From behind the bars of his bed, Ho can only gaze at an image of the Iguazu Falls as a faraway dream and utopic “promised land.”
As the first glimpse of color in the black-and-white beginning, the Iguazu Falls carve out their distinct place in the film as well as the characters’ and spectators’ minds.
Beginning to (re)tackle the landscape, Lai pores over the road map in a similar position from before …
… in order to bring him, unlike Ho, closer to reaching the dream of the Falls.
Appearing to stand at the end of the world, Chang tries to listen to Lai’s recorded voice atop the rocks …
… but in the end, it’s only the natural landscape that can bear witness to his sorrows as he stands beside the mountains.
Hong Kong never strays too far, as shots and mentions of the characters’ passports remind us of the necessity of returning home.
Incapable of facing the time and space of Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, and his personal demons, Ho can only dwell on his memories of Lai and regrets.
The vast space and receptacle of the Falls receives the extent of Lai’s emotions …
… shrinking to become a hole in the Angkor Wat Temple ...
... that receives the secrets whispered by Tony Leung’s pained character.
Henri Bergson, in defining the notions of subjective time (time-as-lived) and external (numeric, spatialized) representations of time, describes the former as a melody and the latter as sheet music. By depending on the sheet music, the melodic tune at the heart of lived experienced grows fainter. [open endnotes in new window] The fixity of lined music and measured time is, in a way, akin to how Buenos Aires’ grid-like streets as well as rapidly passing minutes prove unsympathetic to the pace and path of Lai and Ho’s existence. Indeed, as the original title of the film was The Buenos Aires Affair (based on the Marcel Puig novel), this could refer not only to the affair that Lai and Ho have in Buenos Aires, but also to the (failed) affair that they have with Buenos Aires.
The search for a relatable space in this world—one potentially with its heart and soul still intact—could thus come down to finding a place that simply reflects the melody at the depths of subjective experience. That is, a location that reflects the fluctuations and vibrations of our emotions and inner temporality. Perhaps, this is why the Río de la Plata and the flow of its waters appear capable of partnering Lai, at least for a moment. However, it flows in a limited direction, permanently bound to its industrial borders as Lai continues to appear emotionally disconnected from these surroundings. Consequently, he has yet to come across a place that can truly provide him with the calm and solace he yearns for.
Here, it is necessary to clarify the difference between my intentional use of the terms space and place. Deleuze’s writing on contemporary space suggests the following:
This notion of space as vast, alien passageways proves remarkably fitting in describing the shots of the Avenida 9 de Julio and La Boca, either filled with the speed of gliding, frictionless traffic or devoid of human presence. Thus, the city and suburb are both made up of spaces that thwart personal connections to the landscape and deny a true sense of belonging. Place therefore implies not only a more specific geographical location, but also somewhere that allows for the formation of strong, affective ties (thoughts, memories, dreams) with it. The notion of place thus emerges at the beginning of the film, in Lai and Ho’s quest to reach the Iguazu Falls and attempt to fulfill their dreams of starting anew as a couple. A full color, aerial glimpse of the Falls also breaks through the initial black-and-white imagery, carving out its distinct place in the film amidst the vast and disorienting space of the roads.
The Iguazu Falls, bordering Brazil and Argentina, is over 1000 kilometers away from Buenos Aires:
Having just arrived in Latin America, Lai is forced to admit that “We lost our way” somewhere along these 1000 kilometers, as the lovers grow increasingly disenchanted with their romantic ideals. Doyle describes the scene:
This loss in a geographical sense thus translates to a simultaneous emotional loss, as they begin to realize that their dreams of reaching the Falls and staying together prove impossible.
In a way, then, the Iguazu Falls come to represent Lai and Ho’s “promised land,” or the utopic point of their entire quest: it is a place that motivates their journey yet one that they can never seem to reach. Indeed, their desired experience of such a place, just like their past dreams of being happy together, exists as an illusion. Ganser, Pühringer, and Rheindorf expand on Bakhtin’s theories to delineate the chronotope of the promised land:
Indeed, the Iguazu Falls are this “projected destination” that drive Lai and Ho’s lives as well as overall experience of time and space. This definition also proves telling as it suggests that the characters’ sense of alienation is not only due to their disjuncture from the spatial-temporal dimensions of Buenos Aires. Instead, they are “out of joint” and “out of place” as a result of their preoccupation with this idealized land that embodies their fantasy of a harmonious rapport. In effect, their escape has always been for something more, something beyond just removing themselves from Hong Kong, the city, and the outside world. What they also wish to find, then, is a place that reflects rather than deflects their subjectivities.
