Bright Lights Film Journal

“Every Man and Woman Is an Island”: Modern Discontent in the Films of Wong Kar-wai

“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.

In his book The Information Bomb, Paul Virilio presents a unique conception of globalization that helps explain modern dissatisfaction. Rather than defining globalization in economic or political terms, he presents a classification that falls somewhere between geophysical and technological: “What is being revealed here are the beginnings of the ‘end of space” of a small planet held in suspension in the electronic ether of our modern means of telecommunication” (Virilio 7). For him, globalization represents a colonization of not only physical space, but electronic space as well. He reduces globalization to two primary aspects: “On the one hand, the extreme reduction of distances which ensues from temporal compression of transport and transmissions; on the other, the current general spread of tele-surveillance. A new vision of a world that is constantly ‘tele-present’ twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week” (Virilio 13 — emphasis his). In his films, Wong shows that certain modernized countries have been able to flourish economically because they have embraced this kind of globalization, but with powerful emotional consequences for their people.

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.

Advances in telecommunication technologies have also substantially contributed to the contemporary sense of geographical and temporal compression. The best example of this in Wong’s films is the telephone. His characters constantly talk on phones, with often dissatisfying results. Jeremy dials all the Memphis diners in hopes of locating a woman in My Blueberry Nights, and Lai calls his estranged father in a moment of inspiration, but is promptly hung up on in Happy Together. However, telecommunication technology is more than just another avenue for modern affective discontent to manifest — it is a primary contributor. People no longer travel to experience the world; they can access it through computer screens or cell phone signals whose presence and influence in contemporary industrialized culture cannot be overstated. “At least in principle, every point on earth is now instantly accessible from any other point on earth” (Manovich 172). Users can now instantly access and interact with the world in ways that subvert notions of mystery and wonder. “In Virilio’s reading, these technologies collapse physical distances, uprooting familiar patterns of perception that ground our culture and politics” (Manovich 172). Post-industrial advancements in transportation and telecommunication have led to a cultural paradigm shift. Wong’s films simply illustrate the affective repercussions of these technologies which “destroy objects’ [traditional] relation to each other” (Manovich 175).

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.

Chungking Express

Chungking Express introduces many of the essential themes in Wong’s body of work through both its content and style. An early monologue spoken by the character He Qiwu in Chungking Express provides access to a concern that permeates all of Wong’s films: “This is the closest we ever got. Just 0.01 of a centimeter between us.” He communicates a central topic in all of the director’s works, “proximity without reciprocity; that is to say, how we can be physically close to a situation or to a person without there being any intimacy or knowledge” (Abbas 43). Qiwu is the main protagonist in the first of two narratives about lovelorn police officers. He is initially exposed to the viewer through the use of high-speed motion effects as an individual running through the streets of Hong Kong trying to capture a criminal. These quick-cut, frenetic shots of an urban jungle teeming with people reflect the speed and proximity that characterize modern living. Wong eventually slows the camera down, but not to allow the spectator to catch his or her breath. He freezes this fast-paced sequence when Qiwu brushes past his future fling to inform the viewer that this urban metropolis may provide close encounters for individuals physically, but there will always be a space that cannot be transgressed. Contemporary society has led to a “skewing of affective relations” (Abbas 43). People and information can now move at an unprecedented speed, but the consequences of this are confusion and alienation. It is no coincidence that most of Wong’s characters are singles in their twenties or thirties. This is the age demographic most affected by these developments in post-industrial society. Qiwu embodies Wong’s “sentiment of modern man” (LaLanne 22). He is a lone individual without community, unable to fully connect with that which he desires.

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.

