Wong Kar WHY - A World of Colour, Motion & Music
Even if you haven’t personally seen a Wong Kar-Wai film yet, you’ve already experienced how his films work, and how they make you feel. His presence lingers in the lush impressionism of Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’, and leaves its traces in Sofia Coppola’s touching attempt at portraying human connection in ‘Lost in Translation’, or if you haven’t seen these - You may have heard Tarantino - speak high praise of Wong Kar Wai’s auteurist style and approach towards filmmaking.
Here’s a snippet of Tarantino gushing his love for Wong Kar-Wai’s films
But who is Wong Kar-Wai, and what sets him apart from the myriad of filmmakers that exist today?
To answer this question, we need to first understand Pop Cinema, and through that - get a grasp over WKW’s vision.
Pop Cinema constitutes one of the most revolutionary and schismatic movements of the 20th century - vibrant with thematic and stylistic art. It’s fairly evident in the way the frames are arranged, the mystical merging of music and imagery - and an ode to pop culture and vibrant colour palettes.
Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight, commented:
"I remember just being sucked in, and having a feeling of how big the world was, but how small it was at the same time. Because I don't speak Mandarin or Cantonese, I'd never been outside of the state of Florida, and I'm watching this film, and I'm feeling all these things."
Wong, a Chinese filmmaker and scriptwriter, made his breakthrough into the Hong Kong Film Industry when the space was oversaturated with martial art and action films - but Wong wasn’t interested in commercial cinema, he wished to crystallise the sentiments of longing, memory, nostalgia and intimacy in his films - and ground them in reality, rather than a distant, inaccessible fantasy.
His films also lacked a cohesive script, and were shot in collaboration with the actors’ inputs and the emotions Wong wanted the scene to emit, rather than the imposition of dialogues.
This fluid approach of his defined Hong Kong Cinema in the eyes of the western audiences, and made him a revolutionary filmmaker - both in the genre of love-lorn intimacy, and in enhancing the poetry of everyday life.
Colours, more often than not, replace dialogues in WKW films. Christopher Doyle, the cinematographer and co-auteur of most Wong films - makes it a point to induce the frames with deep and meaningful tones - developed in a ‘show not tell’ manner to emphasise the emotional quotient of the film without relying on dialogues.
“I’m a very moody person. I find the traditional a little bit boring…. The Chinese are quite conservative with images, so you have to break through from the inside.” – Wong Kar-Wai
Therefore it is essential to understand what each colour signifies in his films.
Deep Blue Tones - Melancholy and Distance (as can be seen in Chungking Express)
Reds and Blacks - Painful restraint and suppressed intensity of love that hides within the shadows (as can be seen in In the Mood for Love)
Greens and Neon Blues - Sadness and Loneliness, a hint of nostalgia and urban alienation
Yellows - Illustrates the fast paced metropolitan lifestyle, and a distinct longing for comfort, disorientation
He understood colour as a dramatic tool, working together with other elements of cinematic expressiveness, like sections in an orchestra: each element is, in its time, allowed “the fullest scope” to reveal the film’s “content, meaning, theme and idea”
Themes and Key Markers of a WKW Film
Unrequited Love and Loss
Happy Endings are as non-existent in Wong’s Cinema, as they are in real life. The characters never truly get what they want, and often the film ends with equal parts loss and longing. As quoted by a critic, Wong weaves a story around the three Ls: Love, Loss and Longing
Chungking Express (1994), Happy Together (1997) and In the Mood for Love (2000) are all films grounded in love - but not love stories.
These films are doused in a visual language that only knows loneliness - even when the conversations exist in real time with the beloved. The dialogues reveal much to nothing about the emotional states of the characters, but the melancholic feel still has a grappling hold over the atmosphere, and over us.
If poetry is the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” then WKW’s films are nothing short of a lyrical ballad. In these worlds, sufferance also adopts a romantic stance - and feelings are prioritised when all rationale fails. The characters sneak into the beloved’s home (Chungking Express), try their luck at chance encounters (In the Mood for Love) as well as go to the extremes of obsessive possession and envy (Happy Together) when they’re in love - but in the end, love fails, it always does.
Poetry within Monotony
In Wong’s cinematic universe, everyday objects and places are suffused with extraordinary meaning through the power of storytelling and love. A simple can of pineapples expresses the expiration date of love - and of memories ; stairways are a portal into the intimacy of routines, and the way the smoke curls upwards from a half-lit cigarette is almost hypnotic.
His films emphasise character, mood and detail over plot. As he describes it:
Cinema can be the citric scent of a peeled orange, the touch of warm skin through a silk stocking; or simply a darkened space bathed in anticipation.
Cinema reflects reality - and what is reality if not a series of mundane events infused with love and intimacy. An object or a person may seem inconsequential, but they still hold the power to flood your heart with emotions.
With one foot in pop exuberance and one in wistful longing - Wong’s work is fully his own. His style is recognisable simply by the shaky handheld camera shots, or the overflow of neon lights and blurred destinations - every tiny frame is marinated with photogenic heartbreak and woe. Although his films have received critical acclaim, they are still extremely personal - grounded in simplicity and sentiments.
