To the audience at large, the cinema of Hong Kong is best noted for its dynamic, disorienting action martial arts cinema, featuring directors such as Tsui Hark, Ching Siu-Tang, Ringo Lam and John Woo. In a system where the primary goal of cinema was to recoup financial investments by producing movies that appealed to a wide audience in a factory oriented manner, it would seem impossible for a director to be able to break out of the mold and distinguish himself as an auteur of Hong Kong cinema. In an environment reflective of Hong Kong’s unforgiving economy, art styled films were often overlooked and discouraged for practical and monetary reasons (Payne, 2001).
The late 1970’s saw the emergence of a new breed of filmmakers, also referred to as the Hong Kong New Wave, who were willing to innovate and reinvent the Hong Kong film in the face of the growing popularity of television. One key characteristic that was evident in films made during this period is perhaps that they were very much focused on Hong Kong and its social-political issues, particularly the impending return to China in 1997, while maintaining an artistic impetus. One director of this era, Patrick Tam, would serve as the mentor for one of the most unique auteur of the Second Hong Kong New Wave- Wong Kar-wai (Wright, 2002).
Wong Kar-wai was born in Shanghai in 1958 and moved to Hong Kong at the age of five. A graduate in graphic design from Hong Kong Polytechnic, he enrolled in the television station TVB production training course, which allowed him to begin his career in film as a production assistant on drama serials. Later, he would leave TVB to become a full-time scriptwriter for feature films in a wide variety of genres, ranging from romantic comedies to action dramas. His first feature as a director was in 1988 for the film As Tears Go By, which featured a strong unique visual style that would later become associated with films bearing his name.
His next film, Days of Being Wild (1991) won five Hong Kong Film awards, including best film, best director and best actor, cementing his position as a filmmaker (Jean-Marc, Martinez, Abbas, Ngai 2001). His later film, Chungking Express would become a hit internationally. In light of his work throughout the 1990s, the respected Sight and Sound magazine, published by the British Film institute, named Wong Kar-wai third in a polling of the world’s top ten directors, second only to Martin Scorsese and Krzysztof Kieslowski.
In analyzing his extensive body of work, it can be said that Wong Kar-wai is a filmmaker that is ultimately obsessed with the issues of memory, identity, time and space, urbanity, mood, isolation and absence (Wright 2002), which is a far cry from the typical triad or martial art films of the day. In fact, only two of his films Ashes of Time (1994) and The Grandmasters (2011) have any reference to martial arts.
The purpose of this essay is to try and break down the elements in Wong Kar-wai’s films and establish what makes him an auteur. However, how do we define an auteur? What qualities of the director’s styles and/or themes within his body of work qualify him as one?
perhaps the only way for us to justify Wong as auteur to determine whether there is a degree of consistency in which a uniquely personal point of view is expressed through recurring themes, characters, situation and imagery.
Francois Truffaut (1954) maintains that a good director exerts such a distinctive style or promotes such a consistent theme that his or her influence is unmistakable in the body of his or her work. Andrew Sarris, who popularized the auteur theory with his article Notes on the Auteur Theory published in 1962, too says: “Over a group of films must exhibit recurrent characteristics of style, which serve as his signature”.
As such, perhaps the only way for us to justify Wong as auteur to determine whether there is a degree of consistency in which a uniquely personal point of view is expressed through recurring themes, characters, situation and imagery.
For the purpose of establishing a benchmark of comparison, I will use three of Wong’s films- Chungking Express (1994), In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004).
Chungking Express was unique in the sense that it was shot in three months during a break in production of The Ashes of Time, which is a record breaker in production time for a Wong Kar-wai film. Set amongst the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui and the Chungking mansions, Chungking Express featured two separate stories, both about two lovesick policemen (Takeshi Kaneshiro as He Qiwu and Tony Leung as Cop #663) and their interactions respectively with a drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin) and a boyish girl named Faye working at a fast food joint (Faye Wong). In spite of their advances, both policemen are ultimately unable to keep hold of their loves.
In the Mood for Love saw Wong return to the era of the 1960’s, a place explored in his earlier film, Happy Together (1997). Amidst the cramped communal housing of urban Hong Kong, Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung) find solace in each other when it becomes apparent that their respective spouses are engaged in extramarital affairs. In spite of this, they are reluctant to take their relationship a step further, and ultimately, they lose one sight of one another.
In a large sense, 2046 (2004) is the continuation of Chow Mo-Wan’s story, exploring the aftermath of his relationship with Su Li-Zhen. Cooped up in a hotel room numbered “2047”, partially due to the Hong Kong riots at the time, Chow Mo-Wan writes a Sci-fiction novel aptly named “2046” entertaining the idea that anyone who goes to 2046 can find their lost love, a reflection of Chow’s own longing for Su-Li Zhen. At the same time, the film explores with his relationship with the guests of room 2046, Wang Jing Wen (played by Faye Wong), the hotel manager’s daughter who is in love with a Japanese man (played by Takuya Kimura), and Bai Ling (played by Zhang Ziyi), a cheongsam wearing high class prostitute. Ultimately though, Chow ends the film just as he started, longing for his lost love.
