Wong Kar-Wai and the West

Wong Kar-Wai's films have been lauded in the west by Quentin Tarantino, Cahiers Du Cinema, Sight and Sound, and the international film festival circuit. He was awarded Best Director at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. He is one of the most sought-after talents in Asian cinema, and one of the most important directors of the 1990's. But it is not possible to discuss Wong Kar-Wai's films as a body of work without mentioning his production designer, editor and close-friend, William Chang, and his cinematographer-of-choice, Christopher Doyle. Their close collaboration with a largely ensemble cast of Hong Kong pop-divas and personalities is the core of the Wong Kar-Wai oeuvre, with the exception of his first film, As Tears Go By. This article, whilst referring to 'the films of Wong Kar-Wai', necessarily acknowledges the interdependent and collaborative nature of the filmmaking unit.

WKW can be easily appreciated as a classic auteur, his films unified by an identifiable personality and intentionality; an evolving style and sophistication, with recurrent thematic concerns of time, longing and loss. He also fits the contemporary, popular, definition of an auteur - that of a charismatic writer/director who often plays a major role in producing, casting and editing. But comparing perceived artistic intentions to effect is just one way to experience and interpret the cinema, and an increasingly inadequate method in an age where readership has been recognised as equal to authorship, where what the audience brings to the film is as relevant as what the film brings to them. Hence it is proposed that WKW's films are distinctive cultural products of Hong Kong and its film industry, and must be considered as active participants in this history, a relationship which has been largely ignored by western critics caught up in reductionist auteurism. This article will attempt a cultural reading of WKW's films.

WKW's semi-improvised creative process begins with a set of ideas, songs and images, instead of a conventional script. Like many Hong Kong filmmakers, he works to a fast and furious schedule, commonly writing dialogue on location, shooting several versions of each scene, and only formalising the film's structure in the editing suite. As a consequence he relies heavily on the intuitive support of Doyle and Chang, who's extensive creative input defines the highly visual style of WKW's work. In the making of Happy Together, a significant amount of the shooting was carried out by Doyle and Chang working as an independent unit whilst WKW holed up in coffee-houses and hotel rooms working out how it was all going to come together. Few filmmakers have dared to make films with such faith and creative freedom. The result is films that challenge cinematic norms - changing tone from scene to scene with scant regard for the viewer's ability to keep up, raising eyebrows as well as several comparisons to Godard.

Like the auteurs of old, WKW is closely associated with his leading actors: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung (left, from Happy Together). His women remain exoticised and voyeuristic: Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin and Michelle Reis objectified as femme fatales in raincoats and sunglasses; the other side of the coin: Faye Wong, Charlie Young as mischievous nymphs. The camera loves them all, they fill the screen in attenuated drifting close-ups, figures of repressed sexuality and infantile glee. Larry Gross describes this tension between the actors body and the filmmaking technology as a contemplation on performance itself. "Scenes turn out to be linked as much by the rhythms of movement and by colour as by theme or motif. What starts out looking like a patchwork turns out to be a fauvist mosaic." Chris Doyle describes the trademark WKW establishing shot as kongjing - "not conventional 'establishing shots' because they're about atmosphere and metaphor, not space. The only thing they establish is a mood or a totally subjective POV. They're clues to an 'ambient' world we want to suggest but not explain."

Notorious for his eccentric ad hoc approach to filmmaking, WKW spent three years making Ashes of Time, then wrote, shot and edited Chungking Express in three consecutive weeks. He set out to make Happy Together in a six-week shoot in Argentina, but was still there five months later, in interminable exile with his crew. Wong and Chang were barely able to edit the film in time for the Cannes Film Festival, where it won him Best Director. Whole sub-plots were cut, including the performance of famous HK singer Shirley Kwan who had flown out to Buenos Aires especially for the part, and an extended sequence with Leslie Cheung in drag.

