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Wong Kar-Wai traces this immensely exciting director's perennial themes of time, love, and loss, and examines the political implications of his films, especially concerning the handover of former British colony Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China.
This book is the first in any language to cover all of Wong's work, from his first film, As Tears Go By, to his most recent, the still unreleased 2046. It also includes his best-known, highly honored films, Chungking Express, Happy Together, and above all, In the Mood for Love. Most importantly, Peter Brunette describes the ways in which Wong's supremely visual films attempt to create a new form of cinema by relying on stunning, suggestive visual images and audio tracks to tell their story, rather than on traditional notions of character, dialogue, and plot. The question of Wong Kar-wai's use of genre film techniques in art films is also explored in depth.
|Tears, time, and love : the films of Wong Kar-Wai||1|
|As tears go by||1|
|Days of being wild||16|
|Ashes of time||30|
|In the mood for love||86|
|Interviews with Wong Kar-Wai||113|
As Tears Go By
In 1988, when Wong Kar-wai directed his first film, As Tears Go By, he had already been working in the Hong Kong film industry for a number of years, principally as a scriptwriter. The project was initially given to Wong as a star vehicle for Andy Lau, a popular singer at the time (Carbon 36), initiating a pattern that has continued throughout the director's career. In an interview with the French journal Positif, whose critics were early supporters of Wong's films, the director explained that As Tears Go By was originally intended to be the second film in a trilogy: "The first part hasn't (yet) been filmed. The third is Final Victory, directed by Patrick Tam [and written by Wong], when the gangster is in his thirties and realizes that he hasn't been successful. In As Tears Go By, the second part, he's in his twenties. In the first part, which would have been called 'Hero for a Day,' he would be an adolescent" (Ciment, "Entretien" 40). Given the fact that the gangster hero dies at the end of As Tears Go By, however, the narrative logic of Wong's proposed trilogy is not entirely clear.
In this putative middle film, Ah Wah (Andy Lau) is ayoung gangster who is torn between emotional commitments to his irresponsible friend, Fly (Jacky Cheung), and his cousin, Ah Ngor (Maggie Cheung), with whom he falls in love when she comes for a visit. After numerous confrontations with assorted bad guys that explosively punctuate the sparse narrative, Wah leaves the thug life to pursue the healthier and more fulfilling relationship that Ngor offers him. Inevitably, Fly pulls him back to Mongkok, an unsavory part of Kowloon, into the dangerously macho world of honor and betrayal that he is trying to escape. Fly is intent upon making a name for himself within triad circles by assassinating an informer held by the police, while Wah is just as intent on protecting his "little brother." At the end of the film, both tragically meet their deaths.
Wong told another French critic that he had remarkable freedom in the making of As Tears Go By: "At the time, because of the success of John Woo's A Better Tomorrow (1986), gangster films were doing very well and, as a new director, I wanted to do one too, but different from what I had seen in Hong Kong. I wanted to do a film about young gangsters. And since I knew the producer very well, he gave me lots of freedom" (Reynaud, "Entretien" 37).
This focus on young gangsters has led many critics to exaggerate the connection between Wong's first film and the American director Martin Scorsese's feature debut, Mean Streets (1973). Wong discussed this apparent linkage with Michel Ciment: "I think the Italians have lots of things in common with the Chinese: their values, their sense of friendship, their Mafia, their pasta, their mother. When I saw Mean Streets for the first time, it was a shock because I had the impression that the story could just as easily have taken place in Hong Kong." However, Wong went on to say, he actually only borrowed the Robert DeNiro character from Scorsese's film, since the other characters came from his own experience (Ciment, "Entretien" 41).
According to the director, the source of the specific details of As Tears Go By lies in his spending night after night in bars with a gangster friend. "We knew someone who didn't know a word of English but who had a British girlfriend who worked in a bar: she kept leaving him and then coming right back. They were a strange couple who didn't communicate at all. That also inspired the character in the film. So I spent three or four years of my youth drinking, fighting, and driving fast cars" (Ciment, "Entretien" 41).
The central critical debate around As Tears Go By-in retrospect, of course, since the film was barely noticed by western critics when it first appeared in 1988-concerns its relation to the dominant tradition of Hong Kong genre films. Is it primarily another example of a generic gangster film, in the tradition made famous by John Woo and others? Or is it an altogether new beast, an art film from Hong Kong that bears the unmistakable imprint of an auteur interested in moving beyond genre?