Qiwu consoles himself over his recent breakup with a woman named May by buying a can of pineapples with the expiration date of May 1st — his birthday as well as the one-month anniversary of the former couple’s breakup. Eventually, he acknowledges the finality of his beloved’s departure and visits a bar where he vows to fall in love with the next woman who enters. This strategy is a testament to the haphazard nature of contemporary love. He encounters the woman with a blonde wig seen at the beginning of the film, but even this ends in dissatisfaction for Qiwu. She falls asleep on his bed, and he is forced to distract himself with books, movies, and (again) food. Qiwu’s story ends appropriately. He receives a message on his answering machine from the same woman wishing him a simple happy birthday. Qiwu is ecstatic. Wong’s films suggest that “modern communication enabling technologies will only heighten your sense of desolation by making you more keenly aware of the fact that no one is trying to call” (Villella). Exceptions to this general rule, no matter how slight and mundane, provide the most joyous moments for these characters. This police officer’s tale “does achieve a modest happy ending of sorts — or at least one that is the most that can be expected in this fallen world” (Brunette 47).

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.

There is a scene in Chungking Express where Cop 663 is drinking a cup of coffee in the background. Faye stands to his far left, resting her head on the store counter. They move in slow-motion, while in the foreground a crowd frantically bustles through the streets of Hong Kong. High-speed motion effects are used for the passing people, rendering them as indistinguishable blurs to the viewer. This juxtaposes with Cop 633 and Faye, who are not only clearly visible, but seem to be operating in a completely different temporality as those around them. This contrast highlights their alienation from the world around them. They are together in their isolation, but not in a sense that their solitude can be minimized by each other. Neither character looks at the other; their vision is too deeply focused on the chaos occurring in the distance.

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

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.

“My job is simple. I visit some ‘friends’ once in a while. I don’t know any of them. And I’m not interested in them either. Because they’ll soon be gone forever.” These are the words spoken by an assassin dispatcher early in Fallen Angels. Her complete disregard for others is a frighteningly common modern trend. How can people who feel alienated from their own experiences and environment feel obligation for another? The only human being that this character seems to care for is her business partner, and even that seems to be merely erotic. Most of these characters are pathetic and joyless. The 6.8 mm lens used throughout this film accentuates the desperation felt by these individuals. It is an extremely wide lens that forces the actors to stand close to each other while still giving the illusion that they are far away (Brunette 62). It is a subtle effect masterfully used by Wong that enhances the film and its themes.

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.

In the Mood for Love is the story of Chow Mo-Won and So Lai-zhen, newly admitted next-door neighbors. Each character has a workaholic spouse whom they, and the viewer, rarely see. When Chow’s wife and So’s husband are shown, it is usually from behind or a distance. Their faces are never shown, giving them an anonymity that makes them stand-ins for other significant others that the spectator can imagine. It is not the individual characters that matter, but the generalized marriage dynamic in the film.

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.”

In the Mood for Love illustrates another unique phenomenon related to modern affective discontent: the privileging of simulation over the real. Chow and So first begin their role playing as a means to figure out which of their significant others initiated the affair. Later they go out to eat, and Chow orders food liked by So’s husband, while So orders a favorite dish of Chow’s wife. The film reaches a point where it becomes impossible to tell when the characters are expressing their true feelings or just acting. In a crucial scene midway through the film, So is shown confronting what appears to be her husband about the affair. The shot is framed in such a way that the viewer does not see the man’s face, but the subject matter and intensity of the conversation suggest it is her husband. However, after his admission of the affair, she breaks down and the viewer sees Chow comfort her. This Baudrillardian tendency to show hyperreal responses to simulated situations is another phenomenon that only manifests in late modernity with the growth of advanced technology. Though these technological innovations are locatable in all of Wong’s films, it is only in 2046, the sequel to In the Mood for Love, that they become a principal presence.


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.

Music always plays an important role in Wong’s films, but it serves a unique function here — especially when compared to the music played during In the Mood for Love. Wong’s earlier film is dominated by two songs, “Aquellos Ojos Verdes” by Nat King Cole and “Yumeji’s Theme” by Shigeru Umebayashi. These songs are played several times throughout the film with very little variation in the selection of measures. This reflects Chow’s primary focus on So, with whom he engages in repetitive dates and acts of role play. 2046 utilizes a varied soundtrack, many of the songs originals, to reflect Chow’s transformation into a playboy who beds many women.

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.