This irresponsibility marks all WKW films, characters and culture with a trademark looseness of style. It is a common modus operandi in the frenetic HK film industry. The swift, imaginative change of camera angle, the giddy action sequences with slomo and sped-up movements are not specific to WKW but to a tradition of Hong Kong genre films. Art-critic Howard Hampton is one of the few westerners to make this observation, stating that "Wong's avant-garde action sequences ... in Fallen Angels and especially in Ashes of Time, bowl the uninitiated over, but they're really just minor refinements of the imagery of mainstream Hong Kong pictures like the science fiction Wicked City and the martial-arts fable The Bride with White Hair. (Wong's movies borrowed the leads from those films too.)" The critical praise of WKW in the west invests too much in his deconstruction of genre and narrative. Hampton is absolutely correct in writing: "to read Wong's press clips you'd think this was a visionary come to save Hong Kong film from itself. Wong and Chungking Express are being hyped as though they were the antitheses of action director John Woo and HK's glut of what are disdainfully referred to as genre films ... what cineastes mean when they hail Wong as the greatest director to come out of Hong Kong is that he's the most Eurocentric, the most taken with the high masters of auteurism."

WKW's aesthetic is certainly marked by a self-conscious artistry inherited from the European arthouse tradition, but it is also a logical outgrowth of half a century of Hong Kong cinema. There is a critical slippage between European perception of WKW's films and HK culture. His films are admired more for their form than their content, in accordance with European distinctions between art and populist entertainment. Sight and Sound praise his reversal of genre expectations as "a mode of narration ... more powerful than what is narrated." Clearly western critics balk at the self-conscious posturing of WKW's characters, the indulgence of his scripts, the meaningless cameos of big-name pop stars, beauty queens and popular dj's in his casts. But it is this beauty and banality of his films which is honest - it reflects the ephemeral nature of HK popular culture. There is "no such thing as a bad-hair day in WKW's universe", quips one Sight and Sound critic, inadvertently drawing attention to his own cultural-limitations, and a questionable claim to superior taste in hairstyles. These cineastes are missing the point. In HongKong extravagance is healthy. The posturing and pandering of WKW's films are not excessive, but brazenly honest. Again, Howard Hampton is the one to hit the nail on the head, perhaps because he is an art critic and not a film critic blinded by the light: "The notion of Wong as a figure far beyond the crass confines of genre is misleading. Rather, and more interestingly, his movies treat "art film" as genre. He instinctively translates art tropes into pop signifiers, the inverse of the way Woo worked in his great, obsessive death-opera Bullet in the Head"

WKW's Chungking Express and Fallen Angels presents life as a radiant neon blur - a world of hyperreal clarity broken with interludes of pixelated slo-mo noir effects. His pastiche of cerebral pop abstractions is an appropriate and distinctive reading of his people, his place, his time. His movies are gloriously self-referential, full of tributes to his childhood influences, attuned to a post-modern and post-colonial nostalgia. The voiceovers delivering cute epithets and setting up plot coincidences have been labeled 'contrived' and 'childish' by indignant critics, obviously not accustomed to art treating its subject so lightly, so naively. It is, quite simply, a lack of cultural understanding on their part - a blinkered recognition of only what reflects themselves and their culture.

"David Bordwell has argued that it is not speed per se that characterizes the Hong Kong style, but gestural clarity, an almost Eisensteinian emphasis on the movements of the whole body, their interaction and/or impact with other bodies and the physical reality, and the expressive quality of the acting." Chris Doyle's camera is lead by the actors and has a very physical presence itself, always tracking, lunging, rarely on a tripod, the wideangle lens often inches from the actor's face, hungrily sucking at the light, bending the image. He calls it "anticipation and response", the camera orbiting the body of the "actor/dancer", imposing itself almost as another character in the drama. Doyle's playfulness with different lens, filters, shutter speed, exposure and grain emphasise his obsessive attentiveness to the sheer presence of the performers - the rhythm of movement so important to HongKong, and the WKW oeuvre.

Issues of space and time are most noticeable drawn together in coincidence, a motif of WKW films. Of course, space and time are daily concerns of HongKong life, a country westernised but not western, fascinated with hybrids, with successful mergings and cute coincidence. Eurasian is chic, posession spelled out in Japanese electronics and American name brands. This cultural gestalt is clearly ingrained in WKW's films, which are littered with coincidence, collision and fantasy. In Chungking Express the protagonists continually traverse each other's space without being aware of it. In Fallen Angels the hitman and his agent never occupy the same space except for brief scenes at the beginning and ending of the film, yet they eerily united through clever editing - WKW dissolving time by intercutting shots of the hitman carrying out an assignment, with shots of Michelle Reis slinkily dancing through the same room. This docey-doe of protagonists is a familiar comedic technique - used in other HK romantic comedies like Peter Chan's Comrades Almost a Love Story. The cute and coincidental is a trademark of Hong Kong cinema, from the melodramas of Ann Hui to the chop-socky films of Jackie Chan, Samo Hung, Jet Lee. But few outsiders to the culture acknowledge it as a positive trait, especially in the work of auteurs like WKW.

