Bright Lights Film Journal

Mapping the Mind Between Movies: Intertextuality in the Work of Wong Kar-wai

“Frustrated by their unrequited love, their inability to capture their objet petit a, Wong’s characters search desperately for appropriate supplements onto which they can displace their yearnings and desires.”

A great deal has been made of the way Wong Kar-wai’s films seem to effortlessly capture the energy of Hong Kong as well as the way they reflect the ambiguous, liminal cultural position the city occupies. That is to say, commentators have stressed how Wong’s films comment on and reflect the literal space that is Hong Kong. I do not wish to contest this particular point of view. Indeed, Wong’s obsession with expiration dates along with his knowing use of the number 2046 denote a genuine commitment to contemplating the fate of Hong Kong. However, I would like to propose that the spaces in Wong’s films should also be read as representations of his characters’ internal states — the terrains Wong’s characters traverse are as psychic as they are concrete. This psychological inflection opens up new interpretations of other facets of Wong’s work, such as the prominent intertextuality of his films. This intertextuality makes the observations posited by auteur theory key to understanding his cinema: his films almost demand to be read as one organic tapestry. Given their interconnectedness, and given the psychological bent of his works, one can argue that Wong’s films all take place within the same imaginative universe.

Psychic Cinema

That Wong’s cinema is psychically charged may seem to some a foregone conclusion, but elaborating on some of the features that suggest this will prove useful in also helping thread the films together. Wong is what David Bordwell has termed a “stubborn stylist” (“Stubborn Stylists”). This means that, regardless of particular cinematic conventions at any given time, and regardless of what exactly is being filmed, Wong will undoubtedly film his movies in the same way. There will be lots of under-crank step-printing and lots of slow motion, and most things will be captured through windows, panes of glass, or neon signs, or using mirrors: everything bent, distorted, and blurred, everything refracted and reflected.

Thus, all of Wong’s films demonstrate a similar texture, and that texture is, precisely, one of the imagination, one of the mind. The under-crank step-printing and slow-motion shots used by Wong give specific moments or movements an intensified drama, while other details are blurred and made fuzzy. Consider the famous sequence from Chungking Express (1994) when He Zhiwu chases an escaped criminal through the crowded halls of the Chungking Mansions: Zhiwu remains relatively in-focus, though his movements are exaggerated and distorted, and all around him, the setting is reduced to a chromatic blur. The effect of sequences like this is something akin to Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase; details emerge — even leap out — but the “reality” of the situation or action is distorted. And is this not how human memory works? Certain details are vivid, cast in the sharpest relief. The filter of the brain amplifies certain sensations, while others become less distinct, swirling around in our minds, diffusing and diluting like the wisps of cigarette smoke upon which Wong’s camera loves to linger.

This set of formal devices is used through all of Wong’s films, and again, it gives them a similar texture. While these stylistic similarities are not intertextual per se, the consistency and frequency with which Wong applies them give his filmography an organic wholeness. While auteurist critics will frequently search for or point out stylistic similarities between a director’s various works, Wong proves himself to be even more stylistically (and, as we will see shortly, thematically) insular than most; his films demand that these stylistic similarities be accounted for.

That Unobtainable Object of Desire

Jean Renoir once famously said that directors make the same movie over and over again; each time they break it and piece it back together. Wong’s films support this view. From Days of Being Wild (1990) through My Blueberry Nights (2007)Wong has made essentially the same film. His works demonstrated not just a stylistic coherence, but also a thematic unity. I could discuss any number of subjects here, as other critics have: Wong’s meditations on time, or the paradoxical alienation and intimacy to be found in modern urban environments. For the purposes of this essay, though, I think it will be most useful to discuss Wong’s cinema as one of desire deferred, fixated on longing and memory.

