or an idealized attachment to “place,” which is merely an illusory fetish. As personified by the gay couple in Happy Together, concepts and enactments of nationalism require negotiation and experimentation. So, the very idea of the “nation” must be re-thought from the ground up—including the ground itself.

Rowley describes the disorientation of Wong’s images as reflecting the “chaos of postmodernism,” and his characters’ use of space acts as “resistance” against such confusion: “His visual style suggests the accelerated pace of life that reigns under the advanced capitalism found in Hong Kong…” (1, 3). However, the “chaos”— the frenetic energy—of Wong’s imagery is the most invigorating aspect of his films. As confusing as they sometime are, it’s difficult to associate these enlivening visuals with a concept as pejorative as “chaos.” Even though the disorienting use of imagery and space in Happy Together, for example, is often associated with Yiu-Fai’s loneliness and distress, the film ultimately suggests that this character must go through such a shaking-up of his senses before he can see past his disempowering romantic relationship with Po-Wing and move on to a more satisfying perception of himself. Indeed, the least “chaotic” moment in Happy Together is the relatively staid “establishing” shot of Buenos Aires that punctuates Yiu-Fai’s illusory contentment when he’s reunited with Po-Wing: the dissipation of visual freneticism, in this case, marks the retrenchment of the personal issues that Yiu-Fai needs to overcome. Once he does overcome them, among the first images he sees is an event of political change (Deng’s death). So, perceptual transformation carries with it the promise of political transformation—however subtle or delayed such change might be. More than “postmodern” space, Wong’s visuals portend post-colonial space.

Granted, “post-colonial” space in Wong’s films (and the post-colonial identity it implies) is caught up in the postmodern predicament. Furthermore, it utilizes strategies and aesthetics distinct from the militancy and primitivism of Third Cinema (arguably manifestations of “high modernism”),[31] which is perhaps unavoidable given Hong Kong’s status as a “developed” economy. However, Wong’s vision resists the paralytic positioning of the contemporary subject in the face of postmodernism’s omnipresence, and its simultaneous concealment and reinforcement of global capitalism, as theorized by Fredric Jameson. Indeed, Jameson’s recommendation for resisting postmodernism could describe the actions of Wong’s most optimistic, most persevering characters:

Disalienation in the traditional city…involves the practical reconquest of a sense of place, and the construction or reconstruction of an articulated ensemble which can be retained in memory and which the individual subject can map and remap along the moments of mobile, alternative trajectories.[32]

Intriguingly, Jameson names his resistant aesthetic “cognitive mapping,” which borrows from, but theoretically goes beyond, the strategies of traditional cartography. This returns us to the brief image of the truck-tossed map in Happy Together. While Wong has probably never read Jameson (or even heard of him), his films also recognize the relative insubstantiality of maps as signifiers of place and, in doing so, intimate a need for a new geography and new directions.

Wong’s visual style opens up the vicissitudes of spatial/temporal perception. Time and space are not merely empty stages upon which something must “happen,” but vibrant dimensions with their own powerful dynamics. Perhaps in perceiving space and time in a new way, the viewer may wonder how best to inhabit them. Wong’s disruption of cinematic expectations implies that a new sense of being— on the levels of individuality, collectivity, and nationhood—must begin with a reassessment of perception itself. The cinema, then, becomes a means to expand the way the senses absorb and comprehend the world around us. Once this begins, we can all—as Wong urges his characters to do—change for the better.


Thanks to Grigoris Daskalogrigorakis for his helpful comments.

1. Larry Gross, “Nonchalant Grace,” Sight and Sound, 6, no. 9 (September 1996), p. 8.

2. Stephen Teo, Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimension (London: British Film Institute, 1997), p. 244.

3. John A. Lent, The Asian Film Industry (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1990), p. 118. Also, see Teo, p. 244.

4. For example, see Tony Rayns, “Hard Boiled,” Sight and Sound, 2, No. 4 (August 1992), p. 21.

5. For more on the history of Hong Kong cinema, see Lent, pp. 92-121; Fredric Dannen and Barry Long, Hong Kong Babylon: An Insider’s Guide to the Hollywood of the East (New York: Hyperion/Miramax, 1997), pp. 1-55; Paul Fonoroff, “Hong Kong Cinema,” in Encyclopedia of Chinese Film, eds. Yingjin Zhang and Zhiwei Xiao (New York: Routledge, 1998), pp. 31-46; Lisa Odham Stokes and Michael Hoover, City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema (New York: Verso, 1999); and Teo, Hong Kong Cinema.

6. E.g., see Teo, pp. 144-49. Some newspaper film reviews have also called the colony’s action cinema “the Hong Kong New Wave.”

7. Rone Tempest, “Hong Kong’s Film Business Struggles to Make a Comeback,” Los Angeles Times, March 21, 1999, pp. C1, 16.

8. In great demand, Doyle has worked not only for other directors in Hong Kong, but for filmmakers in other industries as well: Chen Kaige’s Temptress Moon (1996) in China and Park Ki-Yong’s Motel Cactus (1997) in South Korea, for example. He made his Hollywood debut with Gus Van Sant’s ill-advised 1998 remake of Psycho. Doyle has also published books of his photographs and writings, such as A Cloud in Trousers (Santa Monica, Ca.: Smart Art Press, 1998).