Even Sight and Sound are guilty of misreading WKW, Larry Gross declaring him as "post-MTV ... the last heterosexual (??!!) filmmaker." In fact WKW, like his colleague Stanley Kwan, is one of the very few Asian stars to tackle gay stories, and the intensely visual nature of his work is obviously influenced by his student days channel-surfing American and Japanese TV. Chungking Express was inspired by the stories of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, Ashes of Time by John Ford's The Searchers, Days of Living Wild by Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. Whilst trained as a graphic designer in Hong Kong Polytechnic, WKW's films are pure MTV - post-modern works full of cynicism and optimism, entertainment and social critique. WKW soundtracks are derived from American jukeboxes, Latin, jazz and 60's pop infiltrating every second scene, along with Cantonese poptunes and cover versions of western songs. "Chungking Express has Tony Leung fooling around with air hostess Valerie Chow to Dinah Washington's "What a Difference a Day Makes", tenderly landing toy planes on her sweat-coated back - a scene inspired by Wong's childhood memory of a Pan Am commercial."

Hong Kong is a product of relentless migration, globalisation and social change. The forces that shaped HongKong's personality were huge, within a space that was too small and self-contained. Fierce population growth and movement dissolved any demarcation between commerce and culture. The impatient desires on which the colony was founded have created a society where movement and adaptation is all important, where fast-living and relational-identities reflect the rapid fluctuations of market forces. The vast majority of the population derives income from some form of stock, currency or property speculation. Appearance and attitude, obsession and commitment, keeping up with the times: these are issues of Hongkie identity. Consequently, living there cultivates a loud, fluid existentialism at odds with the expectations of western critics.

HK identity and relationships are a currency and commodity in themselves, of changing value and nature, to be exhibited and traded. This insecurity and restlessness is manifested in WKW's characters, who are always anxious about being in the right place at the right time, always dreaming of other countries, speculating about other people, forever conscious of time and its opportunity cost. They chart their existence against the disappointment and regrets of failed relationships and the hopeful chase for new ones - the accidental meetings that, strangely enough, provide them with a sense of security, fate and happiness.

Longing and obsession, not love, is what fuels WKW's narratives. The tactile neo-noir environment created by Doyle's camerawork and lighting, and Chang's use of colour, decor and space, makes "everything in the world of these films - decor, light, the air itself, seems to be an object of displaced erotic feelings." The use of bars, barbershops, fast food joints and trains emphasise the flux of the city within which the body must keep moving to remain buoyant - to resist the vacuum in which self is dissolved in the movement of the masses. The anxiety of individuality is imbued in the physicality of Tony Leung, Leon Lai - a repressed energy that is sporadically unleashed in excess of narrative.

WKW's restless characters resonate with an urgency that is never fulfilled, as they quest for a lifestyle more certain and rewarding, but that generally proves more elusive, and in the end, closer to home than they imagined. The song California Dreaming accompanies Faye Wong's movement throughout the Chungking Express, first taking her to the California cafe, then to the real California, but eventually back to HK. In Happy Together the lovers run away to Argentina in search of a happiness that proves more temporal than spatial, a resonance carried through from Ashes of Time, where the four swordsmen of Chinese mythology leave love and family to pursue fame and fortune. All these characters end up far from home, wistful and unsure of return. This genre is particularly poignant to HongKong and the Cantonese diaspora. "Victims and warriors of the 'late colonial condition' (to borrow film scholar Esther Yau's phrase), they are Westernized but not Westerners, still Chinese but not quite, lured with the temptation of becoming 'citizens of the world' or permanent exiles."