Happy Together

Happy Together marks a unique point in Wong’s oeuvre. Not only is it his first film to take place outside of Hong Kong, it is his first to portray a gay relationship. It is telling that the same difficulties that plague couples in Wong’s other films are equally pronounced here. Sexual orientation and location do not seem to mitigate the problems posed by high-income industrialized countries. Attempts to escape merely solidify the pervasive extent of the modern affective crisis.

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.

There are two repeated shots in the film. One is a time-lapse shot characteristic of Wong’s films. He shows Buenos Aires traffic moving swiftly and uniformly as the day transforms from dusk to night. This shot highlights the unchanging nature of daily living in which quick, anonymous transportation has a dominant presence. It is also noteworthy that in this shot the two items foregrounded are advertisements, suggesting that industry and speed are the most important aspects of a culture. The other duplicated shot bookends the film. The viewer is presented with an aerial shot of Iguazu Falls, once at the beginning of the film and once near the end. This doubling furthers the film’s theme of immutability. Equally significant is the content of the shot. This is the only representation of pure nature in the film. With the exception of the camera capturing the footage, there is no human element to be found in this alienating shot. The distance and extended length of the aerial shot combined with the abyssal quality of the falls cascading to a point the human eye cannot penetrate have an uncomfortable effect on the viewer. The juxtaposition that the film ends on, between this depiction of nature and fast-paced Hong Kong city transportation, highlights just how familiar and accepted the latter is to contemporary viewers.

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

Wong’s dominant themes of loneliness and emotional pain also play a prominent role in his most recent film My Blueberry Nights, but there are also curious differences between this film and his previous work. Most obviously, this is Wong’s first English film and the first to take place in America. However, as in Happy Together, the change in locale offers little relief from what appears to be a malaise experienced by all first world countries. Wong takes the viewer through three distinct American regions in the film, introducing several characters experiencing similar problems.

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.

Elizabeth’s relationship with Jeremy proves to be the most optimistic in Wong’s films. They initially bond by commiserating over their lost loves. This is noteworthy because it presents the idea that the best relationships are fostered by the acceptance of shared discontent. This foundation blossoms into an intimate friendship; she visits the café nightly for conversation with Jeremy and a slice of blueberry pie. However, her emotional distress over her ex-boyfriend proves to be overwhelming, and she flees New York City before romance between the two characters can develop. Three hundred days later, she returns to the café. In classic Hollywood fashion, the characters kiss and the end credits appear. This may seem like a happy ending, but in the context of Wong’s other work as well as the rest of the characters presented in the film, the prospect that this cheerful moment will endure is questionable at best. New York City is a densely populated landscape similar to Hong Kong, and it carries the same difficulties. The viewer is forced to assume that like the many jobs Elizabeth takes over the course of the film, Jeremy is simply another distraction to keep her mind off of her former boyfriend and a more generalized sadness. Their relationship will probably also be temporary.

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.”

Works Cited

Abbas, Ackbar, Jean-Marc LaLanne, David Martinez, and Jimmy Ngai. Wong Kar-wai. Ed. Daniele Riviere. Paris: Dis Voir, 1987. Print.

Andrew, Dudley. “Time Zones and Jet Lag: The Flows and Phases of World Cinema.” World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives.Ed. Natasa Durovicova and Kathleen Newman. New York: Routledge, 2009. 59-89. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work on Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction.” Ed. Leitch, Vincent B.The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton, 2001. 1166-86. Print.

Brunette, Peter. Contemporary Film Directors: Wong Kar-wai. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005. Print.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2002. Print.

McDonough, Gary, and Cindy Wong. Global Hong Kong. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.

Siegel, Marc. “The Intimate Spaces of Wong Kar-wai.” At Full Speed: Hong Kong Cinema in a Borderless World. Ed. Esther C. M. Yau. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. 277-94. Print.

Teo, Stephen. Wong Kar-Wai. London: BFI, 2006. Print.

Villella, Fiona. “The Cinema of Wong Kar-wai — A ‘Writing Game.'” Senses of Cinema. 2001. Accessed April 24, 2010. Web.

Virilio, Paul. The Information Bomb. London: Verso, 2005. Print.