Meditations on Loss:

A Framework for the Films of Wong Kar Wai

Analytical Essay by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998


This article appeared in the January 1999 issue of "Asian Cult Cinema"

Writer, director, and hopeless romantic

Bridget Lin and Takeshi Kaneshiro meet up in Chungking Express

At the high point of our intimacy, we were just 0.01cm from each other. I knew nothing about her. Six hours later, she fell in love with another man.

"Chungking Express"

Ashes of Time

Next to John Woo and Tsui Hark, Wong Kar Wai is one of Hong Kong's most celebrated directors. His moody and introspective films have more in common with European arthouse fare than the blood-soaked crime sagas of his Asian contemporaries. His innovative theme-driven narratives, rich in both subtext and symbolism, have earned him a loyal following around the world, and he was aptly rewarded with the prestigious 1997 Best Director Award at Cannes for "Happy Together".

Asian Cult Cinema
The harder you try to forget something, the more it will stick in your memory. Once I heard someone say that if you have to lose something, the best way to keep it is to keep it is to keep it in your memory.

"Ashes of Time"

Born in Shanghai in 1958, Wong has come quite a long way in his forty years. After moving to Hong Kong in 1963, Wong developed an eye for the visual arts, particularly photography, while he was enrolled in Graphic Design at Hong Kong Polytechnic. At the age of 22, he enrolled in a television production training program run by Hong Kong's TVB, where he developed his talent for screenwriting.

A woman says 'Happy Birthday' to me on May 1, 1994. Because of this, I remember this woman. If memory could be canned, I hope this one will never expire. If an expiry date must be added onto it, let it be 10,000 years.

"Chungking Express"

As Tears Go By Poster

After cutting his teeth on a series of soap opera teleplays, Wong moved on to scripting a number of forgettable feature films. Finally, in 1988, Wong finally emerged from the background noise of the Hong Kong film industry with his directorial debut "As Tears Go By". This lustrous and nihilistic triad crime drama, which suffered from audience ennui in theaters, was lauded by critics and established this new director as a talent to watch. Since those early days, Wong has built up an impressive repertoire of feature films, including a blood-splattered foray into film noir ("Fallen Angels"), an angst-ridden modern-day romance ("Chungking Express"), and an existential take on the wu shu epic ("Ashes of Time").

Before I took him to the villagers, I bought him a pair of shoes. It's because there's quite a difference in the fee paid to a shoeless swordsman and one with shoes.

"Ashes of Time"

For the uninitiated, Wong's films seem pointless and dull, which is reinforced by the director's trademark cinematic indulgences, laggard pacing and minimalist plotting. However, upon closer inspection, it is easy to become intrigued by the rampant symbolism, the metaphor-laden dialogue, and the philosophical underpinnings of his films. The exhilaration of watching one of his films comes from fitting together the seemingly disparate pieces of a ninety-minute intellectual puzzle, with each subsequent viewing revealing new interpretations and nuances.

But are there common elements that tie his entire body of work together? Is there some underlying structure or theme by which one can gain a better comprehension of his sometimes cryptic vision?

The Dominant Themes of the Prototypical Wong Kar Wai Film

Leslie Cheung and Maggie Cheung pass some time in Days of Being Wild

I always thought one minute flies by. But sometimes it really lingers on. Once, a person pointed at his watch and said to me, that because of that minute, he'd always remember me. It was so charming listening to that. But now I look at my watch and tell myself that I have to forget this man starting this very minute.

"Days of Being Wild"

Bridget Lin in Ashes of Time

Wong's films, at their most basic level, are an exploration of the double-edged sword known as memory. This strong thematic undercurrent is expressed through subtext in the dialogue, characterizations, and the often-minimalist plotting. Essentially, Wong postulates that the pain of loss and the tenacity of remembrance are both destructive forces, yet essential for survival. All the characters in his films are products of this loss, and their actions in the present stem from their reactions to that loss. Unfortunately, the results are often tragic.

Please help me. I beg of you.
It's no use. I'm just an agent. You must solve your own problem.

