Cinemas of Wong Kar-wai

“Love is all a matter of timing. It's no good meeting the right person too soon or too late.”

Wong Kar-wai

Love and romance have never looked as intoxicating as they do in a Wong Kar-wai cinema. The director tells extremely atmospheric stories of restrained desires using dazzling visuals, mesmerizing colours, unconventional narratives and memorable songs. In his neon filled world of Hong Kong, a lonely soul drifts around, desperately trying to make a meaningful connection.

Wong Kar-wai by Eric Robert

During the mid-eighties, Wong emerged as part of Hong Kong’s Second New Wave. He was fed up with the methods of conventional cinema, so he joined Mabel Cheung, Clara Law, and Stanley Kwan, to experiment with more innovative ways of storytelling. He achieved his unique style by combining the playful feel of the French New Wave and the frenetic energy of MTV. By pushing the boundaries of Hong Kong Genre cinema, he created something fresh and inventive. His first film ‘As Tears Go by’ (1988) was a gangster crime drama. But it was the third film that gave Wong his international fame. Quentin Tarantino was a big fan of Wong’s low budget romance ‘Chungking Express’ (1994) and he distributed it in the USA under his Rolling Thunder imprint. He is the only Hong Kong filmmaker to ever win the Best Director Award in the Cannes Film Festival. Filmmakers like Sofia Coppola, Barry Jenkins had mentioned Wong’s influence in their cinema. His films are like daydreams that explore the agony and poetry of love with brooding melancholy.

Wong started his career as a TV and film screenwriter. Despite his strong background in screenwriting Wong did not follow the conventional method of filmmaking or stick to the script. His way of making films can be classified as a musician approach to filmmaking, he prefers to improvise with the actors to develop the plots and create a character. He writes his scripts as he shoots and he often changes the whole scene at the last minute. He does not believe in rehearsal, because he thinks without that he can capture the spontaneity from his cast. He considers his films to be a continuous piece of work in progress, even after the release. He released a redux version of ‘Ashes of Time’ (1994) after 14 years of its release, as the original prints were lost. Because of his unique method of filmmaking, his films take years to complete and most of the time they go over the budget. Tony Leung has said in an interview that Wong has a large amount of footage of several films that are not in the films. Wong always shoots more than needed as he is curious about the end results.


Wong always relies on people whom he knows and is comfortable with his way of filmmaking. He works with the same people from the beginning of his career and wants to work with them in future. His films collaborate with some of the biggest stars of Hong Kong cinema. He worked with Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, and Leslie Cheung and also pushed them to give some of the best performances of their career. He also likes to work with Doyle, who has worked as the cinematographer for his seven films, together they produced some of the best visuals in cinematic history. William Chang is another important collaborator of Wong’s films, he worked as the art director, production designer, editor and costume designer. His obsessive attention to detail has given the amazing looks of Wong’s films. He was nominated for the best costume designer in the 2014 Oscars for ‘The Grandmasters’ and he also created the magnificent dresses of Maggie Cheung in ‘In the Mood for Love’ (2000). He knows that a beautifully made cheongsam has the power to communicate as much as the dialogues.

The resemblance of floor pattern and the cloths of the character appears as the metaphor to Fai and Po’s relationship in ‘Happy Together’

Maggie Cheung wearing a cheongsam in ‘In the Mood for Love’

Wong is also famous for his signature visual styles that he perfected with Australian cinematographer, Christopher Doyle. He creates visuals with hazy neon lights and striking colours. There is a languid sensuality to his hypnotic style which is often interrupted by jump cuts and freeze frames. He uses techniques such as undercranking, step-printing to manipulate the film speed. By combining these methods, he disrupts the audience’s sense of how quickly time is passing. Characters appeared to be suspended in slow motion or lost in their own thoughts as everything around them is rushing and moving. The opening scene of ‘Chungking Express’ gives this sense of dreaminess, when cop 223 is chasing a suspect in the busy streets, he was in sharp focus while everything around him is a streaky blur. He always helped Wong to develop his dreamy visuals by using key elements such as vivid colours, lighting and the kinetic movement of the camera.

Cop 223 chasing a suspect in ‘Chungking Express’

Neon filled streets of Hong Kong in ‘Fallen Angles’

“Most of my films deal with people who are stuck in certain routines and habits that don’t make them happy. They want to change, but they need something to push them. I think it’s mostly love that causes them to break their routines and move on.” – Wong said in an interview.