It is only towards the end of the film, when Lai begins to recover from his break from Ho and attempts to navigate the landscape by himself (first drifting along the river and then taking to the roads again), that reaching the elusive experience of the Falls becomes a possibility. When he arrives, Lai stares up at the natural wonder, his face filmed in close-up:
Looking up at the Falls and standing at the edge of all things—the last frontier of his relationship, the final moments of his time in Buenos Aires, and the borders of two countries—Lai is finally engaged with his surroundings. Transcending national boundaries, the location of the Falls echoes the core of Lai’s transnational, borderless positioning and the multiplicity of his personal identity. At the most basic and visceral level, though, Lai’s identification with the landscape stems from the rushing water: it immerses him, touches his skin, and, above all, comes to reflect the flowing depths of his individual experience that has been repressed by the views of the cityscape and barrio.
After all, as his trek has necessitated a return to nature, it also calls forth a return of the repressed. Wilson describes how Buenos Aires is “one of the world’s cities with the lowest proportion of green spaces,” with nature having been largely abolished by urban construction. Thus, the journey to the Falls indicates a certain return to the natural past that the urban and suburban spaces have so long sought to repress. From the postmodern pastiche of Buenos Aires’ downtown to the industrial remnants of the port, here we come to a pre-modern and pre-industrial site. Consequently, these waters could also come to represent the subjective time described by Bergson that has been largely suppressed due to modern emphases on rationalized time and organization. Teo emphasizes how “[t]he Falls are essentially the carrier of real time in the film”: indeed, this location is shot in real time as opposed to the time-lapse of the avenue. However, his claim could also be extended to the notion that the Falls carry a sense of lived time in its waters—the tumult that best portrays Lai’s time-as-lived and the organicity of “real time” at the heart of natural life.
Simultaneously, it may be too simple and hopeful to consider the Falls a perfect mirror of Lai’s subjectivity. Indeed, Tambling compares the Falls to
Certainly, their vastness could be seen as even more dwarfing than the city structures, failing to console Lai as he declares: “I feel very sad. I feel like there should be two of us standing here.” This could signify his continued alienation from the environment—the ideal human-place tango remains unattainable. While I admit that the perfect partner, whether in a lover or a landscape, may continue to remain elusive, what proves significant is the filmic inflection of this experience. After all, Lai is shown facing forward in close-up: no longer displaced, no longer dwarfed or drifting outside the frame. Certainly, he remains sad; however, contrary to his previous indifference to his surroundings, this place manages to make him feel.
Furthermore, the beginning glimmers of happiness start to emerge from the admission of his sadness, as he finally learns to love Ho from a distance and can now end his sojourn in Buenos Aires to find his way back home to Hong Kong. As Wong claims in an interview, the film ultimately indicates that
The Falls, then, help provoke the debut of this solitary happiness and a renaissance of direction for Lai. Thus, instead of a vast gap, I find that the waters resemble more of a receptacle—a place that receives rather than repels, and re-orients rather than disorients.
Finally, just as Lai journeys to the edge of the Falls in his attempt to come to peace with himself, Chang, who comes into Lai’s life when Ho is on the brink of leaving it, also looks towards a projected destination before heading back to Taiwan. He wishes to go to where he calls “the end of the world”: Ushuaia, the provincial capital of Tierra del Fuego located at the southernmost tip of South America.
Tierra del Fuego may not only be geographically located on the edges of South America, but may also visually appear to teeter on the end of the world.
Stokes and Hoover remark how Doyle’s filming of Tierra del Fuego brings it to
Similar to Lai’s experience of the Falls, Chang has not only reached the promised land and final frontier he has longed for, but also the repressed landscape of nature—the “sky” and “sea” that now accompany his solitude.