Below: Faye Wong playing with toy aeroplane in Chungking Express
Playfulness is particularly strong in HongKong culture, and WKW characters correspondingly thrive on spontaneity and impulse. They harass and play practical jokes on each other incessantly, they talk to inanimate household objects. In Chungking Express Tony Leung converses with his soft-toys, a bar of soap, a ratty tea-towel - provoking even admiring western critics to describe WKW's oeuvre as 'goofy' with an 'overdeveloped sense of fun'. This irreverence, which is so very Hongkie, irritates and confuses the 'serious' western film-reviewer, not used to flippancy in what they so desperately want to recognise as Asian art-film, the next wave. But I would suggest this lack of sacredness is a strength, a warmth and affection for the frivolous moment, a return to an innocent cinema. WKW and others like him are recovering a sense of openness and epiphany that serves as a counterpoint to the brooding voyeuristic fragments of bruised individuals that already populate post-modernity.

David Chute provides some explanation: "Hong Kong, however vivid its personality, was an accident of history, for all its economic might a makeshift political and social entity whose distinct outlines are already dissolving. It was Hong Kong's unique situation to be a point of convergence for many forces, where the decline of Western imperialism and the rise of the "forgotten" nations of Asia as major economic powers found expression in a local culture with unique double-edged characteristics." Which explains why WKW films also refuse definition. They resist narrative vocation yet employ populist modes of address, they lapse from contemplative arthouse moments into uncontextualised bursts of violence and gleeful perversity that undermines the sacredness of cinema-as-art. Takeshi Kaneshiro massages a pig carcass in Fallen Angels, the hitman pulls off a messy killing then bumps into an old friend on the bus who invites him to his wedding. "Even a hitman has friends from junior high." is his adroit comment.

Filmcritic Stephen Teo, writing about John Woo notes: "In both a positive and a negative way, Woo does not flinch from showing what is elemental or crude in his own society, for Hong Kong, like most developing Asian societies, is a place of extremes ... Without the softening effects of middle-class placidity, venality and vanity are the norm. Woo's florid style or his tendency for excess cannot therefore be dismissed as mere indulgence ... He is not the only director to reflect the basic nature of Hong Kong society in the movies." Certainly, this analysis is equally appropriate to WKW et al. HK culture thrives on the desire for wealth and spectacle. Naturally these desires are worn on the sleeve - an unapologetic "venality and vanity" which can be as naive and attractive as it is shallow, sweet. WKW exults in it: invoking the density and diversity of Hong Kong in "the sheer hedonistic absorption in architectural surfaces, in light sources, in decor of every possible fabric and material, and the absense of overt literary seriousness in the plots." The cuteness and mugging of his stars is not cheap affectation but the accurate representation of the freeplay and barter of identities so essential to the Hong Kong character. This freedom and lack of prejudice infuses WKW's manic characters and camerawork with a physicality and decadence that has led several to label it the work of super-talented hacks, of irresponsible filmmakers. But I maintain that this insincerity is inherently sincere, in fact more so than the politically correct porridge of the social-realists. Appropriation and assemblage of attitudes, styles, identities is in the spirit of cinema as well as Hong Kong. Cinema needs this injection of impulse and play. Its confident application is a thrill, the overlaying of soundtracks, stories, camera filters, grains and editing techniques acquiring a density of address which requires repeated viewings to fully appreciate its orchestration and intentions.

Let me end with this beautiful quote from Howard Hampton: "What's rewarding in Wong's oeuvre, what's alive in it, is lack of artistic purity. It's no accident that Ashes of Time, an austere, dreamily ironic swordplay epic, is at once so anomalous and so utterly characteristic of Hong Kong film at its most satisfying: where else would someone combine Akira Kurosawa and Alain Resnais to make the equivalent of The Seven Samurai at Marienbad (and have this constitute a genre, albeit a genre of one)?"

eugene chew
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Reading List

Chute, D., Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions. from Film Comment, May-June 1998, v34 n3
Doyle, C., To the End of the World, from Sight and Sound, May 1997, v7 n5
Gross, L., Nonchalant Grace. from Sight and Sound, Sept 1996, v6 n9
Hampton, H., Blur as genre. (Wong Kar-Wai's 'Chungking Express') from Artforum, March 1996 v34 n7
Rayns, T., Poet of Time. from Sight and Sound, Sept 1995, v5 n9
Reynaud, B., High noon in Hong Kong. from Film Comment, July-August 1997, v33 n4