9. Stephen Rowley, “Chungking Express, Happy Together, and Postmodern Space,” http://www.werple.net.au/~lerowley/postmod2.htm (July 15, 1999), p.3.

10. See Tony Rayns, “Poet of Time,” Sight and Sound, 5, no. 9 (September 1995), p. 12.

11. Wong interviewed by Jimmy Ngai, “A Dialogue with Wong Kar-Wai: Cutting Between Time and Two Cities,” in Wong Kar-Wai, ed. Danièle Rivère (Paris: Dis Voir, n.d.), p. 113. Ellipses in original.

12. Cf. Gross, p. 8.

13. There seems to be some disagreement whether the kung fu film is a kind of wuxia pian or a separate category. Lau Shing-Hon refers to both kung fu and swordplay movies as wuxia pian, but Teo reserves the term wuxia pian exclusively for the swashbucklers, which he says were “clearly delineated” from kung fu until the two genres were combined in the 1970s, when martial heroes were shown fighting both armed and unarmed. See Lau Shing-Hon, Introduction, A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film (Hong Kong: Hong Kong International Film Festival, 1980), p. 3; and Teo, pp. 98-99.

14. Jin Yong is actually the pen name of Hong Kong newspaper mogul Louis Cha.

15. Jeff Yang, “Chinese Pulp Fiction,” in Eastern Standard Time: A Guide to Asian Influence on American Culture, eds. Jeff Yang et al. (New York: Mariner, 1997), p. 41.

16. Sek Kei, “The Development of ‘Martial Arts’ in Hong Kong Cinema,” in A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film, p. 27.

17. For more on nationalism in the films of Bruce Lee, see Tony Rayns, “Bruce Lee: Narcissism and Nationalism,” in A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film, pp. 109-12; and Teo, pp. 110-21. By “classical” martial-arts films, I mean in particular those textually conservative wuxia pian produced by Hong Kong before the 1980s, as well as some later examples, such as Jackie Chan’s star vehicles. Once the 1997 issue came into play, the conflation of nationalism and violence became too contradictory not to rupture the on-screen content (with cross-dressing, surrealistic geysers of blood, bodies exploding cataclysmically, etc.) of most martial-arts movies, especially Tsui Hark’s and Ching Siu-Tung’s.

18. Tony Rayns, “Chaos and Anger,” Sight and Sound, 4, no. 10 (October 1994), p. 15.

19. Although the film’s soundtrack clearly refers to this character as “633” (luk-sam-sam), the number on his uniform epaulets reads “663,” and some sources call the character by this number.

20. For example, see Tony Rayns, “Fallen Angels” (review), Sight and Sound, 6, no. 9 (September 1996), p. 42.

21. For example, see Jean-Marc Lalanne, “Images from the Inside,” in Wong Kar-Wai, pp. 22-24.

22. Ackbar Abbas, “The Erotics of Disappointment,” in Wong Kar-Wai, p. 46.

23. For more on the relationship between colonialism and narrative, see Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (New York: Routledge, 1994).

24. Brigitte Lin (Chinese name: Lin Ching-Hsia) is originally from Taiwan and speaks her voice-overs in Mandarin. Since Hong Kong’s local Chinese dialect is Cantonese, Lin’s character embodies a Chinese identity larger than just Hong Kong. For an appreciation of Lin’s career, see Howard Hampton, “Venus, Armed,” Film Comment, 32, No. 5 (September-October 1996), pp. 42-48.

25. This genre is known in Hong Kong as the “hero” film. I borrow the term “heroic bloodshed” from Rick Baker, quoted in Bey Logan, Hong Kong Action Cinema (Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook, 1995), p. 126.

26. Most Hong Kong films are given titles in both Chinese and English for domestic consumption, and sometimes, the two titles have little to do with each other. However, Fallen Angels is more or less a literal translation of the Chinese title, (in Mandarin/pinyin:) Duoluo Tianshi, except that the words have less of a religious resonance in Hong Kong.

27. As a heterosexual viewer, I never cared whether Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing ever patched up their relationship. However, a gay friend of mine told me that he empathized with the two characters and hoped that the film would have them end up together.

28. However, another 1997 Hong Kong movie titled Happy Together, one directed by Sherman Wong, used a heterosexual cross-border couple to symbolize the settlement’s new union to the mainland.

29. Although Wong is very critical of Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing’s particular relationship —because their personalities are so incompatible—I don’t think that Happy Together intends to be critical of gay relationships in general. After all, Yiu-Fai never renounces his homosexuality.

30. For a brief summary of romantic love as portrayed in transnational Chinese cinema, see Yingjin Zhang, “Love and Marriage,” in Encyclopedia of Chinese Film, pp. 230-33.

31. For more about Third Cinema, see Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino, “Towards a Third Cinema,” in Movies and Methods, ed. Bill Nichols (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1976), pp. 44-64.

32. Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review, no. 146 (July-August 1984), p. 89.

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