“Wong shows that certain modernized countries have been able to flourish economically because they have embraced globalization, but with powerful emotional consequences for their people.”
For many, Hong Kong is a model of post-industrial society. Soaring skyscrapers, neon-lit streets, and a bustling populous dominate the landscape. The city is considered a major economic force in the world as well as a cultural Mecca. Yet Hong Kong is a region characterized by disjuncture and elusiveness. The natural tendency is to view Hong Kong’s dubious identity and instability as the result of its confused history. Control over this small space has been juggled between Great Britain and China for the last 165 years (McDonough and Wong xi). However, Hong Kong’s condition reflects a global phenomenon far more pervasive and significant. The ubiquitous telecommunication technologies, electronic world economy, and the erasure between public and private spaces that typify this metropolis engender a spatial connection between people, but also an affective disconnection. The city functions as a microcosm of the modernized world and few artists have been able to capture this zeitgeist and its implications for human interaction better than Wong Kar-wai. Though most of his films take place in Hong Kong, they do more than simply negotiate the experiences of a local population. His characters, stories, and style are symptoms of a culture subject to temporal compression and tele-surveillance — characteristics that define modern-day globalization. His films illustrate that the national cost of participation in a modern, global economy is affective discontent among citizens.
Sequences of high-speed trains, planes, and automobiles play a prevalent role in all of Wong’s films. Sometimes these scenes are sped up, making already disorientingly fast transports seem even more chaotic. But even without special effects, these technological marvels have seriously undermined traditional notions of distance and time. The consequences of this instantaneity of travel which “cancels the reality of distances — the reality of those geographical intervals which only yesterday still organized the politics of nations” (Virilio 8) is the loss “not merely of ‘national,’ but ‘social’ identity” (Virilio 10). People travel from place to place so quickly and effortlessly that identifying with a single space seems absurd.
The film medium itself significantly contributes to Virilio’s notions of alienation and tele-surveillance. Writing about photography, Walter Benjamin posits, “It prepares the salutary movement by which man and the surrounding world become alien to each other, opening up a field in which all intimacy yields to the illumination of detail” (Virilio 57). However, this assertion seems more appropriately applied to film. The camera captures details invisible to the naked eye — it provides information more detailed than eyes alone can perceive. It alienates the spectator from his or her reality by offering these details and the possibility of non-linear temporality. Moreover, the medium contributes to notions of tele-surveillance by having actors constantly interacting with a camera rather than a real audience. This instills a modern version of the spotlight effect where people continuously behave as if being watched. As My Blueberry Nights demonstrates, this is not simply the mentality and behavior of paranoiacs. Jeremy is shown from the perspective of a security camera as he fixes it. He admits to Elizabeth that it does not deter thieves, but that he watches the videos on some nights as a way to see things that he missed and to replay certain scenes. The video feed functions as a substitute for human interaction for the café owner. Furthermore, this scene shows how widespread, powerful, and multi-functioning tele-surveillance technology is in contemporary society.
In his landmark essay “The Work of Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin argues that the advent of cinema broke down traditional notions of art. Prior to film, art was inaccessible to most, which gave it a ritualistic value. Technologies that allow for the reproduction of art, of which film is the most salient example, allow works to be captured, replicated, and displayed to a mass audience easily and effectively. Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo are no longer artifacts to be revered by a cultural elite that has access to them, but objects that can be shot on film and distributed to a mass audience. This democratization of art gives it a new role; “exhibition value begins to displace cult value” (Benjamin 1173). This “revolutionary criticism of traditional concepts of art” (Benjamin 1177) gives film a predominantly social role — it allows people to understand their historical and cultural situation. This perspective offers an illuminating entry into Wong’s films and highlights their importance.
Like all of Wong’s films, Chungking Express features very little dialogue. Instead, the characters express themselves through voice-over. “They comment on what they’re doing, provide information not given by the narrative, anticipate their own existence, share their regrets” (LaLanne 24) through internal monologue. This emphasizes the loneliness and alienation induced by modern living in globalizing countries. It is as if “everyday language were a kind of gibberish that required glossing and commentary” (Abbas 44). Furthermore, this commentary manifests in phrases directed at no one except the characters themselves. Wong’s conception of modern human interaction is a reversal of John Donne’s famous assertion. In these films, every man and woman is an island.
The second story begins immediately after the first. Furthering the theme of proximity without reciprocity, Qiwu passes by Ah Faye — the main love interest in the second narrative. The camera freezes on the two, and the words uttered by Qiwu at the beginning of the film when he passes by the woman with the blonde wig are repeated. Interestingly, Qiwu concedes in his internal monologue that he knows nothing about Faye, yet he offers knowledge about her future love for another man. “This disjunction of the individual from the present and from his own experience” (LaLanne 24) represents a uniquely modern phenomenon. It would not be far-fetched to identify this “nostalgia for the present” (LaLanne 24) as the inevitable consequence of the fast-paced urban lifestyle. The destruction of private spaces and growth of technology necessary for industrialization and capitalistic progress have profound implications for individuals. The instantaneity of information and travel has skewed people’s conceptions of space and time. Human beings now feel alien to their environment, each other, and even their own experiences.