Each side has its partisans. In the genre camp, David Bordwell has argued, rather implausibly, that it is the generic origins of Wong's films that "have international appeal in a period when directors are encouraged to make crossovers. However idiosyncratic Wong's films are, they take popular norms as points of departure" (Planet 270). Generically speaking, it's clear that some elements of Wong's first film are outright borrowings from previous Hong Kong movies. For example, as Bordwell points out, the café killing, "with bodies writhing against taut plastic curtains," seems to hark back to Ringo Lam's City on Fire (270). Nevertheless, it's a stretch to claim that Wong's links to genre are the primary attraction for his growing international audience, an audience that seems to especially appreciate his later films for their art-film qualities. Those art-film lovers who have come to deeply admire his work are not necessarily fans of more traditional Hong Kong films.
If we are intent on inscribing Wong's films within a generic rubric, it is important to remember that they share generic links with other films, from other countries, that were made long before John Woo or Tsui Hark came on the scene. As the Austrian critic Andreas Ungerböck has pointed out, As Tears Go By is indeed part of a genre-"gangster melodrama" -that goes back at least as far as Hollywood in the thirties (25). Ungerböck correctly insists that "gangsters in love, as everyone knows since Howard Hawks' Scarface (1932), are careless and distracted. And Ah Wah is tired, tired of the fighting and tired of hanging on. And in this he doesn't at all follow the larger-than-life heroes of John Woo" (25).
Chuck Stephens, an American critic, represents the antigeneric camp. He has insisted that Wong's "interest in formulas-other than the one he's in the process of inventing himself-is virtually nonexistent" (15). Going further than Stephens, J. Carbon believes that even an early film like As Tears Go By represents the complete repudiation of Woo's film noir heroes, who are based on the classic Chinese heroes trapped by the rigors of a masculine code that pushes them to masochism. For Carbon, the film "turns its back in an insolent manner on the tradition of the local heroic cinema" (36).
Carbon overstates his case-Wong's film is clearly enamored of its romantic gangster hero, most of whose problems do, in fact, stem from a masochistic masculine code-but he is right to claim that Woo and Wong differ most obviously in what might be called the "femininized" nature of the latter's films. As Carbon rather dramatically puts it, "As Tears Go By is a film that dares to be tender, a film of hidden tenderness made by a hugely timid man, a poet who wants to make of women superb and fragile beings, idealized incarnations of the traditional Chinese woman (perhaps his sole concession to classicism). Where John Woo imposes the idea of a yang cinema, Wong will always definitively be yin" (36).
To some extent, this debate is entirely beside the point, because, as the director explained to Anthony Kaufman, the division between art and genre film is hardly clear: "In Hong Kong in the '60s, going to cinema was a big thing. We have cinemas for Hollywood films, local productions, European cinema, but there was no [label of] art film at that time. Even Fellini was treated as a commercial film. So as a kid, I spent a lot of time with my mother in the cinemas. And we didn't know which is an art film, which is a commercial film, we just liked to watch the cinema."
Nevertheless, critical writing requires distinctions, and it makes sense to see Wong as still thoroughly involved in generic filmmaking in As Tears Go By, yet clearly at the same time embarked on a counter-trajectory that will come to fruition in succeeding films, when he begins to leave genre definitively behind. Wong himself signaled a clear division between this first film and what was to follow in an interview with Ungerböck recorded some years later: "I could have continued making films like As Tears Go By for the rest of eternity but I wanted to do something more personal after that. I wanted to break the structure of the average Hong Kong film" (26).
Despite Carbon's claim that As Tears Go By is resolutely antiheroic, the film's triad milieu is clearly glamorized throughout, as is Ah Wah, its protagonist. Part of this fawning treatment is actually unrelated to genre and stems from an unembarrassed affection for twenty-somethings in love that is not totally out of place in a self-conscious filmmaker who was twenty-nine years old when the film was made. Here, at least, Bordwell's charge that Wong's is "a deeply sentimental cinema" is true. But we needn't automatically agree that this is a wholly bad thing, nor assent to this critic's somewhat condescending conclusion: "Almost devoid of irony, Wong's films, like classic rock and roll, take seriously all the crushes, the posturing, and the stubborn capriciousness of young angst. They rejoice in manic expenditures of energy. They celebrate the momentary heartbreak of glimpsing a stranger who might be interesting to love" (Planet 281).
