In the mid 90s a revolution in the Chinese cultural sphere had occurred and so attempted to present the radically manifest changes that can be found in the different cultural spheres (literature, music, theater, television, arts, and cinema). The processes of cosmopolitanism, indigenization, and the formation of local culture in Hong Kong culminates in the eventual cultural exertion of Hong Kong upon the wider environment that hitherto furnished much of its symbolic resources and creative standard. This entire process, in a nutshell, represents what is depicted in the above as the completion of the internationalization problematics, embracing both its passive and active poles.
Starting in the early 1980s, a group of young directors, most of them trained in the West, brought to the Hong Kong film industry technological innovations and stylistic variations. New experiments with special effects pleased the popular audience, and many new productions broke box-office records, generating sequels and imitations. Under enormous commercial pressures, the Hong Kong New Wave may not be as ‘avant-gardist’ as its Taiwan counterpart, but an experimental impulse is clearly behind outstanding works by film director Wong Kar-Wai. This research deals with Wong Kar-Wai’s filmmaking in Hong Kong beginning in the mid 90s when action and comedy reigned the screens, to the present day where he is embraced not only on the world stage, but now moreso in HongKong. This period is a particularly interesting one to study because of the general uncertainty about the immediate future and the competing ideologies to shape that future.
Wong’s ascendancy has been dramatic. After writing numerous scripts for TVB and the production company Cinema City in the early and mid-1980s, he made his directorial debut a few years later as a member of Hong Kong’s ‘second wave’. While this impressive example of genre revisionism made a few waves in domestic and international waters, Wong started to attract attention in earnest in 1991 for his highly idiosyncratic second feature, the 1960s’ youth melodrama Days of Being Wild. Ashes of Time, a gorgeously shot and edited martial arts epic that combines specifically Asian philosophical wisdoms with a modernist deconstruction of narrative, came next. Before long the trope of comparing Asian filmmakers to western ‘models’ (specifically, in Wong’s case, Jean-Luc Godard) began to surface when the director’s fourth and fifth titles became art-house hits in Europe and the US-both the charming Chungking Express and darker Fallen Angels have been identified as ‘Hong Kong noir’ (Chuck 1996). Finally, Wong Kar-Wai won Best Director Award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival for Happy Together, a beautifully acted gay road movie which was shot largely in Argentina.
The major early Wong film, Days of Being Wild, is rather enigmatic in its exploration of youthful alienation in the 1960s. Yuddy and Su Lizhen become lovers. She muses about remembering him from ‘one minute’ of their first meeting. Yuddy is desperate to get news of his mother, who never appears in the film, from his ‘guardian’ Rebecca, a drunken old woman. A disillusioned, irresponsible youth, Yuddy soon takes up another lover, Mimi, or Lulu. When he first brings her home, his friend Zab visits him. A policeman, Tide, befriends love-struck Su, asking her to call him at the booth on his beat, but she fails to do so. After his mother dies, Tide travels overseas. Meanwhile, Yuddy kicks Lulu out and Rebecca reveals his mother’s whereabouts in the Philippines. Lulu wants to accompany Yuddy but cannot find him, and she gets into a fight with Zab. Yuddy tells us that his mother has refused to see him. Tide waits for his ship in the Philippines and takes in Yuddy, who later stabs a passport forger. Yuddy and Tide fight their way out and board a train, where a stranger shoots Yuddy. Before Yuddy dies, Tide asks him what he was doing at 3 pm on 16 April (the date of Su and Yuddy’s meeting). Lulu continues to look for Yuddy and Su keeps on working. The pay phone rings—perhaps Su is finally calling Tide. As the film ends, Smirk, an apparent Yuddy double, gets ready to go out for his own adventure.
The themes of alienation and doubling recur in many of Wong’s later films of urban life, such as Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995). All these films are noted for their idiosyncratic treatment of private memory as well as of space and time. Chungking Express swept the boards at the 1995 HKFA, taking Best Film, Director, and Actor awards (Leung). The film holds out the possibility of making connections in the lonely modern city. Noticeably less alarmist than other pre-1997 titles, it is still obsessed with time, transit sites, passports and expiration dates.
These highly innovative and enjoyable movies have attracted critical attention primarily on the basis of their extraordinary visual qualities. Each contains intriguing graphic designs, flamboyant color schemes and a playful manipulation of spatial and temporal relationships. Wong has collaborated productively with Christopher Doyle, the famed Australian cinematographer who has worked in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the United States alongside such stellar directors as Chen Kaige, Chen Kunhou, Stanley Kwan, Stan Lai, Edward Yang and Gus Van Sant. Doyle’s preferred shooting style, which mixes startling stop-motion effects with predominantly hand-held camerawork, brilliantly complements Wong’s plot ambiguities and fragmentary storylines. Indeed, for some western critics, Wong and Doyle have helped revive what Pier Paolo Pasolini once termed ‘the cinema of poetry’ (Rayns 2000).