In essence, if an auteur’s presence or personality is felt in a film, then it is very much a given that his own upbringing and experiences would in some way be found in the film as well.
In many ways, each of these films is a reflection of Wong as a person. Andrew Sarris (1962) states: “Ultimately, the auteur theory is not so much a theory as an attitude, a table of values that converts film history into directorial autobiography.”
In essence, if an auteur’s presence or personality is felt in a film, then it is very much a given that his own upbringing and experiences would in some way be found in the film as well. Granted, In the Mood for Love and 2046 are throwbacks to Wong’s own childhood in the 1960s. He struggles to recapture the lost nostalgia of a Hong Kong that has long past.
“I was born in Shanghai and moved to Hong Kong the year I was five…for me it was a very memorable time. In those days, the housing problems were such that you’d have two or three families living under the same roof and they’d have to share the kitchen and toilets and even their privacy. I wanted to make a film about those days and I wanted to go back to that period…” (Wong Kar-Wai cited in Tobias, 2001)
It was also perhaps that during his era that his own obsession with numbers and dates would find its roots. The signing of the 1984 Sino-British agreement outlining the handover of Hong Kong to China forced Hong Kong residents and filmmakers alike to confront their relationship with China (Wright, 2002). Wong would be no different in this aspect, as shown by his constant focus on numbers and lost time presented in a romantic and idealized style.
In Chungking Express, Qiwu is obsessed with collecting pineapple cans with an expiry date of 1st May as a reminder of the love he lost on 1st April, and interestingly, the drug smuggler also uses expiry dates as a means of communication with her contact. The cans with their expiration date become indexes for both the passing of love and time.
These usages of pineapples and expiry dates have their subtext as well. Given we have already associated pineapples with lost love and Wong’s usage of a shot of a sardine can with the expiry day of 1st May 1994, perhaps we can assume the drug dealer’s association with his western contact to be terminated- a subtle reference to the upcoming handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China (Wright, 2002).
With his fixation on time, it is then not surprising that clocks would naturally become a common motif. For instance, Qiwu’s story is intercut with shots of a clock, seemingly counting down to his birthday, while clocks overshadow both Chow and Su-Lizhen in their offices. Wong constantly returns to examine the face of the clocks, in a seemingly vain attempt to recapture time lost.
Even the number of the hotel room (2046) that both Chow and Su-Lizhen spend time together in writing a martial arts novel has significance in the narrative.
In the aptly named 2046, the number becomes the embodiment of Chow’s longings for Su-Lizhen, so much so that he creates an entire Sci-fiction novel about going to 2046 and establishing it as a place where one can find love lost. Again, the number also has a direct relation to the 1997 handover, in which the year 2046 will see Hong Kong become fully integrated with Mainland China.
all of Wong Kar-wai’s films use unrequited love as the inciting incident or motivating problem.
Perhaps what is even more evident in all of Wong Kar-wai’s films is the common theme of loneliness, frustration, the loss of love and how the characters deal with their issues in their own ways, all against a backdrop of isolation and disconnected environments. Each of the male protagonists in the films has in some way fallen out of love, Qiwu was dumped by his girlfriend, Cop #663 had his “boarding pass” cancelled by his air attendant girlfriend, and Chow discovers that his wife is having an affair.
And how they deal with it- Qiwu collects pineapple cans, Cop #663 goes back and forth to his home hoping to find his girlfriend there and Chow writing a martial arts novel with Su-Lizhen are unconventional to say the least.
Ultimately, all of Wong Kar-wai’s films use unrequited love as the inciting incident or motivating problem. Robert M.Payne notes that “in the world of Wong Kar-wai, requited love-or at least its possibility- is equally problematic…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 is equally true for all three protagonists in the three films. Qiwu never sees the drug smuggler again, Cop #663 does see Faye again one year after she runs off to ‘California’ but her reappearance in an air attendant uniform suggests she will run off again, never able to be tied down.
Chow loses sight of Su-Lizhen and never seems to find true love in spite of the numerous romantic encounters with the women of 2046, and the loss of another Su-Lizhen (Gong Li) also known as “Lulu”, only serves to deepen his own misery.
In a sense, the audience is always left hanging by this lack of narrative closure in all of Wong’s films, but do directors necessarily need to provide the answers to everything? Alexandre Astruc coined the notion that the director should wield his camera like writer uses his pen and that he need not be hindered by traditional storytelling. In other words, Wong Kar-Wai should be free to present his stories the way he wants.