Non-Linear Time and Spaces
Wong’s films rarely ever follow a linear timeline - time freezes when we enter his universe, and the passing of time is only evident in the intercuts of wall clocks and the blur of daily life. We are trapped in the present - the past does not matter, and the future is of no concern here.
Wong has also been dubbed as the ‘auteur of time’ because of his unwavering manipulation of time and cohesive narration. These films do not have a ‘beginning, middle or end’ - they refuse to conform to the approach we are so accustomed to, and challenge the rudimentary trajectory of time.
For example, the two storylines in Chungking Express have no contextual set-up or background, the characters exist with vague descriptions and blurred motives - and disappear just as easily. The only tie between the stories is a small shop frequented by both policemen, and their common preference of ordering a chef’s salad.
With such a negligible perspective towards time, Wong also skilfully uses dates to enhance the sentimental quotient whenever required - such as the emphasis on 1st May in Chungking Express, or the use of the tape-recorder to preserve a memory in Happy Together.
In the Mood for Love has attempted to redefine our perception of infidelity, and in this attempt - it redefined cinema as well. By inspecting the spaces where human interaction takes place, and portraying the subtlety of love through movements rather than dialogues - Wong stitched together an immersive and seductive experience for its viewers. Although the film only has two main characters (the spouses of the unfaithful ones), there is always the looming presence of the two people that haven’t been shown on screen. But this is a film that places no emphasis on the infidelity of the situation, for once - the spotlight has been hijacked by the ones who suffered the collateral damage.
By showcasing the same places and same routines over and over again, Wong underlines reassurance rather than repetition.
The reason Wong-kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love transcends the conventions of storytelling is because, for once, it’s the betrayed who hijack the moods of love.
An Ode to Hong Kong
WKW is often referred to as the pioneer of Hong Kong Cinema internationally, and there is no other modern director that has so successfully captured the essence and spirit of a city so evocatively - and has managed to express it visually.
Being a child of diaspora and displacement, Wong holds a special place in his heart for alienated protagonists and a sense of ‘unbelongingness’ which is poignant in Happy Together where both heroes are in Argentina, far away from their homeland - and far away from themselves as well.
Cultural displacement and assimilation have long lasting impacts and implications - and these reflect in the decisions and developments of Wong’s characters.
The Hong Kong that Wong Kar-Wai refers to in Happy Together no longer exists. The film’s original title is 春光乍洩, which means the first emergence of spring sunshine—or, more idiomatically, a glimpse of something intimate. But perhaps it refers also to that brief moment of openness and acceptance, when our vulnerability was allowed to be a natural part of our world, only to give way once again to an era of victimisation, divisiveness, and ever-narrowing boundaries.
Masterful Mixture of Music & Images
Be it the use of ‘California Dreamin’ in Chungking Express to depict a timeline of a crush - or the hauntingly beautiful ‘Yumeji’s Theme’ in In the Mood for Love, music has always been at the core of a WKW film. Many of his films are named after songs that have inspired them, or use music to amplify particular scenes. One may not remember the entirety of a Wong film, but one will always remember the music - and what emotions it evoked.
With electrifying soundtracks and step-printed effects, Wong’s films have been influential in lifting up Arthouse Cinema. His films are a delightful feast for the senses - with each scene infused with saturated colours and memorable music.
However, these songs do not exist in isolation, nor are they created simply for a background score. The music is fused with the visuals in a way where the scene is cemented in your memory long after the film ends.
This is particularly visible in In the Mood for Love where “Yumeji’s Theme” shows the thematic transition of the relationship between the main characters Mrs.Chan and Mr.Chow.
There is no dialogue in the scene and the score turns a normal occurrence of going to the noodle stand into a seductive waltz.
Wong Kar-Wai: Why Today?
An auteur lives on, even when they stop creating films. Their artistic vision and legacy is carried forward, and thus they become immortal.
A lot of us are intimidated by the idea of watching an international film, not simply because of the subtitles - but also the cultural differences and variations. We wonder if we’ll be able to grasp the intensity of the film, or whether it’ll fly over the top of our heads.
Is the acclaim for WKW simply a consequence of nostalgia? Does the relatability factor still follow through, in this day and age? What if his films are simply for a niche audience that doesn’t have any space for me? These are some of the questions that crossed my mind when I first delved into his filmography, and they are valid questions for sure.
But Wong’s films have a sense of comfort that transcends linear time, and carves a place for themselves - wherever they go. Love, Loss and Longing are sentiments that have been a part of the human experience since the beginning of life. Known as the ‘Philosopher of Loneliness’ - Wong excels at not spoon-feeding his audience - he acknowledges our intelligence and leaves bread crumbs for us to interpret as we wish to.
The concept of open ended questions is one that is not only personal to Wong Kar-Wai, but also to arthouse cinema as a whole. The surreal cinematography and ‘frame within frame’ concept makes you want to glue your eyes to the screen - and his use of music with intention- transfixes you. At the core of his filmmaking lies a story waiting to be narrated, and waiting to be romanticised.
Films you should check out if you enjoy Wong Kar-Wai’s style:
The Double Life of Véronique, 1991
Lost in Translation, 2003
Living in Oblivion, 1995
Moonrise Kingdom, 2012