In the run-up to Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese sovereignty on 1 July 1997, how could a world forever slipping out of sight be re-sited? One answer to that question is provided by the almost dialectical nature of Wong’s artistic concerns. Days of Being Wild, for instance, with its aimless central characters and shifts in location between Hong Kong and Manila, implies geographic and emotional dislocation so as to ‘challenge the definition of Hong Kong culture itself by questioning and dismantling the way we look at things’ (Tsui 1995).
Such ambivalence ties Wong’s preoccupations to those of a global audience as much as to a local one. Building on the Hong Kong experience, his success may be partly attributable to a worldwide fascination with the unforeseen effects of large-scale migration and alienation. Certainly, this is a subject that has been of concern to many other Hong Kong filmmakers of the 1980s and 1990s. For example, Peter Chan (Comrades, Almost a Love Story, 1996), Mabel Cheung (An Autumn’s Tale, 1987), Ann Hui (Song of the Exile, 1990), Stanley Kwan (Full Moon in New York, 1989) and Clara Law (Autumn Moon, 1992) have all won acclaim for their explorations of issues of border-crossing, the forging of connections in lonely and unfamiliar modern cities, and the symbolism associated with places of transit.
Wong’s use of music only adds to the structural ambiguity of his films. Musical collaborators Frankie Chan and Roel A. Garcia are architects of some of contemporary cinema’s most astonishingly creative sound designs, and they have incorporated elements from a diverse range of Asian and non-Asian musical cultures into their work. Across Wong’s seven films, the contents of what may be called this global jukebox have included such artists as Ernesto Lecuona, Los Indios Tabajaras, Xavia Cugat, the Mamas and the Papas, Massive Attack, the Flying Pickets, Marianne Faithfull, Astor Piazzolla, Caetano Veloso, and the Three Amigos, not to mention Chan and Garcia’s own pastiche-like compositions in the styles of raga, techno, new age, ambient and Ennio Morricone. Musical serendipity has proved crucial to the emotional and cognitive appeals of a Wong Kar-Wai movie, just as it has helped the soundtrack CDs become cult objects of desire among collectors in the West.
Consider the scene in which Faye Wong’s character cleans up Cop no. 663’s apartment in Chungking Express. For this MTV-like segment, the actress loafs from room to room while her own rendition of the Cranberries’ song ‘Dreams’ (now renamed ‘Dream Person’) plays on the soundtrack. Faye Wong is a native of Beijing, adored in Hong Kong and Greater China for pop hits like the 1992 song ‘An Easily Hurt Woman’. At the same time, however, she has been in the vanguard of Cantonese and Mandarin music’s transition to rock during the 1990s. Staging this particular scene around Faye Wong’s version of ‘Dreams’, then, does not just exhibit good taste, but also constitutes shrewd marketing. First, it reinforces the importance of processes of indigenization to popular Hong Kong culture by imaginatively transforming western source music (compare, for example, the use of a cover version of ‘Take My Breath Away’, Berlin’s hit from the Hollywood blockbuster Top Gun, during the telephone-booth kissing scene between Andy Lau and Maggie Cheung in As Tears Go By, or Danny Chung’s version of the Turtles’ eponymous 1967 hit that memorably closes Happy Together). Second, as the original version of this song will no doubt be familiar to international fans of English-language pop music, a Chinese interpretation may well be expected to prick up the ears of many curious listeners. In other words, Faye Wong’s ‘Dreams’ is neither one thing nor the other; local but not local to Hong Kong, western but not really western, from the mainland but not of the mainland.
Questions of marketability have been crucial to the establishment of Wong’s international profile in other ways as well. As with the work of fellow Asian cult directors Kitano Takeshi and Tsui Hark, an aura of exclusivity, determined by the vagaries of access, has surrounded the reception of his films. While Wong Kar-Wai has certainly been active on the international film festival circuit, his titles have also been widely distributed in the West at a more subterranean level, on bootleg tapes, laser discs and videocassette discs imported from Hong Kong and Japan. As a mark of this simultaneous visibility and invisibility, no less than three of his works were included in a list of the Top 30 Unreleased Foreign-Language films of the 1990s compiled by the US magazine Film Comment in 1997, even though all were widely available in America at the time through ‘unofficial’ sources.