Though it becomes more obvious as Wong's career continues, Bordwell misses the fact that the "young angst" the director clearly revels in can stand for the love, loss, and emotional pain anyone at any age might experience. Is it not an unfair value judgment to denigrate "young angst" in the first place? I suspect that this emotion, and the delicious frisson that it can activate, looks quite different to a young person than to someone middle-aged, and neither response can be considered correct or normative. Furthermore, in the context of the commercial cinema that Bordwell privileges in his groundbreaking book on the Hong Kong film industry, it is clear that, given the film's origin as a vehicle for Andy Lau, Wong would have had no choice, in this first film, but to focus on glamorous young people even had he desired to do otherwise. In any case, through this reasoning, Bordwell is ultimately able to recuperate Wong's cinema for his thesis that genre underlies all: "For all his sophistication, his unembarrassed efforts to capture powerful, pleasantly adolescent feelings confirms his commitment to the popular Hong Kong tradition" (Planet 281).
Interestingly, though he seems vaguely to disapprove, Bordwell provides a succinct and useful expression of the ways in which Wong differs from his Hong Kong colleagues, if ever so tentatively, in As Tears Go By: "Wong stands out from his peers by abandoning the kinetics of comedies and action movies in favor of more liquid atmospherics. He dissolves crisp emotions into vaporous moods" (281). It is precisely this feature of Wong's work-this productive clash of cultures and aesthetics, which some critics have censured as "Europeanization"-that makes him such a provocative filmmaker. It is, after all, the hybrid that fascinates.
The "liquid atmospherics" are what Wong's cinema, at least formally speaking, is all about. Ungerböck, an experienced observer of Asian cinema, has claimed that the visual style displayed in As Tears Go By was truly new and was copied all over Asia in television and film. This popularity led quickly to Wong's being acclaimed as a cult director (26). Despite Ungerböck's insistence on Wong's novelty, though, the film's visual regime-bright primary colors and unnatural hues shot from bizarre camera angles and juxtaposed through jumpy editing-may be partially a legacy of the quasi-experimental filmmaker Patrick Tam, with whom Wong worked, especially on Final Victory (1987), his best film. According to the critic Stephen Teo, the visual structure of all of Tam's films-which Teo doesn't really approve of, because of what he sees as their excessive formalism-is based on the coordination of primary colors (156). Tam may thus be the principal source of this technique that was to be heavily used, in a more radicalized form, in As Tears Go By and Wong's subsequent films.
Even the opening credit sequence of As Tears Go By bears out this interest in juxtaposing extremes in color, as the credits are inscribed on the far left of the screen in shouting reds (the text) and yellows (the neon lights behind). The largest part of the screen, however, is occupied by a severely angled bank of television sets that, plunging diagonally toward the center, display the bright blue of the sky and clouds that pass by on the multiple screens, in a fashion reminiscent of the work of the video artist Nam June Paik. This intensely saturated visual field will be echoed throughout the film by the omnipresent, garish colors of the various neon signs associated with different night spots, especially the Future club, on whose logo the colors and direction of the opening image have been reversed. Beyond this, though, Wong relies throughout on a deep blue image that signifies nighttime rather than the traditional black (or however "black" has been conventionally suggested by sculpting with various amounts of light); the effect is to signify time in quasi-conventional terms while also loading it expressively.
Curtis K. Tsui goes beyond an expressive reading of this binary opposition of colors to develop a specific and plausible interpretation that ties it more closely to the narrative. He argues that the credit sequence displays the film's two opposing "'spaces' of radically different tone and emotion," different spaces that will come to be associated with Ngor and Fly: "The blue skies and white clouds that appear on the TV screens suggest one of idyllic calm, whereas the darkened streets imply one of more somber proportions" (97). Even more intriguing is his suggestion that the film's Chinese title, Mongkok Carmen, which juxtaposes the brutal reality of a rough section of Hong Kong with the promise of love found in Bizet's opera, participates in this binary as well. For Tsui, these are the first signs of a specific political thematic-one that I will address more fully later-that operates throughout the film and that transcends character.
Excerpted from Wong Kar-wai by Peter Brunette Copyright © 2005 by Peter Brunette. Excerpted by permission.
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