Wong’s films are often celebrated for their distinctive cinematography, which contributes to the themes of alienation explored in the films. The man responsible for most of the extreme angles and stunning images that typify these works is celebrated cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Wong has worked with him on several films including Chungking Express, and his camera work is as impressive as ever in the film. When asked to explain his unique, distinctive shots, Doyle offers a revealing quote: “They’re not your conventional ‘establishing shots’ because they’re about atmosphere and metaphor, not space. The only thing they ‘establish’ is a mood or a totally subjective point of view” (Siegel 290). These subjective shots are necessary considering Wong’s aesthetic and the world view he is trying to convey. Wong’s universe is populated by solitary individuals, and the shots must reflect this if his films are to succeed in capturing his modern world milieu. Doyle makes significant contributions to these movies. Shots linger of lone individuals for a disturbingly long time. Rarely do shots feature more than two characters, and when two characters are seen together, there is always a disconnection between them. During those rare crowd scenes, they appear as fast-moving shadows.
Despite its bleak undertones, Chungking Express still manages to be a frothy, light-hearted film. Unlike the characters in Wong’s other films, these characters “accept their loneliness, they’re more independent, and they see in their quest not a kind of despair but a kind of amusement” (Brunette 48). They find ways to adequately distract themselves from their emptiness and solitude. Faye dances and listens to “California Dreaming” incessantly because “it stops me from thinking,” she confesses. Cop 633 makes friends with objects in his apartment. He tells a bar of soap that “it needs more confidence,” chides a washcloth for lacking in “strength and absorbency,” and implores a stuffed animal to “say something.” The film is full of these moments that are “simultaneously sad and funny” (Brunette 47). Chungking Express approach to modern woes starkly contrasts with Wong’s next film, Fallen Angels, in which many of the characters do not have these distractions and are worse off for it.
Fallen Angels was originally conceived as the third story to Chungking Express, but then Wong decided to expand it into a full-length film (Brunette 58). Again, Wong presents the viewer with two narratives that have only a slight relation to each other. This brings up an interesting point. The fragmentary nature of these two films reflects the chaos felt by Wong’s characters as well as the modernized world at large. Scenes are presented in a quick and disorienting fashion, each bearing “traces of another story it could have told,” (LaLanne 11) and in the case of Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, these crossroads of stories allow Wong to detour into territories the viewer does not anticipate. In an interview, Wong remarked, “To me, all my works are really like different episodes of one movie” (Ngai 98). It is this approach that gives his narratives a lack of cohesion and ambiguous endings. Wong’s works embody “a more general aesthetic project which consists in favoring detail above totality, and the part above the whole” (Lalanne 10). What the audience is left with are thematically similar sketches of stories, isolated scenes featuring isolated characters. This mode of story-telling developed out of necessity. It is the natural consequence of life in a world where people are brought closer together, spatially and temporally, by technology and the destruction of private space. What is lost is a sense of community, intimacy, and stability.
There is a key scene in the film where the dispatcher smokes in a bar drenched in red half-light. She approaches a jukebox and begins to play “Speak My Language” by Laurie Anderson. The camera focuses on her body in fragments. She caresses the jukebox like a lover as smoke from her cigarette floats around her. The audience is then presented with blurry shots of Hong Kong nightlife followed by the woman violently masturbating in the bed of the man she desires. The fetishism of material objects in place of people along with the disorienting shots of the Hong Kong skyline suggests the impossibility of post-industrial romantic love. “Not a very hopeful picture of heterosexual relationships, certainly, yet its implications extend even further, since desperate sex is only a sign of more generalized loneliness” (Brunette 67).
The most hopeful and encouraging character in Fallen Angels is the center of the second narrative. He is a mute who breaks into various establishments and comically forces patrons to pay for his services and products. It would be easy to read this character as a critique of capitalism, but he is far more than that. Though he lacks the ability to communicate verbally with others, he seems to understand modern human interaction the best. The mute speaks to the audience through voice-over. “We run into so many people everyday. That is how I stay optimistic.” He understands the ephemeral nature of human interaction and the need for distraction, which makes him one of the better functioning characters in Wong’s films. Furthermore, his relationship with his father offers hope that authentic, satisfying relationships can develop between family members.
