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Related Reading: Editions Dis Voir: Wong Kar wai by Jean-Marc Lalanne, David Martinez, Ackbar Abbas, Jimmy Ngai.
Related Article: Blue, a stream of consciousness piece written for The Cinema of Wong Kar-wai - A 'Writing Game' compilation featured in Issue No. 13 of Senses of Cinema.

Wong gok ka moon, 1988
[Mongkok Carmen/As Tears Go By]

CheungThe film opens to a symbolic shot of Wah lying obscured beneath a blanket that is half cast in shadow on a sunny late spring afternoon as he is rudely awakened by the repeated telephone calls of a persistent, overly familiar aunt. Explaining that a distant cousin named Ah-Ngor (Maggie Cheung) has gone to the city for medical treatment related to a respiratory infection, the aunt catches the drowsy and unfocused Wah off-guard by proposing a presumptuous request for him to accommodate the young woman during her extended stay in town. The imposed arrangement immediately proves inconvenient as inferences of Wah's association with organized crime surface when his bombastic but inutile protégé Fly (Jacky Cheung) calls to provide periodic status on a stalled and protracted attempt to collect an outstanding debt from a resistant and confrontational thug. Unable to carry out his assigned tasks and often inciting trouble with his arrogant bravado, Fly has proven himself to be a liability and embarrassment to the local mob boss who repeatedly advises Wah to redirect his volatile protégé towards a more mundane vocation. Wah attempts to insulate his cousin from his disreputable affairs during her visit but is unavoidably implicated when Fly and his brother Ah-Site (Ronald Wong) stagger into Wah's apartment to seek assistance for injuries sustained during an instigated pool hall brawl. Inevitably, Ah-Ngor returns to the normalcy of her bucolic life in the province, and soon, Wah begins to reassess his life, fueled in part by a chance encounter with a former girlfriend who has since married, and the looming threat of a police crackdown after a high-ranking mob informant is arrested.

Marking Wong Kar-wai's first foray into feature film, As Tears Go By subverts the familiar images of frenetic violence and non-stop action endemic in contemporary Hong Kong films with a more somber, atmospheric, and contemplative portrait of failed connection and unrequited longing. Wong incorporates evocative, highly stylized elements that would become the filmmaker's indelible aesthetic signature: chaotic chase sequences reflected through fragmented, stroboscopic motion (later implemented in Chungking Express); integration of music as a leitmotif for the characters' emotional state (which, in the film's case, is an idiosyncratic rendition of Berlin's Take My Breath Away sung in Chinese); the sentiment of adrift melancholy articulated through dispassionate voice-over narration, toy airplanes, and transitional (and allusively transcendent) images of travel (most notably in the interstitial shot of passing buses as Wah reads Ah-Ngor's letter); the permutability of time through accelerated and slow motion sequences and narrative ellipses (the final image of Wah that momentarily triggers a flashback). Presenting a contemporary urban drama that is both socially relevant and philosophically existential, the film serves as haunting and provocative examination of the consequence of obligation, the irreconcilability of fate, and the tragedy of missed opportunity.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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A Fei jing juen, 1991
[A Fei's Story/Days of Being Wild]

Cheung/LauA handsome young man named Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) stops by a stadium concession stand to buy a soft drink. He approaches the shy, beautiful store attendant and catches her attention by correctly guessing her name as Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung), and confidently predicts that she will see him in her dreams. One afternoon, he asks her to look at his wristwatch, and after a minute passes, explains that he will always remember the time - one minute before 3:00 PM on April 16, 1960 - because of their shared moment together. The romantic declaration intrigues Su Lizhen, and she gradually falls in love with him. However, Yuddy's inability to commit to a relationship frustrates Su Lizhen, and, after he rejects her marriage proposal, she reluctantly leaves him. Soon, Yuddy meets a sensual, uninhibited entertainer using the stage name, Mimi (Carina Lau), who, in turn, attracts the attention of Yuddy's childhood friend, Zeb (Jacky Cheung). One evening, a kind, well-intentioned police officer (Andy Lau) escorts Su Lizhen back to Yuddy's apartment in order to retrieve her belongings. Su Lizhen, caught off guard by Mimi's presence and shattered by Yuddy's callousness, confesses her overwhelming grief to the attentive officer. After taking a long walk together, the officer leaves an open invitation for Su Lizhen to call him at a telephone booth on his patrol watch. Every evening, he momentarily pauses in front of the telephone booth, waiting for a call that never comes. And so the pattern of encounters and missed opportunities emerges in Days of Being Wild, as Yuddy's indifference affects the lives of the people who become entangled in his aimless life.

