Wong Kar-Wai’s signature emphasis on architectural surface—Fallen Angels.

Most of the film has the actors in close proximity to the camera’s fisheye wide-angle lens—Fallen Angels.

Black and white images, low-key lighting, underworld ambiance, and ubiquitous cigarette smoke all evoke film noir. Combined with the contorted composition, these elements show Wong’s self-reflexive mastery of film history and form—Fallen Angels.

For Wong, genre typage sets up characters with deadened senses and no personal or social transformation. Some characters resist such typage, such as Faye and 633 in Chungking Express.

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.


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