Christopher Doyle, Wong’s long preferred cinematographer, came up with a means to effectively describe Wong’s films: “The structure if a Wong Kar-wai film is like a fat’s man’s feet. They more or less get him from place to place but he can’t see them till the end of the day.”
Disjointed and disorienting, Wong’s films can be hard to understand at face value and the pieces of his narratives are fragmented and never seem to add up to make a whole. (Jean-Marc, Martinez, Abbas, Ngai 2001) In a sense, they are a reflection of the random and unpredictable nature of human relationships (Wright, 2002).
This randomness and unpredictability forms the key driving force behind Wong Kar-wai’s narratives. The characters in all three films are constantly on the move, with the action very much dependant on their intersecting paths amidst the urbanity of Hong Kong (Wright, 2002). For instance, Qiwu running pass the drug smuggler only to meet her again in a bar by chance, Cop #663’s seemingly random encounters with Faye at the market, Chow’s encounters with Su-Lizhen in the corridors and later with the women of 2046 who consistently leave and come back into his life. In overview, one could say all of Wong Kar-wai’s stories are dependent on the use of pairs and exploring the possibilities till they all have been exhausted. (Jean-Marc, Martinez, Abbas, Ngai 2001).
And perhaps what ties the films together logically is his signature use and mastery of title cards and monologues.
“I always think monologue can be a very interesting device, it can be something happening inside a character, an internal communication, an observation; it can be something directed towards the audience, a confession of an excuse that the character wants to make, or it can be a reminder of something which has happened, or even a lie. Monologue is always helpful in providing information that we don’t see on the screen.” (Wong Kar-wai cited in Ngai, 1995)
In Chungking Express, Qiwu’s entire back-story is told through his own internal monologue while we get a greater sense of Cop #663’s own internal struggles as he talks randomly to objects within his apartment that serve as the embodiment of the state of his emotional well-being. In the Mood for Love and 2046, the audience is repeatedly reminded of Chow’s regret at the loss of Su-Lizhen throughout film with his sporadic monologues. All of these, against the backdrop of the isolation and clutter of urban Hong Kong, serve to remind the audience of the characters’ status as alienated and lost outsiders, trying to find their own place. (Wright, 2002)
Wong Kar-wai’s use of title cards while simple and unoriginal, have a much greater impact on creating mood and atmosphere than one would expect from mere words. For instance, the opening title card for the In the Mood for Love: “It is a restless moment, Hong Kong 1962” serves not only to establish the time in which the story takes place, but also to invoke the memories of a era lost amongst his audience and the time’s social-political issues. In fact, this sentiment is echoed in the final title card “That era has passed. Nothing that belonged to it exists anymore.”, again emphasizing Wong’s own obsession with his childhood and the mourning of its passing.
Wong Kar-wai’s pre-occupation with time is further emphasized by the use of increasing distant dates on the title cards in the final sequences of In the Mood for Love. Separated by months, then a year and then three years, it seems to indicate that love never fully disappears, as Chow narrates in the end, grows increasingly “blurred and indistinct” with time. (Ng, 2001) This premise of time affecting love also finds its way into 2046 particularly in the case of the androids on the train to 2046. Again, the use of title cards dictating the amount of time passed (10 hours, 100 hours and 1000 hours) juxtaposed against the reaction of the androids, serves to put across the essence of the film- that the more time extends into the future, the more emotion is delayed. (Teo, 2005)
Wong can be defined as an auteur deeply invested in exploring the concepts of lost love and time amongst the isolated and cramped urban spaces of Hong Kong past and present, supported by a constantly evolving and unrestrained visual style.
We have now established to a large extent the recurrent themes evident in Wong Kar-wai’s films, so let us now briefly examine how his mise-en-scene furthers his personal point of view.
Gary Bettinson, lecturer at Lancaster University, wrote an entire paper dedicated to the aesthetic qualities of Wong Kar-wai. In it, he describes Wong Kar-wai as a director who is not so much tied down to any one particular set of techniques, but as one who is constantly exploring and adapting film techniques to “disturb-and-refresh” (Bettinson, 2010, pp. 2-3) the audience’s formal expectations and evaluations.
Within the three films, there is a distinct progression and evolution of Wong‘s ability to disturb and refresh the audience’s perspectives. For instance, in Chungking Express, Qiwu is placed behind a glass surface in the fast-food joint and is de-focused by a sweep of a dishrag while another sweep puts Qiwu back into clarity. (Bettinson, 2010, p. 4) Perhaps Wong wanted the audience to see Qiwu in a new light, or to show Faye’s point of view?