Wong is infinitely curious about the complexities of love. His films develop the repressed desires we keep deep into ourselves. Most of his characters deal with the agony of lost love or love they can’t have or are sometimes unable to move on. ‘In the Mood for Love’ is considered his romantic masterpiece, his most visually stunning and emotionally devastating ode to forbidden love. In this film, two neighbours ended up falling for each other after discovering that their spouses are having an affair. The film is so self-contained that it only features a handful of locations, each shot from the same angle which creates a circular effect on returning again and again to the same things. This creates an isolation from the things which are actually changing and that is the inner lives of the two leads. Most of these inner lives are explored silently. The real action of the film is in posturers, glances, and touches. By restricting the language, Wong echoes restriction the action that Mr Chow played by Tony Leung and Mrs Chan played by Maggie Cheung in 1960’s Hong Kong is under constant threat of gossip, from their landlord and community at large. This is the reason why everything is doubly framed, by placing the objects in the foreground the director creates the feeling where they are being observed not to mention the viewer’s feelings as observers. Most of Wong’s work is dedicated to the anguish of unrequited love and missed opportunities that haunt his characters for a long time. While romance and passion are all-consuming, so is the bitter sting of regret that comes later as they mull over what could have been. ‘2046’ (2004) focuses on what destruction a broken heart can do, the film is a follow up to ‘In the Mood for Love’. In this film, we can see Leung’s character again but this time he is a ladies man, flitting from fling to fling. Like many of Wong’s romances, it also relies on the tragedy of meeting the right person at the wrong time.

Frame within a frame in ‘In the Mood for Love’, gives a feeling of an observer to the viewer

Mr. Chan’s character appears again in ‘2046’

Wong moved to Hong Kong at a very young age and the cultural displacement runs through his films. His characters are constantly in translation and they are both emotionally and physically adrift. Hong Kong’s changing identity and political influences are always a part of his film background. In ‘Happy Together’ (1997), Wong tells a story about a gay couple played by Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung who moved to Buenos Aires to start a new life. Isolation in a foreign country, exhaled from their home country and each other as their relationship falls apart, this story reflects the political scenario in Hong Kong and the concern about its future as its handovers the power from Britain to Mainland China. Another notable date Wong refers to is 2047, the year Hong Kong and China’s one country two systems will expire. Although Wong was never too political in his films but in ‘2046’ he imagined a futuristic place where people journey to recapture their lost memories, nothing ever changes there. But can the same be said of Hong Kong as 2047 approaches?


In several interviews, Wong has admitted that he was alienated when he first moved to Hong Kong. The feeling of urban alienation is being captured in a visually poetic manner, his characters are often swallowed up by big cities and the only escape is through their vibrant inner lives. ‘Chungking Express’ is one of his funniest films. This love story is essentially about people’s struggle to connect. Sometimes the only kind of intimacy we get is to brushing past someone on a busy street, the most of the dialogues the characters have with themselves as people muse endlessly over Wong’s favourite obsession, unrequited love. ‘Fallen Angels’ (1995), a dark comedy with hints of film noir, relies heavily on these interior monologues. It focuses on the loners, outcasts, and drifters in the glittering visions of nocturnal Hong Kong. Everyone is desperately seeking the warmth of another human being, but they are so confined to their loneliness that they forgot how to reach out.


Most of Wong’s films are based on 1960’s Hong Kong, when he was a child, he is lost in the past which no longer exists. The sense of longing seeps into ‘Days of Being Wild’ (1990), his second feature film. Leslie Cheung plays Yuddy, a restless lothario, on the hunt for his biological mother while seducing women along the way. The film shares a preoccupation with the time that is a running theme in Wong’s work. There are frequent shots of clocks, watches, calendars in every film of Wong but the viewer can’t figure out how much time has passed in between scenes or in the life of the characters. Memories are the only thing that keeps people bound to the past, not time, and Wong’s films are about the tyranny of never being able to forget. In ‘Ashes of Time’ warriors are haunted by old love affairs. They are not wounded by the martial art fights they get caught up in, but by the pain of their lovers abandoning them.

Isolation in ‘Chungking Express’

Urban alienation in ‘Fallen Angels’

Wong Kar-wai is undoubtedly one of the best colourists of our times. His domain of colour displays the influence of graphic and pictorial arts on cinema. Wong studied graphics arts at Hong Kong Polytechnic before he started working in films. The historical background of Hong Kong, the change of power from Britain to China has a clear influence on his use of colour. Like most of Hong Kong, his use of colour can be classified as an intersection between eastern and western cultures. The mix of east and west, classicism and modernism is a crucial ingredient of his postmodern hybridity. With the help of cinematographer Christopher Doyle, he had developed a cinematic universe based on the pallet of certain colours with their own intentions and meanings. Wong’s films are saturated in meaningful and deep tones and he uses visual metaphors to emphasise the melodrama of the story. Sometimes the viewers can read into the narrative without relying on dialogue. In ‘Days of Being Wild’ the greenish tone also describes the loneliness the characters are suffering from. An exaggerated blue is associated with sadness while green indicates something spooky, old and expired which explains why the cops in ‘Chungking Express’ are often cast in blue or neon light whenever they are alone, this empathizes their inner turbulence. The red and orange-tinted tone is abundant, it shows lust, desire and when saturated it directly translates the overwhelming feelings of heartbreak and betrayal pain of the protagonists.