After all, Chang, too, comes here alone. Although he plays a tape recording that Lai left for him, he admits that despite his acute sense of hearing, he is barely able to discern anything except for some faint crying. Thus, it is the mountainous landscape and waters that partner him, allow him to stand at the edge of the continent, and bring him to realize that it is the end of his time abroad. By reaching what appears to be the end of the world for them, especially in relation to their origins in East Asia, the trajectory of Lai and Chang’s exile can be encapsulated through Bakhtin’s chronotope of escape as described by Ganser et al: the individual’s experience “seems to lead to the end of all roads, some sort of ‘land’s end.’” Indeed, perched atop the rocks and standing beneath the Falls, Chang and Lai’s journeys have led them to the edge, forcing them to recognize that the only place left to go is back to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Hence, it is this very escape to a place at the end of all roads, where space is built organically and time measured subjectively, that has the potential to bring us back to where we started from. As Chang realizes,
Home is where the film begins and where it must end: Lai and Chang both head back to the opposite hemisphere. However, one individual has been left behind in the process. The last shot we see of Ho shows him sobbing and clasping Lai’s blanket to his chest, alone in their old apartment. Indeed, Ho has never left his suspended state of being, metaphorically still caught atop the Puente Transbordador and drifting without direction in his underworld existence. Contrary to Ho, Lai actively attempts not only to tackle the landscape, but also to redirect himself, ultimately managing to face the world above the surface. He eventually takes to navigating through the downtown streets of Buenos Aires, immersing himself in the buzz and energy of the city and matching the rapid, jagged pace of the camera that moves alongside him.
In other words, Lai can begin to confront the speed of the external world and, in turn, that of Hong Kong. This notion of speed defines the unfolding of Hong Kong’s contemporary reality, the imminent redefinition of Lai’s national identity, and the collective stream of time that governs the increasingly rapid pace of our world. As a result, although Lai does not return to Hong Kong yet by the time the film ends, he begins to shed his underworld, obscured existence: in his hotel room in Taipei, he watches a news program that, for the first time, offers a window into the contemporary events unfolding close to home (Chinese reformist leader Deng Xiaoping’s death on February 20th, 1997). Finally, he strolls with ease through the Taiwanese night market on Liaoning Street, potentially reflecting a certain acknowledgment of his homeland’s increasing ties to mainland China as Liaoning is the name of a Chinese province. Here, just as he allowed himself to be showered by the Falls, he throws himself into his surroundings as the film ends, hurtling through the space and time of his present as he takes a ride aboard Taiwan’s high-speed mass transit train. According to Teo,
Escape, after all, is temporary; time can only be suspended for so long. Thus, his transnational quest becomes just as much a personal pursuit to resituate himself within the waves of his present and accept his impending future.
At the same time, this is not merely a journey about the present: the voyage that Wong, Lai, and I as the spectator embark on is one that traverses not only thousands of kilometers in space but also countless years in time. Indeed, it is simultaneously a nostalgic search for a land before time. With the Falls as a representation of a long lost nature, the landmark could indeed serve as the ultimate, albeit imperfect, tango partner for Lai whilst Ho has abandoned him. As the Falls weep on him to the strains of “Cucurrucucu Paloma,” we witness a fleeting, harmonious dance between human and environment. Furthermore, as Lai describes Ushuaia to Chang as a place where “heartbroken people go…and leave their unhappiness behind,” we can only hope that Chang, too, has managed to shed some of his sadness on the nature that surrounds him.
Finally, as I believe that the trip to the Falls is just as much a search to find a place and receptacle for human emotions, I look to the continuum of Wong’s works in search of more support for this claim. In In the Mood for Love, Tony Leung’s character Chow Mo-wan, unable to fulfill his love for his neighbor Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) due to their social obligations (both are married), travels to the 12th century Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia to whisper his secrets into a hole in the wall. The vortex thus shrinks…only to open up again in the first scene of 2046, on an image of a hole that ripples outwards, which is used by the android (Faye Wong) as a safe place to keep her thoughts in the faraway future after a forbidden affair. Both films thus indicate a constant search for a place capable of receiving these displaced individuals’ feelings. Hence, while the confluence of love and time has been the focus of much of the study around Wong’s works and justifiably so, the particular spatial and temporal geography of love remains an area that has yet to be explored to its fullest potential.
Maybe, though, this is for the best, as unexplored terrain implies that we still have somewhere to go. Indeed, it is the dream of unreached destinations that motivates such transnational and transtemporal journeys, whether in taking the car to the Iguazu Falls or the train to the year 2046. These lost lovers are thus not only in search of someone, but somewhere to whom they can whisper their secrets and shed their sorrows; or, at the very least, next to whom they can share a rare moment of solace.