Wong Kar-wai creates a spare and elegant film on chance, fate, and unrequited longing in Days of Being Wild. Using a meticulously crafted mise-en-scene of damp streets, soaking summer rains, green reflected city lights, and saturated blue hues of the evening sky, Wong creates a pervasive, melancholic atmosphere to reflect each characters' wandering and sense of incompletion: Yuddy's elusive search for his biological mother; Su Lizhen and Fung-Ying's continued attachment to the emotionally vacuous Yuddy; the police officer's unresolved feelings for Su Lizhen; Zeb's devotion to Mimi. The indelible repeated image of the blue tinted landscape of the Filipino countryside from a slow moving train, accompanied by a lackadaisical, tropical melody, further reinforces Yuddy's complacency and lack of direction. Inevitably, it is Yuddy's own inertia that, not only leads to his own slow self-destruction, but contaminates the soul of each passing acquaintance with a sense of unrequited longing and ache of despair.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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Hwa yang nian hua, 2000
[In the Mood for Love]

Cheung/LeungThere is a recurrent sound of a sensual waltz that accompanies each encounter between Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) as they invariably cross paths in a crowded residential complex: the first is a polite glance as Mo-Wan leaves the room of a friendly card game; and then during the subsequent encounters on the steps of a noodle shop, where, often denied dinner companionship by their spouses, they stop for a quick meal. One evening, Mo-Wan asks to meet Su Li-zhen in a restaurant, admires her purse, and asks where he could buy one as a present to his wife. She explains that it is a gift from her husband that was purchased during a recent international business trip, and is not locally available. Su Li-zhen, in turn, asks Mo-Wan about his tie, and he responds that it is a gift from his wife. The subtle, underplayed moment is a knowing confirmation of their own nagging suspicions about their spouses' infidelity. The two begin to rehearse scenarios in order to prepare themselves for the seemingly inevitable emotional confrontation: who initiated the affair; how to broach the subject of infidelity; how to react after the shattering admission. When Mo-Wan decides to pursue a lifelong dream of writing a martial arts serial in order to pass the time, Su Li-zhen agrees to proofread his work. However, when their professional collaboration leads to an undeniable attraction, the two find themselves struggling with the shame and guilt over their own emotional betrayal.

Using graceful slow motion sequences and nostalgic music, Wong Kar-wai juxtaposes the romanticism of a lost era with the unrequited longing of an impossible relationship in In the Mood for Love. Wong's highly stylized camerawork serves as a visual foil to the chaos of the meticulously structured mise-en-scene: the crowded living conditions, overly familiar neighbors, and imposing, uninvited guests reflect the claustrophobic, intrusive nature of traditional society. In contrast, the suffused colors of the empty restaurant and the long, reverse tracking shot of the hallway leading to Mo-Wan's creative retreat reflect the uninhibited freedom of their surfacing emotions. Furthermore, Su Li-zhen's seductively bold and exquisitely tailored high collared dresses manifest her paradoxical character: passionate, yet reserve; sensual, yet conservative. In essence, the visual dichotomy of the film serves as a reflection of the emotional turmoil that results from their innocuous alliance. In the Mood for Love is a subtly intoxicating and hypnotic film on love and longing, fate and destiny, connection, and isolation.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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2046, 2004

