In a sense, Wong Kar-wai’s films are not fully distinct from each other in the way we usually think of individual films. On the other hand, neither are they quite a series of sequels. Wong’s seven movies (see filmography) interconnect with each other around a set of technical and thematic concerns that transform film into something both visceral and intellectual. Because of their complexity, his films reward repeated viewing with the discovery of endless layers of nuance. They do tell stories, but their focus is directed away from their plots (his actors even half-jokingly complain that they never know the story during filming) and toward meditation on brooding mental and emotional states. Much like a composer of music, Wong achieves this by strictly limiting and controlling the elements that he organizes into the cinematic compositions of his films. Because this can make them difficult to watch, and because they truly reward the viewer’s effort, I want to touch on several of these elements in this unusual director’s latest work.
Setting (time period and geography)
In The Mood For Love is set mostly in the Shanghainese section of Hong Kong in 1962, but moves to Singapore and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and references supporting characters who have strong ties to Japan. Most of his films function at least partly as "road movies" with one or more of the characters ultimately becoming dislocated/relocated in their efforts to find or lose something they pine for or something that clings painfully to them.
Wong has worked repeatedly with the same production designer (William Chang Suk-ping) to discover locations and produce decors within them that externalize the rich emotional textures of his characters. Even the worn concrete of a building’s corner (seen repeatedly in Mood) becomes a sort of anchor for the weary longings of his protagonists.
Stairways, corridors, windows, doors, and mirrors
Of particular note in the streets, buildings, and rooms that these characters live in are the portals through which they and their reflections pass at impossible angles, allowing us a glimpse of something hidden: a glance exchanged or an opportunity missed, a smile or a tear. The often used wide-angle lenses have the curious effect of making claustrophobic spaces appear expansive while retaining a push-pull tightness as the reflecting mirrors and windowpanes seem to squeeze characters tightly against their own images.
Wong Kar-wai’s soundtracks are truly multicultural. His films have included music by Xavier Cugat, Django Reinhardt, The Beach Boys, Frank Zappa, Wong Fay (the Hong Kong pop star who also co-starred in Wong’s Chungking Express) and many more. In The Mood For Love features three tracks sung by Nat King Cole (unmistakably, though in Spanish). In all of these cases music is used quite literally as a "universal language" to reinforce and intertextualize with the films’ imagery and meaning.
The adage "the clothes make the man" has never been so true as in a Wong Kar-wai movie. The clothing of the excessively polite Mr. Chow (Tony Leung in crisply starched shirts) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung in high-collared sheath dresses) fits them to constrained perfection as they struggle to come to terms with the affair between their spouses while also fending off the gossip that surrounds their earnest friendship.
Water—rain and tears, bodies of water and water on bodies
Streetlights illuminate the falling rain at night. Running water washes tears away before they can be seen or parhaps even felt. Water flows through gutters, rivers, lakes, and oceans. In Wong’s films water creates by turns an obstacle (to cross on a boat), a nuisance (to mop from one’s clothes or floor), a baptism (as it drowns out grief), and an object of beauty (as it moves across the face of the earth in ways great and small).
Lighting, light fixtures, and color
The anemic hue of fluorescent light lends its air of utilitarian immediacy to Chungking Express. A spinning sphere of woven reeds throws wild shadows on the wall counter-pointing a weighty moment in Ashes Of Time. Bright incandescent discs burn into lush red draperies that blow in the breezes of fantasies unnamed, half-realized, then abandoned in Mood.
Camera movement and stillness
The Australian-born cinematograper Christopher Doyle has photographed nearly all of Wong’s films. His camera looks at characters and settings in a way that brings introspective warmth into the relationship between observer and observed. It jumps and glides as tension heightens only to settle quietly in place as that same tension sinks in or dissipates. In Mood the camera often slowly tracks from side to side - a pendulum marking the uneasy passage of time.
Rhythm and editing
Wong finds his greatest affinity with musical composition in the final editing process. In many cases the story will actually be created at this final stage with subplots and supporting characters abandoned on the cutting room floor in the struggle to discover the rhythm that will best fit the tone of the film. For Mood, with its melodramatic intensity, this meant allowing scenes to play out through long takes punctuated with brief images like a glimpse of Mr. Chow’s wedding-banded finger or the staccatto montage of Mrs. Chan’s indecision when she goes to visit Mr. Chow in his new apartment.
Optical effects used for time distortion
From the swordplay of Ashes Of Time to the gunplay of Fallen Angels, many of Wong’s films have a significant action component. Yet in each instance this action is distorted through complex optical printing effects that at times render it nearly unintelligible beyond the boundaries of its emotional content. In Mood such effects are restricted to slow motion and freeze-frame segments that emphasize moments of feeling or decision.
Tony Leung has played substantial roles in five of Wong’s seven films, while Maggie Cheung has acted in four. While neither of them literally reprises the role of a previous character, the echoes of their earlier roles are worth exploring. Most notable is the brief friendship that they share in Days Of Being Wild to which Mood, Wong has admitted, is in some ways a sequel.
Choreography of character movement
In Wong’s movies characters move as a means of communication with other people and even the objects in their environments. Their movements as well as their stillnesses are distinct, measured, and gestural creating a language that speaks without words. In Happy Together, set in Argentina, the dance-like effect of this movement becomes concrete in sequences of tango dancing designed to explicate the changing relationship between the film’s gay male protagonists.
Presence, absence, and crossing of paths
Scenes in which the same characters move repeatedly through the same spaces create echoes that make it possible for us to feel their presence in those spaces even when we only see the space itself. The world is filled with places that may remind us of other places and of different lives we might have led. Of major concern to Wong is the search for an understanding of why we wind up on these particular paths on these particular days and nights.
Telephones, cars, and other forms of transit
Important events often turn on a telephone call or a ride in a train, boat, bus or car. Connections and disconnections both real and virtual are facilitated by these devices that transport our bodies and minds across the face of the earth. In Mood an unanswered "Hello" into the receiver becomes a melancholy psychic link whose space quickly fills with the impossibility of its physical fulfillment.
ABOUT THIS FEATURE: My aim isn’t to help movies do well or poorly at the box office, but to convince you that movies (even mainstream Hollywood products) deserve our attention as works of art. The goal of art is to enrich our lives so much that "art" is inseparable from "our lives." Art products can open us to the direct creation of our individual lives and, by extension, our living cultural evolution. The moving image comprises the dominant art form of our era. In this commodified form art images tend to disconnect from their true goal. The purpose of critique is to reconnect art, a kind of theory, with the practice of life. Is this like pushing square pegs into round holes? Maybe, but practice makes it less difficult (as my own lifelong anarchist strivings would illustrate). So let’s indulge this approach to film, and see where it leads. I invite you to email me questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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