Critic Nathan Lee made the poetic observation that Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 (2004) “is a ghost story haunted by the absence of Su Li Zhen” (Film Comment); such a view of the film helps explain why it begins with the image of an absence: the camera dollies back out of a black hole. This “absence” is characteristic of most of Wong’s work. His characters are perpetually haunted by their own desires, tortured by the phantom memories of ephemeral meetings with individuals lost to time and space. And when confronted with a void or absence, it is our natural human reaction to attempt to fill it. Thus, Wong’s oeuvre is filled with proxies. Frustrated by their unrequited love, their inability to capture their objet petit a, his characters search desperately for appropriate supplements onto which they can displace their yearnings and desires.

In succinctly defining many of the terms of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Dylan Evans explains that, in regards to the objet petit a, “the a denotes the object which can never be attained, which is really the cause of the desire rather than that towards which desire tends” (125). The protagonists in Wong’s films tend to desire one another, but specific circumstances (temporal or spatial distance, their own reticence about their feelings, existing relationships, etc.) tend to keep them apart. Thus, his characters become representations of the objet petit a: they are the objects the other characters desire, but, because they are unattainable, they are not the objects which this desire is enacted upon. Instead, the desire is deferred onto a supplement.

Characters in Wong’s films frequently displace their longings onto living spaces. In Fallen Angels (1995) the Agent (Michelle Reis) cleans the Killer’s (Leon Lai) apartment and digs through his trash, stating that “a person’s trash can tell you a lot about them.” In an especially frank scene in the same film, the Agent masturbates on his bed, explicitly channeling her sexual desire while in his environment, even though he remains absent. In In the Mood for Love (2000), after Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) has left Hong Kong for a job in Singapore, Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) follows him and enters his apartment while he is gone, lying in his bed and smoking one of his cigarettes. It is also worth noting that while visiting Mo-wan’s apartment, Li-zhen reclaims a pair of her slippers which he had taken with him, themselves a supplementary object onto which Mo-wan had deferred his desire.

Chungking Express provides the quintessential example of the living space as supplement. In the film Faye (Faye Wong), an elfin woman who works at a food stand, admires Cop 663 (Tony Leung) from afar. Afraid to admit any of her feelings, she acquires a set of keys to his apartment, which she begins to invade daily while he is at work. She spends her time redecorating, staking her own claim to the space, thereby forming a connection with Cop 663, though this connection is still clearly mediated by the supplement.

Characters’ desires are not always deferred onto inanimate objects or spaces; they are frequently deferred onto other characters who are not the original desired object. In Chungking Express this can be seen in the night shared by Zhiwu and the drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin). While Zhiwu drinks his sorrows away in a bar, he swears to fall in love with the next woman who walks in. That woman is, of course, the smuggler. Zhiwu’s arbitrary decision to pursue a random woman shows a willingness, even an eagerness, to find an alternative outlet for his desire for his ex-girlfriend.

This deferral of desire onto other people is especially prominent in Ashes of Time (1994) and 2046. Ashes of Time Redux (the re-edited and re-scored 2008 version of the original 2002 film) presents a veritable web of characters connected not to the individuals they desire, but to individuals whom they have taken as supplements. The Blind Swordsman (Tony Leung) yearns for the wife (Carina Lau) he left behind, though his wife yearns for Huang Yaoshi (Tony Lueng Ka-fai). Knowing he may not return to his wife alive, the Blind Swordsman shares a kiss with a young farm girl he meets. Huang Yaoshi desires a character simply credited as The Woman (Maggie Cheung). The Woman and the film’s main protagonist, Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), desire one another, but were torn apart by an earlier misunderstanding. Huang Yaoshi is also desired by Murong Yin. Since he cannot have The Woman, Huang Yaoshi toys with Murong Yin and leads her on. When she in turn realizes she cannot have Huang, she and Ouyang Feng spend a night together holding and caressing one another while they each imagine the other is someone else; Ouyang imagines Murong is The Woman, while Murong imagines Ouyang is Huang—in this bravura scene, Wong intercuts footage of all four characters: Murong, The Woman, Huang, and Ouyang Feng, all holding and caressing each other, thereby blurring the distinction between fantasy and reality.

