Sinclair Target on one of contemporary cinema’s foremost visual poets.

Chungking Express

What do most people remember of a Wong Kar Wai film four or five weeks after having seen it? Probably no more than a collage of vivid images: a street bathed in blue; a red window; people running, people shouting, people getting off buses and getting on trams; a chance encounter; a quick glance; and rain, rain like only Hong Kong ever gets—monsoon rain. But Wong’s films are not about strong narratives anyway; they are collages, loose groupings of impressionistic vignettes, held together by plots of gossamer ribbon. His films are not about strong characters either; Wong’s characters are sketched rather than drawn, developed only as far he feels is necessary. What his films are about is emotion—or an emotion, really, because the same deep yearning permeates his whole oeuvre. It’s a yearning for connection, for permanence, for love, and Wong comes back to it again and again. As a result his films tend to flow together into one big, bright blur of neon and nostalgia. They all seem to be reaching for something irretrievable, something stolen long ago by time’s tyranny. They all seem to say, “Wait, please, for just this one moment.”

And they’re beautiful. I would almost go so far as to claim that you don’t know the meaning of color until you’ve seen a Wong Kar Wai film. His Hong Kong nightscape is a dazzling kaleidoscope of signs, advertisements, street lamps and television screens. Light shines everywhere, blazing and frigid—his characters swim through it all. Each shot is a rich soup of hyper-saturated color, and something as simple as the paint on a doorframe, or the design on a dress, will take your eyes hostage for as long as it’s on screen. It all amounts to a kind of polychromatic cacophony—the background noise of the vibrant world in which Wong immerses us.

Wong’s characters are lonely romantics: lovers without love, the recently spurned or abandoned, the pensive and wistful. He films them in furtive peeks around corners and through curtains, from below beds and behind rice cookers. The effect is voyeuristic—it feels like we’re always catching them at their most private, lonesome moments. We desperately want them to find some escape from themselves, but on some fundamental level they seem unable to connect with those around them. One of Wong’s favorite tricks—and I’m not quite sure what to call it, but this will have to do—is selective time-lapse photography. He visualizes just how trapped his characters are by having them move slowly while the world buzzes on in streaks of light around them. In doing so it’s almost as if he is making one of his own films in miniature, since they are all, in some sense, about characters trying to stand still.

Wong has been making films since the 1980s, but his most famous is 2000’s In The Mood for Love. It tells the story of a man and a woman—neighbors in 1960s Hong Kong—who discover that their spouses are having an affair with each other. Their mutual sense of betrayal brings them together, but they aren’t quite able to fall in love themselves, even though they clearly yearn to. It’s a story told in details; actor Tony Leung and actress Maggie Cheung scream out their loneliness in small gestures and tarrying looks. Since they never find themselves ready for love at the same time, the opportunity slips them by, disappearing into the sad realm of what could have been. It’s heartbreaking, and it doesn’t help that “Yumeji’s Theme”, a gorgeous violin piece Wong borrowed from the Japanese film Yumeji, laments so much of what happens on screen.

Missed opportunity crops up elsewhere in Wong’s canon as well. Chungking Express, for example, released in 1994, is split into two halves. In the first half of the film a cop named He Qi Wu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), recovering from a bad break up, meets a mysterious woman in a bar; in the second half another cop known only as #633 (Tony Leung), also recovering from a bad break up, meets a woman working at a food stall. Though similar, the two stories are unrelated except that some of the characters from the second half appear as background characters in the first half. The two casts nearly make contact, but ultimately don’t. Their sinuous paths through the glittering metropolis intersect at only a few arbitrary points, and even at those intersections connection isn’t guaranteed. As He Qi Wu says at the very beginning of the film, “You brush past so many people everyday. Some you may never know anything about, but others might become your friend someday.” Those few special moments then—those magical moments of real connection—are something to be cherished.

Fallen Angels, a sequel of sorts to Chungking Express that was released the following year, makes the point even more explicitly. Like Chungking Express, it is divided into two stories that are barely related to each other. The second story is about Ho Chi Moo (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a mute, slightly crazy, ice-cream-obsessed escaped delinquent living with his father. On a whim he starts recording everything his father does with a handheld camera. At first what he records seems mundane and uninteresting—his father sleeping, cooking, or trying to get his son and his camera out of the way so he can use the bathroom—but after his father dies those insignificant activities become everything. Those few, jerky, unfocused minutes of footage are all he has left. This nostalgic sentiment spills over into the first story, where Wong chooses to film his other characters at a low shutter speed, capturing their lives as a similar series of blurry snapshots. It’s almost as if Wong is reducing time to what he believes to be its most basic unit: the moment. And perhaps that is Wong’s artistic project in a nutshell—to capture those moments, whether ordinary or extraordinary, that make up our pasts.

Wong Kar Wai has also directed As Tears Go By (1988), Days of Being Wild (1990), Ashes of Time (1994), Happy Together(1997), 2046 (2004), and My Blueberry Nights (2007).