Special Feature: Wong Kar Wai – a reappraisal

Wong Kar Wai is no stranger to controversy – from the dark shades he always seems to have on to the lack of scripts in the production process of his films. But even in spite of that – or perhaps thanks to that – he has made a name for himself as an auteur in the world of cinema. One might recognize his movies by the melancholic mood and peculiar, lush visual style. Music, colour, textures, hypnotic shots and uncommon post-production techniques, all work together to create that unmistakable Wong Kar Wai feel.

The director was born in Shanghai but moved to Hong Kong with his parents when he was 5. He studied graphic design and later joined the world of television as a screenwriter., moving on to screenwriter/director. Wong Kar Wai formed his peculiar style during an apprenticeship with Alan Tang who also funded the first movie he directed, As Tears Go By (1988). His next film, Days of Being Wild (1990) launched the young director’s career, but brought reasonable financial loss to Tang.

Some of his other feature films include Chungking Express (1994)Happy Together (1997) (which won the Best Director Award at that year’s Cannes Film Festival), In the Mood for Love (2000) and My Blueberry Nights (2007). A few commercials bear his name as a director, including short films for Motorola, Philips and BMW.

What makes his film style unique is improvisation. It is a well known fact that Wong Kar Wai doesn’t use scripts – which can be regarded both as an advantage and a drawback. This makes the shooting process lengthy and at times confusing for the actors and the crew. However, the acting is appreciated as being very realistic and true-to-life, as are the stories. His shooting style is described as ‘searching for the right story’ – an ongoing, evolution process.

Even though not overtly political, his movies have a subtext referring to Hong Kong culture and history. Recurrent themes such as time, the missed moment, transition, loneliness and isolation as well as structures (parallelism, juxtaposition, intersection) and the concept of Eastern and Western cultures are all indicators of a Hong Kong background.

Probably one of his most successful films, Chungking Express was shot as a distraction from the lengthy and delayed making of Ashes of Time (1994). It’s a story about the lives and losses of two Hong Kong cops and the women that they accidentally meet and let into their lives – knowingly or not.

Takeshi Kaneshiro plays He-Qiwu, cop 233 whose girlfriend May broke up with after a long relationship. He starts projecting his love onto expired pineapple cans, hoping that by the end of the expiry date set by himself, his sweetheart will come back or his love will fade. He accidentally runs into a mysterious drug smuggler (played by Brigitte Lin) who could change his life. But does she?

The second story, mostly parallel but at times touching on the first is of another cop, 663, interpreted by Tony Leung, also left by his air-hostess girlfriend, too focused on his pain to notice Faye, a quirky fast-food employee who falls for him. When she accidentally gains access to 663’s apartment, she develops a relationship with Leung’s character that he’s not aware of: cleans, replaces items while fooling around and daydreaming. But will he ever notice?

The two stories have the Midnight Express in common – the fast food place where they both come to pour out their pain, which seems to be only concrete place in the whole chaotic environment.

The acting shines throughout the whole movie, the characters are truly alive and their pain, alienation and love seem nothing but genuine. What makes the film special is not the story, but the way it is told. The parallel-structured pair, the circularity of events, the music, colours, texture, monologues and attention to details as well as the way it is filmed give the movie a true Wong Kar Wai feel.

The shutter effect or stretch printing (filming at a lower frame rate and speeding it up) makes it challenging to watch but also contributes to a dreamy atmosphere where melancholy and memory are right at home. What some might not know is that the technique was used due to a lack of funds but, bringing an extra element to the creation, it became a Wong Kar Wai trademark.

As there are many reviews on this film, it would probably be wiser to leave aside the always-mentioned elements and bring a new perspective of the Wong Kar Wai universe as showed by Chungking Express. The director’s movies play strongly upon the concepts of time, and moments. The film in discussion is all about the ‘missed moments’, where very few things connect and remain suspended in sync for a brief amount of time. Speaking of time, it is a much used concept in Wong Kar Wai’s movies and in this particular one it is very diffuse, vague – almost inexistent. Even though dates and hours seem to structure the movie (May 1st, 8:59, 11:59, etc), they are nothing but formal. Time is stuck in the past for the two main characters and the way they try to recuperate it is through memory.

There are attempts to pin down memories in their flow, to tie them to objects that participate in a separation. In order not to be forgotten, love is chained to concrete objects (like the song ‘California Dreaming’ or the blonde wig). Cop 233 identifies himself with the expired cans of pineapple – he feels rejected and left behind – thus he treats the with compassion, while 663 projects himself onto the objects in his house – talking to them as part of a healing process, not for them but for himself.

Through this, the film talks about the certain perishable nature of feelings, of humans even. It talks about isolation (timely distance represents the distance between individuals), loneliness and impossibility of communication. It talks about missed moments, somehow hinting to a sort of fate that probably has to do with Wong Kar Wai’s Hong Kong legacy. What also symbolises Hong Kong is the area where it’s filmed: an area where Asians and Europeans mix, where things are unstable and always uncertain.

Wong Kar Wai manages a double edge sword effect, being artsy and voyeuristic at the same time. Characters sneak and peek into each others’ lives, while they are also filmed through window and door frames. This not only gives the impression of a clandestine perspective into their stories, but also frames them artistically in well balanced compositions.

Leaving technicalities aside, Chungking Express is deeply personal and heartfelt, not missing the nostalgic feel that is so characteristic to Wong Kar Wai. It is the kind of movie that gradually wraps itself around its viewers and at the end leaves you with the impression of a borrowed memory that you cannot give back to its rightful owner…

Sabina Pasaniuc (CUEAFS)