The above passage was likely a labor to read and decipher. If so, that confusion is certainly similar to the confusion experienced watching the movie for the first time: the sprawling cast of characters and their numerous connections are nearly impossible to clearly trace with a single viewing. What is clear during a first viewing is that all of these characters are romantically frustrated, their desires displaced onto other individuals they do not truly want.

2046 is likely Wong’s most layered and complex film to date, and it certainly presents the densest series of supplements for the characters’ desires. Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) is left heartbroken by his unrequited love for Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung). He attempts to move into room 2046 in a hotel, as the number reminds him of the old hotel room he rented out so he and Li-zhen could have clandestine meetings. This supplement fails, though, as Mo-wan ends up in room 2047. However, more important than the room is the series of romances he has, each clearly an attempt to capture what he feels for Li-zhen. He falls for a mysterious gambler known initially as the Black Widow (Gong Li). Eventually, it is revealed that her name, too, is Su Li-zhen. When this relationship fails, he starts a romance with Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang), his neighbor (who inherits room 2046). When this too fails, he turns to his platonic relationship with Wang Jing-Wen (Faye Wong), with whom he composes a martial arts serial, just as he did with the first Su Li-zhen. Each of these relationships fails to fulfill his desire, and so another supplement is created: Chow Mo-wan displaces his yearnings onto his sci-fi, soft-core erotica series, also titled “2046.” The characters in this serial go through a similar process of supplementation; the main character fell in love with a woman he could not be with, and as a result of his loneliness and thwarted desire, he instead turns to an android. Thus, it can be seen that 2046 presents a labyrinthine network of supplementary relationships.

There is also clearly a meta component to 2046, given that the number serves as the name both for Chow’s serial and for the film itself. The film is Wong’s own journey into his past and his memories, and it plays, as some critics noted, as a sort of career compendium. It is a film that stands on its own but that, more than any of his other works, is enriched and deepened with a comprehensive knowledge of his output. Thus, we can also assume that — as the serial is a supplement for Chow, a supplement of all those failed relationships it references — 2046 is a supplement for Wong, a supplement of all those previous films it references.

It should be noted that, of all the films discussed, only Chungking Express seems to offer an ending that can be read in a particularly upbeat way; the film seems to imply there is hope that Cop 663 and Faye may end up together. Conversely, almost none of the characters in Ashes of Time Redux, Fallen Angels, In the Mood for Love, and 2046 end up with the individuals they wish to be with. They find supplements to displace their desires onto, but, of course, these supplements are not their objets petit a. It is worth stressing that part of Evans’s aforementioned definition of objet petit a is that it “can never be attained” (125). In fact, it is perhaps this very unattainability that makes it the object of desire. The supplements are the objects that the “desire tends toward,” but are not the “cause of the desire” (125). The causes of the characters’ desires remain elusive. Su Li-zhen will forever be out of Chow Mo-wan’s grasp, just as the Agent and the Killer of Fallen Angels could never be together (the few shots they both appear in show them seated, not facing each other, filmed using an ultra-wide-angle lens that exaggerates the distance between them). Wong’s characters’ desires are constantly deferred onto supplements. But these supplements are doomed to failure, and thus the supplements must then be supplemented in turn.

This unattainability, this constant need for supplementation, as we have seen with 2046, manifests itself in even more fascinating ways when we consider the broader structure of Wong’s works. If 2046 demonstrates that there is intertextual supplementation in Wong’s films, then Chungking Express illustrates a level of intratextual supplementation. In Chungking Express the two stories are not intercut or linked by the plot in any meaningful way. Instead, it is simply the thematic elements that link them. Wong tells one story, wraps it up, and then tells the other. It is almost as though the second story must supplement the first, which failed to articulate what was desired. What both of these films help make clear is that we cannot simply look into the details of Wong’s plot for supplementation and deferred desire. It exists within the very mechanics of his storytelling and filmmaking.