Lately, Wong has used his own production company, Jet Tone, to spread interest in a similar fashion. After the success of Happy Together, advertisements promoting glossy color posters and photo-books of an as-yet-unreleased title, Summer in Beijing, were posted on the Internet. Yet when it comes to the coverage Wong’s films received in the abundance of Hong Kong film fanzines that flooded the US and European print markets during the 1990s, such ‘art cinema’ associations are not so easily retained.
The mix of populist and experimental tendencies in Wong Kar-Wai’s films has sometimes made it hard for audiences and critics to separate his output from that of other popular Hong Kong filmmakers (Rayns 2000). Unlike the work of Jackie Chan, Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark and John Woo, for example, Wong’s films do not play in western multiplexes, and yet they are often talked about in the same breath as such commercial fare. Wong may cross over between the cult and mainstream, but he has also gained a reputation as a troublesome case, someone who makes life awkward for strait-laced commentators by injecting established genres with a modernist or avant-garde sensibility. Such tactics can easily confuse audiences and critics more comfortable with clear-cut distinctions and categories.
In many respects, this ‘problem’ of determining how Wong Kar-Wai’s films should be categorized reproduces the relationship he appears to have with the Hong Kong film industry in general. While Wong’s early days included script work for one of the most daring of the city’s original post-1979 ‘New Wave’ directors, Patrick Tam (Final Victory, 1987), he has also written standard pot-boilers like the patchy sci-fi title Saviour of the Soul (Corey Yuen, 1991). Conversely, while Wong as director is renowned for playing around with genre conventions, local filmmakers have themselves played around with Wong’s critical reputation by creating their own new genre-the Wong Kar-Wai parody movie. These parodies have been produced back-to-back with Wong’s own titles, as in Jeff Lau’s The Eagle Shooting Heroes (1991), which was shot by some of the cast and crew of Ashes of Time on breaks during the latter’s lengthy schedule, or else are signaled by wordplay (Blackie Ko’s 1992 Days of Being Dumb), and the spoofing of iconic moments from individual movies-comedian Stephen Chow’s interpretation of the final scene from Days of Being Wild in his self-directed From Beijing with Love (1994) is hilarious. Not to be outdone, Wong has himself shown a healthy propensity for self-mockery by inserting numerous intertextual references into his own films, as in Takeshi Kaneshiro’s studied mimicry, in Fallen Angels, of Faye Wong’s ditsy body language from Chungking Express.
While the highly episodic Fallen Angels was seen by some critics as a virtual non-stop parody of the established Wong Kar-Wai style, no such criticism pertains to the movie that has thoroughly consolidated Wong’s international reputation, Happy Together. Ostensibly influenced by Latin American magic-realist authors such as Manuel Puig, the film is perhaps of most significance for focusing attention not just on Wong’s astonishing formalism, but also on debates about homosexuality in Asian cinema. At the very least, Happy Together should be placed in the company of other titles that bravely explored such subject matter in the months leading up to and after the 1997 handover, namely Stanley Kwan’s Hold You Tight (1998) and Shu Kei’s A Queer Story (1996). Wong’s contribution to this progressive artistic tendency won praise for its frank portrayal of a gay relationship between two Chinese men (played by Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung) stranded in Argentina. According to some reports, the original plan was to have one of the young gay protagonists discover that his recently deceased father was also homosexual, but that ambitious-sounding storyline was dismissed upon touchdown in South America.
Overall, though, Happy Together’s provocative convergence of sexual and geographic politics bodes well for Wong Kar-Wai’s future career (Tambling 2003). While the sight of two Chinese homosexuals cruising and being cruised by white and South American males provides an interesting take on questions of East-West relations, the film also presents a rare Asian variant of the hustler figure identified by Robert Lang as a key icon of contemporary queer road movies. Yet Happy Together could just as easily demonstrate how Wong Kar-Wai needs to find new directions in which to travel. Positively, it is a stunning vindication of contemporary Chinese cinema, a work full of exciting possibilities for transnational filmmaking at the turn of the century. Negatively, it occasionally becomes trapped in the same problems that plagued Clara Law’s Farewell, China (1990) and Stanley Kwan’s Full Moon in New York, two earlier movies about Hong Kong people living overseas. All three titles arguably get bogged down in the question of how you can express geographic and emotional dislocation without treating other cultures as the mere backdrop to transplanted local issues. In the rush to re-site a world forever slipping out of sight, Happy Together risks making Argentina disappear altogether. Wong’s Kar-Wai’s most recent film, In the Mood for Love, moves away from the politics of displacement and travel to return to questions concerning the meaning of ‘home’ in a climate of change. This is “s sublime tone poem that shows what cinema is capable of when it tries to do more than just tell a story” (Brunette 125).