"Ashes of Time"

His films are also a study of relationships in the post-modern world, in which the exchange of goods and services serves as the basis of all relationships, instead of emotional connection-- a representation of cosmopolitan life in modern Hong Kong. Very few of the relationships found in Wong's films are based on emotional connection, and the struggle that his characters face is to cultivate deeper forms of association. Unfortunately, many of his characters do not form these emotional connections, out of fear of rejection, and find it much easier to have transaction-based affinities.

Michelle Reis and Takeshi Kaneshiro share a short ride in Fallen Angels
When I am about to leave, I ask him to take me home. I haven't ridden on a motorbike for a long time. Actually, I haven't been so close with a man for awhile. The road isn't that long, and I know that I'll be getting off soon, but I'm feeling such warmth this very moment.

"Fallen Angels"

Finally, the last aspect of Wong's thematic triumvirate is the transiency of relationships. Even if the characters manage to find an emotional connection with one another, they learn to accept the fact that all relationships must end, and those who survive at the end of the film have learned to embrace the moment. This theme was best represented by #223's (Takeshi Kaneshiro) 'expiry date' speech in "Chungking Express", and the final soliloquy given by the nameless agent (Michelle Reis) while riding into the Hong Kong night on the back of a motorcycle. Not surprisingly, this can also be seen in Wong's fascination with images of smoke and drifting clouds-- like these transient phenomena, relationships form like a puff of smoke, only to quickly lose their cohesion and dissipate into the night.

Maggie Cheung ponders in Ashes of Time

Do you know what the most important thing is in my life?
Your son?
I thought so too. But as he grows up, I know he'll be leaving me one day. Nothing's important to me now. I thought the words 'I love you' really mattered. I thought they meant a lifetime commitment. But looking back, nothing matters... because everything changes. I thought I was the winner, until one day I looked into the mirror and saw the face of a loser. I failed to have the person I loved most to be with me in my best years. How wonderful it would be if we could forget the past...

"Ashes of Time"

To embody these themes within his films, Wong populates his films with a number of archetypal characters: the 'blind mourner', the 'carefree wanderer', and more recently, 'the indecisive follower'.

The Blind Mourner

Tony Leung Chiu Wai as the Blind Swordsman in Ashes of Time

The 'blind mourner' has been seen in many forms, but their origins and current condition are always the same: the small time gangster Wah Ha-tau (Andy Lau) from "As Tears Go By", both Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) and the soda counter girl Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung) in "Days of Being Wild", the Blind Swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) in "Ashes of Time", and Police Officer #663 (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) in "Chungking Express".

This the time of year to change into a summer uniform. I don't know if it is the weather, but I feel that things are changing.

"Chungking Express"

The blind mourner is in a constant state of emotional paralysis, arising from his or her inability to forget the pain of a broken relationship. Blinded by the haze of nostalgia and desperately attempting to hang on their halcyon days, they miss the opportunities of the present and are completely unaware of the incessant progression of time.

Go ahead. I just want you to hate me. That way, at least you won't forget me.

"Days of Being Wild"

The blind mourner was first embodied as Wah Ha-tau of "As Tears Go By". However, in this case, the cause of his fixation on the past is not love lost, despite the fact that he does break up with his ex-girlfriend at the film's opening. Instead, it is his interminable loyalty to both his protégé Fly (Jackie Cheung) and the need to maintain his standing within the triads. As a result, this blind devotion to the relationships of his past do not allow him to cultivate a relationship with Ngor (Maggie Cheung), and he ends up dying tragically in a botched assassination attempt.

What day's today?
Sixteenth.
Sixteenth... April the sixteenth. At one minute before 3pm on April the sixteenth 1960, you're together with me. Because of you, I'll remember that one minute. From now on, we're friends for one minute. This a fact you can't deny. It's done.