In the Mood for Intertexts

Again, as with the stylistic similarities, it should be noted that the outlined thematic similarities do not, in the strictest sense, make Wong’s films intertexts. Instead, what makes his films so deeply intertextual are smaller recurrent motifs: specific shots, pieces of music, character names, etc.

Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, and 2046 are frequently referred to as a “loose trilogy,” and “loose” seems to me the operative word. Indeed, all three films feature a character named Su Li-zhen played by Maggie Cheung, but there is little to link the Su Li-zhen from Days of Being Wild with the Su Li-zhen of In the Mood for Love (nothing of the plot in Days factors into Mood). Similarly, Tony Leung appears in the cryptic coda of Days of Being Wild, but it’s never made clear if this character is the Chow Mo-wan of In the Mood for Love and 2046 (nor is it perfectly evident that Chow Mo-wan is the same in these two films: while the Chow Mo-wan of 2046 seems to have lived through the events of Mood, he acts so differently that it is hard to believe they are truly the same individual). A character named Mimi/Lulu (Carina Lau) also appears in both Days of Being Wild and 2046 and seems to be the same character (the details of her past articulated in 2046 line up with the events of Days of Being Wild), but Chow Mo-wan speaks of his personal experiences with Mimi/Lulu, which seem to have happened “between” films as we never see Lau and Leung interact in Days. This is a section of their lives we are not privy to, something we must imagine. Interestingly, Mimi/Lulu has no recollection of Mo-wan herself, and the events that transpired between them are as foreign and elusive to her as they are to the audience.

Thus, what we are left with is not a “trilogy” but a group of films that echo one another, opening themselves up to a sort-of associative “play.” Events cannot be rigidly connected, but instead, the audience is invited to free associate, to discover where the contours of these films align and amplify one another. There is not a rigid structure of plot, but instead, the films bounce off of one another, changing shape as we play them over in our heads and consider them together. This amorphous, ever-changing structure is much more evocative of the processes of the human mind and the way it connects ideas: reality is filtered, and concrete, tangible connections are splintered and distorted. Ideas and connections exist in traces, and indeed can only be traced, not chiseled in stone.

Similar “echoes” exist between Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, which makes sense because one of the two main plots of Fallen Angels was originally meant to be part of Chungking Express. In both films, Takeshi Kaneshiro plays a character named He Zhiwu. Zhiwu in Fallen Angels even informs us at one point that he is mute because he ate a can of expired pineapple — a clear “in-joke” that refers to Zhiwu’s mass consumption of expired pineapple in Chungking Express. However, these two characters cannot literally be the same person, as the Zhiwu in Fallen Angels is an ex-con, while the Zhiwu in Chungking Express is a cop. Again, Wong is opening his films up to more organic associations rather than simply literal connections between plots.

Even films that seem like outliers in Wong’s ouevre feature small moments that intimately connect them to some of his other films. Consider Ashes of Time, far removed from Wong’s other films in place and time: there is a startling and very brief shot of The Woman rushing to the right of the screen and out of the frame that sharply recalls the smuggler’s final exit in Chungking Express (it is worth noting that Chungking Express was shot while Wong was on hiatus from Ashes of Time). My Blueberry Nights, Wong’s first English-language film and one of the few to take place outside China, also features striking echoes: “Yumeji’s Theme,” a piece of music made famous by its constant repetition in In The Mood for Love, is used again, and one of the characters is named Sue Lynne, which bears a striking phonetic resemblance to Su Li-zhen. “Yumeji’s Theme” is also featured in a Lacoste commercial directed by Wong.