In the Mood for Love
It would be a difficult task to specify precisely when the cultural antecedents of modern affective discontent began, but they are in effect as early as 1962 according to Wong’s film In the Mood for Love. The close-quarters living situation that is a concern even in contemporary Hong Kong is immediately apparent in this film. “This is the Hong Kong of shared apartments where space is tight, and each person is pressed for room” (Teo 126). The claustrophobia of the film is heightened by Christopher Doyle and Pin Bing Lee’s cinematography, which lingers on narrow residential hallways, cramped offices, and underground cafes. Wong’s depiction of 1960s Hong Kong illustrates an important trade-off that comes with the rise of modern industrial capitalism: the commodification of space and inability to retreat from the watchful gaze of the other.
The film depicts marriage as a dismal state. Fidelity is rare among the characters. It is revealed early that Chow’s wife and So’s husband are cheating on their respective partners with each other. The plot of the film centers on how Chow and So deal with this revelation. However, it is important to note how unfaithful other characters are in the film. So is constantly covering for her boss so that he can elope with his mistress without arousing his wife’s suspicions. Chow’s close friend Ping vies for the affections of married women with no remorse. Chow and So are two of the few characters in this film who do not fall victim to extramarital affairs, and they are much worse off because of it. Both are attracted to each other, but they fear that they are constantly being watched, and so their relationship remains unconsummated. This eventually proves to be too overwhelming for Chow, and he resolves to leave Hong Kong, stating, “I thought we wouldn’t be like them. But I was wrong. You won’t leave your husband. So I’d rather go away.”
Wong’s eighth feature-length film opens with a fantastic sequence that carries a familiar tone. Trains traveling at seemingly impossible speeds meander around CGI-rendered buildings and advertisements. A narrator explains: “In the year 2046, every railway network spreads the globe.” This is Wong’s vision of a futuristic world where the buildings, transportation, and sheer luminosity of city lights have become more impressive, but humanity’s negative emotional disposition has not changed. The viewer sees the narrator on a train leaving the mysterious 2046, a place people go “to recapture lost memories because nothing ever changes in 2046.” He is shown leaning languidly against his reflection, distracting himself with a light in front of him. He admits to the viewer that he has begun “to feel very lonely.” Nothing ever changes in 2046, but nothing seems to have changed since 1962 as well.
This story of Tak and his way of dealing with his discontent constitutes only a small portion of the film. In fact, it is later revealed that his story is a fiction created by Chow from In the Mood for Love. Modern affective discontent has seeped out and infected a fantasy world. However, Chow’s life does seem to have changed drastically in this sequel to Wong’s earlier film. “The bulk of the film is given over to Chow’s relationships with several women” (Teo 139). In fact, he openly admits that as a backlash to his unconsummated love affair with So, he “became an expert ladies’ man with lots of one-night stands.” Even a casual fan of Wong’s work can predict how these relationships turn out. Chow and his mistress of the night experience temporary pleasure, but Chow ultimately shows the same ache that afflicts him throughout In the Mood for Love in his yearning facial expressions, his writing, and even his conversations.
Later in the film, the viewer is brought back to Chow’s fictional world of 2046. Tak becomes intimate and falls in love with an android. He asks her to leave with him multiple times, but she does not respond. Read metaphorically, this relationship embodies a more generalized relationship that exists between people and technology. Technology can provide temporary pleasure, but it is also a primary source of longer-lasting dissatisfaction. Tak consoles himself by reasoning the android is already in love with someone else. Whether Wong is anthropomorphizing the android or not is irrelevant. People cannot seem to sustain satisfying relationships by themselves nor through the technology they create.
Wong Beyond Hong Kong
In his essay “Time Zones and Jet Lag: The Flows and Phases of World Cinema,” Dudley Andrew outlines five different models of world cinema: cosmopolitan, national, federated, world, and global. He defines world cinema as the phase that began in the late 1960s and developed in the wake of European and American dominance in art film productions and festival selections. It was a movement that “expose[d] a greater variety of films coming from no-matter where” (Andrew 76). Hong Kong’s cinematic cultures grew to prominence in this new cinematic atmosphere. The renowned Hong Kong International Film Festival debuted during this period as an event that allowed Far East audiences to see films from around the world. Simultaneously, Hong Kong cinema was beginning to be recognized throughout the world, being showcased at prestigious film festivals such as Cannes and the Berlin International Film Festival (Andrew 76).
Andrew’s description of the world phase of cinema contrasts with the global phase in that the former emphasizes regional identity and politics, while the latter implies “transnational operations and negotiations that encourage the spread and interchange of images, ideas, and capital across and throughout a vast but differentiated cultural geography” (Andrew 80). This distinction situates Wong’s films in the global phase of international cinema. The themes he explores in his films are not unique to one particular region. In fact, his films suggest that the erasure of national boundaries that characterizes modern globalization significantly contributes to feelings of alienation.