Leung/ZhangIn an early episode in 2046, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) - the international correspondent and aspiring wuxia novelist of Wong's preceding film, In the Mood for Love (and now a struggling journalist and pulp writer of erotic serials) encounters a former acquaintance from Singapore named Lulu (Carina Lau) at a seedy nightclub on Christmas Eve, 1964. Now preferring to be called Mimi, she seems indifferent to their reunion, unable to recall any of Mo-wan's referential anecdotes until he notes that their brief moment of connection occurred over the memory of her former lover, a Chinese Filipino who had died young, and from whose death she has never emotionally recovered. It is a momentary reference to the ill-fated love affair between Mimi (also played by Lau) and Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) in Wong's second feature, Days of Being Wild (in which Leung briefly - and inexplicably - appears in an unexplored vignette). Escorting the visibly shattered Lulu home, Mo-wan discovers that her apartment coincidentally bears the fateful number 2046 - the hotel room of Mo-wan and Su-Lizhen's (Maggie Cheung) encounter in In the Mood for Love - an unresolved memory that inspires him to take up residence in the neighboring room at the hotel and begin working on a time travel science fiction novel set in the year 2046, a destination where lost memories are recaptured and relived in perpetuity, but from which there seems no escape (an idea that similarly resonates through Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris and Alain Resnais' Je t'aime je t'aime). Deriving inspiration from an eclectic assortment of characters whose paths he has momentarily crossed, including his landlord Mr. Wang (Wang Sum), Wang's eldest daughter Jing Wen (Faye Wong), Jing-Wen's Japanese boyfriend Tak (Takuya Kimura), an attractive hostess named Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), and an enigmatic professional gambler named Su-Lizhen (Li Gong), Mo-wan's novel inevitably betrays his own sentimental inertia, articulating a haunted and bittersweet chronicle of missed opportunity and unrequited desire.

WongIn the essay Images from the Inside, Jean-Marc Lalanne describes the films of Wong Kar-wai as akin to the elaborately conceived and painstaking detailed, but consequently unwieldy and disintegrating fragments of the cartographer's map in a José Luis Borges novel: a simulacrum whose fidelity approached the real so exactly that it now covered the original subject in its entirely. Within this allegorical framework, 2046 perhaps comes closest to Wong's overarching raison d'être for his evocatively fractured, yet voluptuous and lucid contemporary portraits of transitory connection, rootlessness, and unreconciled longing. From Lau's reprised appearance as Mimi to repeated mnemonics of the number 2046, to the film's elliptical structure that modulates sinuously through past, present, and (fictional) future, to the film's thematic narrative progression through successive Christmas Eves (a holiday that evokes images of birth, hope, and renewal), Wong captures the delusion and innate tragedy in the perpetuation of emotional stasis, insularity, and existential transience that lead to meaningless ritual (note that the year 2046 also signifies the end of the Chinese government's reassurance to leave Hong Kong's political and economic administration unchanged for 50 years after the British handover in 1997). Moreover, through Mo-wan's futuristic companion manuscript 2047, a story that he had penned about a Japanese traveler who sought to leave 2046 (a figurative utopian escape that seemed logically inconceivable and had never been undertaken) and his relationship with a malfunctioning android/train stewardess afflicted with delayed reaction (a character based on his assistant and occasional ghostwriter Jing Wen), Wong illustrates the desolation of failed synchronicity: the reluctant realization that romantic destiny is defined by the precise, coincidental intersection of both a physical and an emotional trajectory. It is interesting to note that the film's surreal opening sequence (of the lone Japanese traveler) is later revealed, not to be an excerpt from the serial novel 2046, but from the draft of 2047: a point of view that acknowledges the folly of resigned nostalgia and seeks to escape its moribund, seductive euphoria and blissful oblivion. It is this defiance against complacency and delusive escapism that invariably define Wong's indelible images of eternal romanticism as well: an ambitious and ennobled personal quest to resolve time, desire, connection, and destiny within the chaotic and unpredictable tide of inevitable human history.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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