Chungking Express develops Wong Kar-Wai’s central theme—unrequited love.

Fallen Angels shows a “hedonistic absorption in architectural surfaces, in light sources, in decor of every possible fabric and material

“The undercrank/step-printing method gives these scenes a haunting sense of simultaneous animation and suspension”—Chungking Express

Wong Kar-Wai emphasizes the materiality of the image without sacrificing narrative pleasure—Fallen Angels

Characters pursue romance but it doesn't solve any problems—Chungking Express

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 ambitious but flawed effort, Ashes of Time.


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