This tactic is seemingly progressed to the next level in In the Mood for Love, with the use of décor to obstruct faces or whole figures, in which we hear the spouses of Chow and Su-Lizhen, but because of a wall or similarly obstructing object, we never see them. Is Wong trying to tell us that the spouses of the two are ultimately playing second fiddle to the action concerning Chow and Su-Lizhen?
Décor yet again comes into play in 2046, several times over the course of the film, Chow is called to the hotel counter to answer a call. However, each time his face is obstructed by a ledge of the counter. The fact that his face is obstructed as he talks calls the audience’s imagination into play- what reaction does Chow have? (Bettinson, 2010, pp. 4-5) Momentary glimpses of Chow as he bends down at opportune times serve to play with the audience’s mental image, further drawing them into Wong’s world.
In a variation applied to an “over the shoulder” shot, Su Li-Zhen is seen to be confronting her husband about his supposed affair. However, the reverse shot of the husband is deferred till the end of the conversation. The dialogue seems to suggest that She is talking to her spouse, but the reverse shot shows the man to be Chow instead. (Bettinson, 2010, p.8). Immediately, the audience is forced to revise their assumptions about Chow’s role in the narrative- an example of how Wong allows his audience to examine the random and complex nature of human relationships with misleading and disruptive visuals.
Let us also briefly examine another one of Wong’s visual trademarks- undercranking/step-printing. In the opening sequence of Chungking Express, the step-printed chase between Qiwu and a criminal is preceded by Qiwu’s narration: “Everyday we brush so many other people; people we may never meet or people who may become friends”. By prolonging the duration of which the images are presented to us, Wong allows us to question our own isolation and the desire to get close to one another as suggested further in the second part of Qiwu’s narration. This premise of using undercranking/step-printing to heighten desire is played out similarly In the Mood for Love, particularly during the occasional run ins between Chow and Su-Lizhen at the noodle stall.
In examining Wong Kar-wai’s cinematography, one has to realize, in spite of its visual splendor, is often dictated because of circumstantial problems (Jean-Marc, Martinez, Abbas, Ngai 2001, p 113). However, it is quite possibly because of these circumstances, coupled with Wong’s practicability with film and his fragmented storytelling, that allows him to achieve the unique signature that is truly Wong Kar-Wai in his works.
Wong can be defined as an auteur deeply invested in exploring the concepts of lost love and time amongst the isolated and cramped urban spaces of Hong Kong past and present, supported by a constantly evolving and unrestrained visual style. In Hong Kong cinema, Wong Kar-wai has certainly distinguished himself as an auteur.
- Andrew Sarris, 1968, “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968”, 1st Ed, New York, De Capo Press.
- Andrew Sarris, 1962, “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962”. In: Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, ed. 2004. Film Theory and Criticism. New York, Oxford University Press. pp. 561-564
- Francois Truffaut, 1954, A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema [PDF] Available through: Lasalle College of The Arts Learning Portal <http://learningportal.lasalle.edu.sg> (Accessed 09 November 2011>
- Stephen Teo, 2001, “Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood for Love: Like a Ritual in Transfigured Time”, Senses of Cinema, [Online] Available at: <http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2001/13/wong-kar-wai/mood/> [Accessed 09 November 2011]
- Robert M.Payne, 2001, “Ways of seeing wild: the Cinema of Wong Kar-Wai”, Jump Cut A review of contemporary Media, [Online] Available at: <http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc44.2001/payne%20for%20site/wongkarwai1.html> [Accessed 09 November 2011]
- Elizabeth Wright, 2002, “Wong Kar-Wai”, Senses of Cinema, [Online] Available at: <http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2002/great-directors/wong/> [Accessed 09 November 2011]
- Jean-Marc, David Martinez, Ackbar Abbas, Jimmy Ngai. 2001, “Wong Kar-Wai”, Ed, Dis Voir, Paris, France, Dis Voir
- David Ng, 2001, “In the Mood for Love” Movie Review, Images Journal, [Online] Available at: <http://www.imagesjournal.com/issue10/reviews/inthemood/> [Accessed 09 November 2011]
- Stephen Teo, 2005, “2046: A Matter of Time, A Labour of Love”, Senses of Cinema, [Online] <Available at: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2005/35/2046/> [Accessed 09 November 2011]
- Gary Bettinson, 2010, “Wong Kar-Wai and the Aesthetics of Disturbance” [Online] Available at: <http://www.hkbu.edu.hk/~lewi/WPS/105%20Bettinson.pdf> [Accessed 09 November 2011]
- UK Critics’ Top Ten Poll, 2002. British Film Institute. [Online] Available at <http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/feature/63> [Accessed 09 November 2011]
Shane Mok is commencing his final year at The Puttnam School of Film in August 2012. He wrote Polling Day, one of the Year Two films and will be majoring in Screenwriting.
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