A woman––who is never given a name––takes a shaky draw on her cigarette. Wisps of smoke curl over the hazy form of a man who sits behind her. “Are we still partners?” she asks him. A pause; and then the quiet hum of silence is quickly cut down by his voice, amplified. His narration takes over, the shot ending with his words: “Partners should never get emotionally involved.” Music erupts, the bright hissing and percussion of drums. Bright red honzi glide across a burgundy background. The clicks of the woman’s high heels fall into rhythm, transitioning into a ceaseless six cuts: each shot saturated by the hazy glow of low-key lighting, the vibrant yellows of a subway station, the slight unsteadiness of the handheld camera, and the distortion of the lens.
When I was given the prompt “What makes a great director,” Fallen Angels’ (dir. Wong Kar-wai, 1995) inundation of sensation, as described in the scene above, immediately came to mind. This sensory overload quickly attracted me to Wong’s films; and it is likely this same impulse which caused much of the scholarship on Wong’s cinema to obsess over his aesthetics. Wong is often conceived of as an auteur, joining a long list of (mostly male) directors––a designation which I believe limits the way we approach film and filmmaking.
François Truffaut first laid the groundwork for what Andrew Sarris, film critic and writer for The Village Voice, popularized in the U.S. as “auteur theory”. Truffaut proposed a reconceptualization of French cinema (in the now-famous Cahiers du Cinéma film journal, in an essay titled “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema”); the directors’ personal vision was to shine through the “aesthetic form.” Sarris’s reverence of auteur theory as an evaluative framework for cinema was adamantly opposed by Pauline Kael, a critic writing for the New Yorker. Kael’s criticism, along with many other feminist critics, revolves around the theory’s disregard for the female vision. There is no doubt that the film industry is plagued with sexism––and auteurs’ proposed “greatness” is often a sharp correlation with their male sex. The association of a film’s greatness with its directors, wildly undervalues the collaborative work of the writers, cinematographers, actors and all those involved in the film’s production.
I bring up this critique of auteur theory not to disprove Wong’s creative vision. Indeed, for most of his work, he has acted as not just director but writer, and at times, producer. His films do have common themes, visual strategies and plots. However, common interpretations of Wong as an “auteur” fixate on surface level visuality, regarding him as primarily an “aesthete, postmodernist, [or] allegorist”. In the same vein, critics have dismissed his films––particularly Fallen Angels (1995) and Chungking Express (1994)––for his supposed preoccupation with visuals and lack of substance. Accordingly, his work has been described akin to MTV music programs, interpreted as allegories for Hong Kong politics, and vectors of innovative visual strategies. While there is truth to these descriptions, I believe they are too reductive. I’d like to draw on Gary Bettison’s conception of Wong’s “aesthetic of disturbance” to frame his films. This framing allows room to depart from a primary focus on surface aesthetics, while also crediting the work of his collaborators. It also allows us to appreciate Wong’s skill as a director: capturing that which is fleeting.
For the sake of brevity, I am focusing on Chungking Express and Fallen Angels––two of his films which differ in tone, but share overt intertextual references and stylistic choices. Constant disturbances, at every level of the films––the images, the plot, the narrative structure, and the editing––result in an experience of acute temporality. Everything is fleeting, which forces viewers to stay “cognitively alert”; in Bettison’s words, watching his films is an experience which “exhilarates and exasperates.” Wong’s characters are in constant states of desire––longing for company, consolation, love, a new life. Their desires never come to fruition. Connections are missed by a fraction of space; relationships begin and end with neither anticipation nor closure. He Qiwu’s narration in Chungking Express best illustrates this sense of unfulfillment: “That was the closest we ever got––just 0.01cm between us. I knew nothing about her. Six hours later, she fell in love with another man.”
The viewer’s experience of temporality is compounded by the way “improvisation cuts across the narrative.” One thing I appreciate about Wong’s approach to directing (and writing), is that he begins his movies without a finished script. Not only does this enhance the episodic nature of the narrative, but it gives creative freedom to the actors involved. Tony Leung, an actor who appears in almost all of Wong’s films (including Chungking Express, in which he plays Cop 663), said of his experience working for him: “He [Wong Kar-wai] gives actors a lot of freedom, but those spaces are really abstract. You don’t know what’s happening in them.” Wong’s insistence on having his actors work in this abstract space (in which, according to Leung, “you can be anyone,”) allows for them to bring their own artistry to their characters, and to the films. Chungking Express would not be what it is without Faye Wong’s awkward charisma, or Brigitte Lin’s sharp air of sophistication. Fallen Angels would be greatly lacking without Takeshi Kaneshiro’s childlike demeanor. The abstract space also gives room for the accidental; not so coincidentally, Wong’s scripts are playful, full of charm and wit. Even Fallen Angels, which feels gloomy and oppressive compared to Chungking Express, its lighter counterpart, is full of absurdist humor.
Wong’s partnerships with cinematographer Christopher Doyle (his most well-known collaborator) and editor/designer William Chang (known for Maggie Cheung’s iconic cheongsams in In The Mood For Love) have helped shape his filmography’s distinct sense of locale––one which is full in its atmosphere and character, but is fragmented and out-of-focus. Chungking Express and Fallen Angels are both set in Hong Kong, but the use of step-printing (duplicating film frames to achieve a slow-motion effect), dynamic camera movements, quick cuts, and low-key lighting interrupts viewers from developing a comprehensive sense of place.
Even the two films’ narrative structures portray what Sight and Sound’s Tony Rayns eloquently describes as the “meta-physical sense of time at work: dilating, stretching, lurching, dragging, speeding by (emphasis added).” Both films are divided in two acts, each with little to no narrative connection to each other. Chungking’s Express’s first act transitions to the next with a brief encounter between the first act’s He Qiwu and the second act’s Faye; Fallen Angels transitions with just a cut on action.
I’d like to end this piece with Wong’s words, because I think they capture the essence of what makes Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, and Wong’s creative touch so great: “In Chinese there is a term which is very difficult to translate into English, it is something like ‘chances.’ It means: Why am I sitting here having this interview with you instead of somebody else? Why should we meet here? This is about chances, and I think all my films are about chances.”
[*Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, and In The Mood for Love are all available to stream on the Criterion Channel. The New York Film Festival is hosting a virtual screening of In The Mood for Love on September 28th. For more information about this screening (and an upcoming 4k retrospective of Wong’s cinema), visit this link.]