The film is predominantly narrated by Lai Yiu-Fai, a man from Hong Kong who has retreated to Buenos Aires with his lover Ho Po-Wing in hopes of rekindling their relationship. Their decision to travel to Argentina is revealed by Lai late in the film: “Hong Kong is the opposite of Argentina.” Upon cursory glance, this seems to be true. The open spaces and absence of high technology such as mobile phones and high-speed transit contrast with Wong’s depictions of Hong Kong in this film and others. However, upon further scrutiny Buenos Aires reveals itself to be a city defined by the infiltration of technology and dissolution of private space in ways similar to Hong Kong. The blue skies of Argentina are penetrated by roads that fade into the horizon; the still water is interrupted by motorboats and construction. With one crucial exception to be mentioned shortly, every shot of nature is disrupted by human technological intervention.
Argentina’s Iguazu Falls function as a leitmotif for the film. Happy Together begins with the doomed couple discussing their desire to see the landmark, and this longing persists throughout the film. Their trip is consistently thwarted by situation and circumstance: car trouble, lack of funds, breakups in the relationship. Their desire even becomes objectified in the form of a small motion lamp featuring a waterfall. The two lovers caress the object and stare ponderously at it, as if wishing it could transplant them to their desired destination or transform into a convincing subterfuge. Of course, the product is a poor substitute for the real thing, and both characters are left wanting. Lai eventually makes it to Iguazu Falls alone, but he is met with sadness rather than joy or wonder. He laments, “I finally reach Iguazu. Suddenly I think of Ho Po-Wing. I feel very sad, there should be two of us standing here.”
Lai’s failing relationship with Ho is counterbalanced by a more positive one with a young coworker named Chang. The amiable friendship Lai experiences with Chang offers a stark contrast to his tumultuous relationship with Ho. An erotic tension between the two characters exists almost immediately, but their relationship never becomes romantic. Chang leaves for Ushuaia, a city nicknamed “The End of the World.” This is a revealing designation since Chang vows to leave Lai’s sadness there, suggesting sorrow is a requisite condition of this world. As the two characters say goodbye to each other, the film freezes — transforming an ephemeral moment into one of lasting significance. However, each character’s attempt to reconnect with the other is frustrated. Chang travels back to Buenos Aires to see Lai, while Lai travels to Taipei to see Chang. Global transport allows people to travel almost instantaneously, but here it is a detriment that prevents the two characters from meeting again. In a final voiceover, Lai announces he now knows where to find Chang, but the film ends on an ambiguous note. The viewer is left wondering if they will see each other again, but if Wong’s illustrations of other relationships are any indication, the viewer is inclined to believe that their brief time of happiness has also passed.
My Blueberry Nights
The characters in My Blueberry Nights are instantly recognizable as Wong’s archetypal construction of the contemporary individual. Singer-songwriter Norah Jones makes her film debut as a woman recovering from a failed relationship whose name changes through the film along with her location. She is Elizabeth in New York City, Lizzie in Memphis, and finally Beth in a small Nevada town. Wong’s decision to follow a female character over the course of the film offers yet another contrast to his male-dominated films. Ultimately, Elizabeth’s change in identity and location proves to be futile. She returns to New York City, sees her ex-boyfriend’s apartment has been vacated, and goes to a café to be comforted by an old friend and café owner named Jeremy.
The other characters in My Blueberry Nights are even less encouraging about the prospect of long-term contemporary relationships. While bartending in Memphis, Elizabeth meets an alcoholic named Arnie Copeland. His alcoholism stems from a failed marriage with a younger woman named Sue Lynne. Their emotional estrangement compels them to start “drinking [their] way back into love, but it never made sense in the morning.” Their emotional estrangement turns into physical separation, and Arnie’s voluntary alcohol use transforms into debilitating addiction. The consequence of this goes beyond emotional distress, and he dies in a car accident that was most likely a suicide. This theme of emotional anguish turned into physical harm is new to Wong’s films and may indicate the urgency of addressing the sources of modern affective discontent.
Urban density, globalization, and technological revolution are three definitive aspects of first world contemporary culture. The writings of Virilio, Benjamin, and Manovich shed light on the genesis of these phenomena in their modern form through temporal compression and tele-surveillance, but it is Wong’s films that illustrate their effects on individuals most poignantly. The dominant theme in these films is an affective discontent among characters. They demonstrate sadness and longing with temporary respite only coming in the form of affairs and distractions.
The commercial and critical success of Wong’s works worldwide is evidence of his remarkable ability to capture current cultural conditions. As urbanization and technology continue to permeate even the most remote regions of the globe, Wong’s films become increasingly relevant. However, those dismayed by this current societal trend and its implications for human interaction can perhaps take solace in a poignant statement made by Qiwu in Fallen Angels: “Somehow, everything comes with an expiry date.”
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