The significance of these scenes is that they show a confusion of personal identity within the cultural and political contradictions. The characters are unable to define their own positions within a rapidly and traumatically changing society. This therefore relates to the problem of real people seeking to define their own cultural identity and understand what it means to be a citizen of Hong Kong at the close of the twentieth century. Wong’s films ask these same questions through analogy. Will He Qiwu be the same person under Chinese rule as he was under British? Will the Midnight Express be the same place? The alternative realities Wong presents reveal a strong awareness of the radically different lives that the same people may be leading post-1997, depending on the choices made by their political masters. Wong is also asking his audience to consider these issues in relation to their own lives. Without presenting a solution, he is nonetheless encouraging people to be more aware and critical of the changes in the world around them.
From the above analysis, it can be seen that Wong Kar-Wai do indeed considers a number of key concerns and is both responsive to the effects of globalization (Jean-Marc Lalanne et al 1997). These concerns include, first, a sense of betrayal by Britain for ceding Hong Kong to China without obtaining sufficient democratic safeguards for the population. Second, there is a common anxiety over cultural and national identity, about what it means to be a citizen of Hong Kong in the run up to the handover. Finally, we can see an attitude of uncertainty towards the future prospects for the territory beyond 1997. However, Wong is equally concerned about the West, in particular the Americanization and consumerism carried on the back of economic prosperity. “Wong is a transcendent filmmaker on two counts,” says Stephen Teo (2005). “First, though his films have brought wider attention to the Hong Kong cinema, he is able to rise above his Hong Kong identity and excel beyond the pulp-fiction limitations of genre that seem to tie down much of Hong Kong cinema; second, as a post-modern artist in Western eyes, his films exceed facile stereotypes of the delicate and exotic East” (161). His response is therefore to attempt to renegotiate a new identity for Hong Kong, based in part on the strengths of being Chinese while not ignoring the shortcomings of the PRC.
Central to the contemporary Chinese cinema renaissance are the seven feature films made by young Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai. Attracting both cult and mainstream attention, these films have established Wong as one of the key names in the West’s pantheon of Asian filmmakers. Moreover, with Hong Kong now positioned between its existence as a postcolonial global city and its destiny as part of the Chinese nation-state, Wong’s films have come to bear the burden of historical representation. Whenever audiences and commentators seek to account for the meaning of new times in Hong Kong they invariably scour his work looking for clues. At the same time, Wong’s reception also illustrates how Asian filmmakers need to offer something new and distinct if they are to penetrate global image markets. The dynamic compositions and editing patterns of Ashes of Time, Fallen Angels and Happy Together are far removed from the bland ‘international style’ characteristic of so much transnational cinema of the 1990s. Expressing displacement and contradiction through striking visual form has provided Wong Kar-Wai with one of the most easily identifiable trademarks in the business.
To conclude, Wong Kar-Wai depicts in his films such postmodern phenomena as the acceleration of the pace of human life, the loss of permanence and stability, and a total dominance of the present over the past and the future. Consequently, he draws attention to the increasing inadequacy and redundancy of time in individual lives and cultures. Although the traditional conception of time is becoming insignificant, the effect of its absence from human experience cannot be ignored. Many are confused, even traumatized by this phenomenon, as their defensive expedient of replacing ‘meaningful time’ with ‘raw time’ testifies. Wong Kar-Wai’s oeuvre is one of ‘transition’ between a cinema that respects and takes for granted the notion of time as neatly divided between past, present and future, and a cinema of ‘timelessness’ that does not know any other time apart from a never-ending present.
Brunette, Peter. Wong, Kar-wai. University of Illinois Press, 2005.
Chuck, Stephens. “Time Pieces: Wong Kar-Wai and the Persistence of Memory”, Film Comment 32, 1, 1996.
Jean-Marc Lalanne et al, Wong Kar-Wai, Paris, Editions Dis Voir, 1997.
Tambling, Jeremy. Wong Kar-Wai`s Happy Together. Univ of Washington Pr, 2003.
Teo, Stephen. Wong Kar-Wai: Auteur Of Time. BFI, London, 2005.
Tsui, Curtis K. “Subjective Culture and History: The Ethnographic Cinema of Wong Kar-wai”, Asian Cinema 7, 2, 1995.
Tony Rayns (ed.) Wong Kar-Wai on Wong Kar-Wai, London, Faber and Faber, 2000.