"Days of Being Wild"

In "Days of Being Wild", Su Lizhen became the blind mourner, spending most of her time in "Days of Being Wild" pining over her rejection by Yuddy (Leslie Cheung). Interestingly enough, Yuddy is another blind mourner who is so fixated on finding his birth mother that all of the other relationships in his life are of no consequence. While Lizhen does befriend a lonely beat cop (Andy Lau), her inability to deal with her heartbreak makes her unenlightened to the possibility of her relationship with the cop. Unfortunately, when she finally does overcome her loss and attempts to call the cop, she has missed her chance-- the cop has already left Hong Kong to be a sailor.

What is it that you want?
You know what I want.
I've told you many times, I'm not going to tell you. You want to know who your mother is? You go and find out on your own. I've brought you up until this day, and I'd have told you long ago if I had wanted to. I didn't because I was afraid to lose you, and I surely won't now, because it's now worth it. I'm telling you, what would I get if you leave me for her? Nothing. You wouldn't even remember me.

"Days of Being Wild"

#663 of "Chungking Express" is another good example of the blind mourner. Always waiting for his stewardess ex-girlfriend (Zhou Jialing) to return, he is completely oblivious to the fact that Fay (Faye Wong), the counter girl at a local fast food place, has been breaking into his apartment and rearranging his belongings. He does not notice that his canned food tastes different, or that the number of goldfish in his aquarium is increasing.

Godardian iconography in Days of Being Wild

To capture the blind mourner's introspective point-of-view visually, Wong employs a number of cinematic techniques. His use of the Godard-ian jump cut seamlessly blends temporally-exclusive scenes together, making the passage of time unnoticeable. Other Godard-ian touches include the many shots of clocks, which remind the viewer that despite the blind mourner's fixation on the past, time continues to move on and that moments in the present are fleeting. Another interesting technique, seen in "Chungking Express", clearly represents the blind mourner's detachment from reality-- the film is sped up, but the actors move very slowly. The resulting visual effect then conveys that while the rest of the world blurs by like the flapping of a hummingbird's wings, the blind mourner is in a stagnant state of existence, lost within their own nostalgic thoughts.

Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Faye Wong share a moment in Chungking Express

The Carefree Wanderer

I've heard that there's a kind of bird without legs that can only fly and fly, and sleep in the wind when it is tired. The bird only lands once in its life... that's when it dies.

"Days of Being Wild"

In contrast to the blind mourner is the other staple characterization of Wong's films, the 'carefree wanderer'. Characters that fall into this classification include the hotheaded Fly (Jackie Cheung) from "As Tears Go By", the lonely beat cop (Andy Lau) from "Days of Being Wild" (and to a degree, Yuddy), the amnesic Malicious West (Tony Leung Kar Fai) from "Ashes of Time", and the fickle Ho Wo Ping (Leslie Cheung) of "Happy Together".

I never think about the next time when doing anything.

"As Tears Go By"

The carefree wanderer is a character oblivious to history with no appreciation for the lessons of the past. As a result, their actions usually end up destroying the lives of those they come across. In "As Tears Go By", it is clear that Fly is the carefree wanderer, since it is his reckless actions that end up destroying three lives, despite the escalating consequences of his previous misdeeds and the volatile situations he manages to entangle himself in.

Tony Leung Kar Fai drinks the magic wine in Ashes of Time

The more wine you drink, the warmer you'll get. Water will only make you feel cold.

"Ashes of Time"

The most literal interpretation of the carefree wanderer was seen in "Ashes of Time", Wong's recontextualization of Jin Yong's "The Eagle Shooting Heroes". Malicious West has his memory of the past erased after drinking a magical wine called 'A Happy Go Lucky Life'. While the wine has eased the pain of the past for Malicious West, it has also made him forget his emotional connections with others. As a result, his 'happy go lucky' existence ends up destroying the lives of the other characters, including the split-personality Murong Yin/Yang (Bridget Lin) and the Blind Swordsman.

Andy Lau waits for a telephone call that will never come in Days of Being Wild

I didn't really think she'd call me. Passing that telephone booth every time, I would just hang around. It was possible that she had gone back to Macao. Naturally, she only wanted someone to talk with her for one night. Soon afterwards, my mother died and I went to the sea.