Philips Electronics also commissioned Wong to make an advertisement. He directed a short film to advertise a new brand of television they were producing. The resulting work, There’s Only One Sun (2007) might have been imagined and penned by the Chow Mo-wan of 2046, as it bears a striking resemblance in art direction and costume design to the sci-fi sections of that film. To further cement this relationship, Wong again uses Connie Francis’s “Siboney,” and features a shot of a high heel which lights up on the bottom walking down a hall of deeply saturated color. This shot is nearly identical to a shot of one of the android’s heels walking down a hall in 2046. It’s easy to imagine that There’s Only One Sun is one of the chapters in Mo-wan’s serial. Everywhere, echoes and parallels surface, and the films reverberate off of one another.

Between the Texts

Now it must be asked what happens when we let the three ideas described above — Wong’s films as psychological landscapes evocative of the human mind, supplementation and deferral of desire as central themes, and all of the films intimately and intricately connected — bounce off one another, shape one another, just as Wong’s films do.

This process shows that Wong’s films can be read as the fevered imaginings / memories / dreams / fantasies of some unseen protagonist, likely a man tormented by an unrequited (or at least unconsummated) love for a woman, a woman perhaps named Su Li-zhen. I invoke an unseen protagonist and not Wong himself only because Wong’s biography stands rather at odds with the content of his films (he is married with a child — though this certainly does not mean he has not experience deferred desire as a basic human feeling). This unseen protagonist can be read as a persona Wong assumes, as a poet takes on a speaker. Though, of course, we could argue that such personae are themselves forms of supplements.

The very structure of Wong’s filmography and working methods demonstrate the need for supplementation. Wong is notorious for filming massive amounts of footage that remain unused. He films, it fails to satiate his artistic desire, and so he films some more, the new footage supplementing the old. Even after he has a final cut, it’s hardly final. The version of 2046 that played at Cannes was notoriously “unfinished,” and the cut released to theaters was drastically different than the cut that showed at the festival. Ashes of Time was supplemented by Ashes of Time Redux some 14 years after it was initially released. But the inescapable similarity and sameness of all Wong’s films reveals that each new film is really a supplement for the ones that came before it. Each is a new imagining of the same story. That Wong’s working methods so perfectly mirror and crystallize his thematic concerns is central to his success, and is what makes him one of the most brilliant of filmmakers. And yet only one critic that I have come across has hinted at this. David Bordwell states elegantly that

[Wong] enjoys conjuring up one variation after another, multiplying just barely different avatars, and draping in mist the notion of any original text. His films’ basic constructive principle — the constant repetitions that create parallels and slight differences, loops of vaguely familiar images and sounds and situations — gets enacted in his very mode of production. (“Ashes”)

As beautiful and insightful as that observation is, it appeared only in Bordwell’s blog. Hopefully this essay has shed more light on this most rewarding aspect of Wong’s cinema.

Again and again with Wong’s work, we arrive at the processes of the human mind. Memory is perhaps the primary supplement: we are struck by an event that leaves an indelible impression upon us, and we spend the rest of our lives wrestling with that event in our minds. We play it over and over again, and each time it is subjected to the filter of our memory it comes out a little bit different — close to the original event but not the original event. Or we may fictionalize it in our art (as Mo-wan and Wong do) or in our fantasies, or we may dream about it. But it stays with us, and our mind creates new iterations of it constantly. Thus, Wong’s films taken altogether provide us with a compelling psychological landscape (whether it is that of Wong’s mind or an imagined protagonist’s), each film a slightly new terrain, but each clearly a part of the same psychic ecology.

Works Cited

Bordwell, David. “Ashes to Ashes Redux.” Observations on Film Art. 18 Dec. 2008. Web. 10 June 2010.

———. “Bergman, Antonioni, and the Stubborn Stylists.” Observations on Film Art. 11 Aug. 2007. Web. 10 June 2010.

Evans, Dylan. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.

Lee, Nathan. “Elusive Objects of Desire.” Film Comment. Aug. 2005. Web. 3 Feb. 2010.