Use of Blue and Orange in ‘Chungking Express’

In ‘Happy Together’ monochrome presents a mixture of present and past also it is a prediction is that their love story would eventually fade. In the other part of the film, yellow appears as the lovers start to get back and the colour becomes more vibrant as their relationship reignites.

Use of Monochrome and colour in ‘Happy Together’

In ‘In the Mood for Love’ whenever Mr Chow and Mrs Chen meet up, red appears constantly on the screen, which indicates their interest and love towards each other. Also, the grey stiff and cold exterior of the temple in Angkor Wat signifies the buried secret and the give up on their affairs. The pallet of ‘In the Mood for Love’ is also shifting from red to black which signifies their passion and the painful restrains.

Colour Pallet of ‘In the Mood for Love’

Music also played a vital role in Wong’s cinema. From building a passionate environment by using Shigeru Umebayashi’s ‘Yumeji’s Theme’ in ‘In the Mood for Love’ or using Nat Cole King’s jazz music to build atmosphere or using pop music such as ‘California Dreamin’ by The Mamas & The Papas. These multicultural sounds have evoked the past, and conjuring memories as his heartbroken characters dream of the connections once they had.


What is the thing in Wong Kar-wai’s cinema that makes them feast to eyes? Is it the cinematography, colour, lighting, editing, or the emotional connection we feel with the characters? In my opinion, it’s everything, everything in his cinema has the power to make you fell in love with them. The complexities of love are the main theme of Wong’s work and the sufferings of his character make it more relatable. The emotional roller-coaster his character experience is very similar to our experience in life. The motifs of time, memory, the impossible love, loneliness and melancholic nostalgia are what Wong has powerfully communicated in visual form. He represented people’s inside uncertainty by not showing anything obvious about it. The protagonists in Wong’s film are always waiting, searching or escaping. The way Wong makes a film is more like posting questions, he does not provide any answers in his cinema. The question is always about the complexities of love we generally feel in life. Unlike the generic romance, Wong’s work refuses to settle for a romantic union as a pat answer to the myriad emotional problems his character face, and this gives his films a provocative edge. Few other directors’ can convey the pain and suffering of love quite as seductively as Wong Kar-wai. His films are breathtaking symphonies composed of those unspoken emotions and hidden desires that we conceal inside ourselves.


Loneliness is another common theme of Wong Kar-wai’s cinema. He establishes stories of lonely people destines never to connect. Everybody smokes in Wong’s cinema, moments like these makes the film feel porous, they provide a gap of silence and the feeling of being alone. Most of the characters portrayed in Wong’s cinema are marginal workers, policemen, fast-food chain attendants, or regular people who don’t have many spotlights. But these characters living in Hong Kong, a city as busy as New York, are all alone. They live in tight spaces, don’t have many friends and most of the time away from their family, and when they fall in love, they don’t really know how to give others love. So instead, they smoke, they stare, they think about the love they lost. The emotional distance that lonely people have towards others is captured by Wong in completely different ways, and this is what makes us relate to his cinema.

‘In the Mood for Love’

‘Fallen Angles’

Nothing lasts forever in the world of Wong Kar-wai, everything comes with an expiring date, relationships, feelings, especially a can of Pineapples. The only thing that does not have an expiring date is Love. Love can never really be extinguished. Wong’s cinema gives us the most unique tastes of love, the love that was forgotten, forbidden, or unrequired. Wong’s cinema touches the inner souls of the viewers, their desires for love, their hidden thoughts, the uncertainty of love which makes the films so pleasant to watch and to relate to.

References

India

Sayantan Mandal is a Mechanical Engineer, currently working at a Thermal Power Plant. Apart from this, he considers himself a photographer and a cinema enthusiast. He likes to photograph the things happening around him. Photography and cinema is a kind of escape for him. He did an online course ‘Seeing through Photographs’ affiliated with MoMA. Sayantan believes in living the journey rather than reaching somewhere. For him, the process of growing is more important than growth itself. He aims to create work that is simple yet interesting to look at.

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