"Days of Being Wild"

Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai in Happy Together

Similarly, Ho Wo Ping in "Happy Together" has a shiftless existence living for only the moment. His inability to recognize his history with Lai Yiu Fai (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) ends up relegating him to a lonely permanence of his own doing.

I used to think there was a kind of bird that, once born, would keep flying until death. The fact is that the bird hasn't gone anywhere. It was dead from the beginning.

"Days of Being Wild"

Through this stock character, Wong illustrates the other extreme to the blind mourner. While the carefree wanderer is not subject to the anguish of remembrance, they too are caught in a stagnant existence. Instead of missing the opportunities of the present due to an obsessive fixation on some past trauma, they never learn from their mistakes, nor do they ever form stable relationships with those around them. However, the result is the same-- a lonely existence in isolation.

Do you remember at 3pm on April the sixteenth last year, what you were doing?
Why this question?
Well, I have a friend who challenges my memory. She asked me what I did on that day. I wouldn't remember. Do you?
She told you?
I thought you would have forgotten.
What's to be remembered, I would always remember. So you knew each other?
For a period of time. I left for the sea, and we lost contact. How about you?
Me? It's off. What else did she tell you?
Not much. We've actually only known each other for a short period of time.
Did you love her?
Not exactly... just friends.
If you see her again in the future, tell her I've forgotten her. That'll be better for everyone.
I'm not sure I'll see her again. Maybe, she would have forgotten about me too.

"Days of Being Wild"

The Indecisive Follower

Leon Lai and Michelle Reis are partners in Fallen Angels

The best thing about my profession is that there's no need to make any decision. Who's to die... when... where... it's all been planned by others. I'm a lazy person. I like people to arrange things for me. That's why I need a partner.

"Fallen Angels"

This last archetype is a more recent innovation in Wong's films, first seen in "Fallen Angels". The male leads, hitman Wong Zhiming (Leon Lai) and mute 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), are both in search of a sense of belonging, but end up in pathological relationships where they lose their identity and make the values of their partners their own. Zhiming muses that the best thing about his 'job' is that he never has to make any decisions of his own, since everything he does has been arranged for him by his partner, the unnamed agent. When he finally does realize that he must take a more active role in the relationship, he is too late-- he is gunned down in an ambush set up by his lovelorn agent.

Charlie Yeung and Takeshi Kaneshiro in Fallen Angels

They say that love can change a man. I start to find myself looking better and more charming, and suddenly I discover that I'm turning blonde.

"Fallen Angels"

Leon Lai in Fallen Angels

223 has a similar problem. Creating a state of moral contradiction, 223 breaks into other people's businesses at night such that he can 'be his own boss'. However, in actuality, he has merely taken decisions that have been made by others and uses them, instead of making his own. He also hooks up with brokenhearted woman (Charlie Yeung) who is obsessed with getting revenge on a woman named Blondie. Together, they traverse the Hong Kong nightscape in search of Blondie, and in the process, blonde hairs begin to sprout from 223's head, a metaphor for his adoption of his newfound partner's system of values.

Like the blind mourner and the carefree wanderer, the life of the indecisive follower is a lonely one. However, unlike the tragic note that Zhiming's story ends one, 223's outcome is certainly more upbeat. He ends up being rejected by the jilted woman and learns to make decisions for himself in the process (visually conveyed by his blonde hairs disappearing), the first of which is to give Zhiming's former agent a ride home on his motorcycle.

Conclusion

I look at the tape over and over again...Watching dad cook again in the kitchen, I feel very happy. I'll never taste his steaks again, but I'll never forget the taste of those steaks.

"Fallen Angels"

So instead of being confusing jumbles of abstract dialogue and quirky characterizations, the films of Wong Kar Wai have a consistency in structure and theme. The three archetypal characters of Wong Kar Wai's angst-ridden narratives are three different perspectives on the pain of loss. While some of these characters do meet tragic ends resulting from their inability to change, the director does provide a glimmer of hope in the characters that do survive the melancholic plot machinations. The characters that wind up enduring the pain of heartbreak and moving beyond it occupy a middle ground between these disparate states of loneliness.

Takeshi Kaneshiro in Chungking Express

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