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In the Mood for Wong Kar Wai: Why His Films Are as Difficult to Explain as Love

Written by Kathy Leung Tell a Friend

After watching a Wong Kar Wai film, you get the feeling you don't quite know what you've watched but you do know it's something you haven't seen before. Love him or hate him, his style is definitely his own and as a result, he has and continues to influence and impress the international film community much to the delight of both his loyal fans and those new to his films.

Wong graduated from the Hong Kong Polytechnic school in 1980 and his directorial debut came in 1988 with As Tears Go By which screened at Cannes the following year. He continued to make his mark in the festival with his films Happy Together (1997), winning him a Best Director Award, and In the Mood for Love (2000) for which leading man Tony Leung Chui Wai won Best Actor. This year, his most recent film 2046, (a follow-up to In the Mood for Love) was initially a favourite to win the prestigious Palme d'Or (think Best Picture in Oscar terms) but he failed to have it edited in time for his originally scheduled screening.

A chaotic yet organic approach to filmmaking is demonstrative of just one of Wong's characteristics that identifies him as an auteur. Western and European audiences have embraced his films partly because they differ from the ones they usually see. Isolation is a major theme in his films and many times they don't take action to help themselves (unlike a typical Hollywood hero). We then also feel that unease and loneliness. Also, rather than relying on cultural stereotypes, Wong allows for strikingly natural interaction between cultures through his use of music and geographic placement of characters.

No Happy Endings

It's been said that Hollywood films reassure while independent ones unsettle. Following Wong's main characters' through their self-alienated journey until the very end does this. Wong sets up his consistent themes of alienation and isolation with Days of Being Wild (1991). Self-absorbed York (Leslie Cheung) can't find love or redemption even when they're right in front of his nose. The feisty Leong Tong Yong (Carina Lau) and Lai Chun (Maggie Cheung) both are compelled to love him, but his choice doesn't allow either of them to win and he is the sole cause of his self-destruction.

In In the Mood for Love Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung), deny their love for each other as they go through their mundane lives. They are all about self-denial. They know they've been betrayed by their spouses early on in the film and form a friendship centred on all those good things a relationship is supposed to be based on yet deny their love for each other. Mr. Chow doesn't 'get' the girl in the end. Instead, in another act of self-denial, he tells his desire secretly into a hole in Angkor Wat hoping that his secret stays safe.

Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow act self-destructively but earnestly much like the characters in Happy Together. Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yui Fai (Tony Leung) travel to Buenos Ares to see the Iguazu Falls. After reaching a breaking point, they go their separate ways but find themselves together again in a painful, yet familiar co-dependent relationship. Lai Yui Fai, the more responsible of the two, understands that he's better off without Ho Po-Wing but is consistently drawn to him and caters to him even though it is at the cost of his own self-respect. Happy Together doesn't allow for a happy ending for the couple but Lai Yui Fai, alone, sees the falls fulfilling a certain destiny he has made for himself.

In Chungking Express, two police officers are scorned by their lovers and are obsessed with them, refusing to move on until it is too painful not to. Love, in life and in Wong's films isn't easy to attain despite desperate and sincere need. Even though these films don't have a familiar happy ending, Wong instills a sense of hope, albeit a heartbreaking hope, not unlike the last of the world's evil that fled from Pandora's Box. We don't have to be told that everything will be all right because we know that sometimes things don't always work out, but we, along with his characters, can hope that they just might despite our human flaws.


Music plays a large role in setting the tone of Wong's films, and it varies in style and culture. He will use an American song in a South American setting while the characters are Chinese. The soundtrack for In the Mood for Love includes Mike Galasso, Nat King Cole, Chinese music and the Umebayashi Sheger string motif constantly repeated through the film to enhance the mundane routine of Mrs. Chan's life. The juxtaposition of Western music in a Chinese setting as with the title track of Happy Together and California Dreamin' in Chungking Express at first is an oddity as we are attuned to expecting the music to fit the setting.

He also places his characters in situations where they deal with other cultures. Lai Yui Fai and Ho Po-Wing live and interact with Argentinians. The 'Woman in the Blonde Wig' conspires with Indians. He doesn't limit himself to cultural classification of music. He uses a variety of music from diverse backgrounds and allows for a natural and refreshing portrayal of culture, unlike Hollywood films which play upon the familiarity of stereotypes.

Unclassified Information

Wong's work is not only unclassified in musical type but also in genre; his films don't easily fall into categories found in your local video store. Unlike other Hong Kong police dramas, the cops in Chungking Express don't exert much bravado or machismo, in fact, they do quite the opposite. Also, there is an absurdity to the film that makes it a comedy as well. In the Mood for Love might be classified as a tragic love story but lacks the physical and sexual presence found in many Western romantic comedies. As Tears Go By, with its violence and typical gangster storyline, is unlike the many Hong Kong triad films. Invariably, when the end credits roll on a Wong Kar Wai film, we are often left with the question, "What is it that we just watched?"

We'll Never Know

There's no easy answer. Not for us and not for his characters as we witness their flawed existence and obsessive patterns. If you are looking for a linear storyline and predictable objectives for your characters, look somewhere else. But if you want real moments that satisfy in a stylishly different way, Wong's films will win you over. There's no simple conclusion that wraps up everything into a simple answer. But that is reminiscent of our lives and that is why his films are able to transcend cultures and rightfully succeed in the international marketplace.

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Published July 23, 2004

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  • Region & Language: Hong Kong United States - English
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