Wong Kar-Wai

Neon Nostalgia

It's all a matter of pining over past, present and future as Animefringe delves into the works of Wong Kar-Wai!

by Tim Henderson

Although the appeal of these films is found more in observing the events as they go by than in finding out what may happen next, readers are still advised that the following article does contain what could be considered to be spoilers.

Officer 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is running outside in the rain, having just spent the night prior to his twenty-fifth birthday with a mysterious blonde (Brigitte Lin) as the result of a flamboyant bet with himself. He claims that it rids his body of tears, and just before he heads off, with rainwater pouring down his face in dislocated rhythm, he clips his pager to the track fence, convinced that after a month of waiting, his girlfriend, May will never call. Just as he starts to walk away, it beeps, and he dashes back to receive a message from the desk of where he had just spent the last night, as a clock ticks over to exactly six o'clock -- marking the moment when he becomes a year older -- and he is told that the blonde wishes him a happy birthday. He sits limply on a bench, wistfully reflecting on a repeated motif: "If memories could be canned, would they have expiration dates? If so, I hope they last for centuries."

Wong Kar-Wai

With the recent theatrical release of 2046, the emotionally painful follow-up of sorts to his previous film, In the Mood for Love, Wong Kar-Wai's name is starting to become more familiar in the West. While these films are heartbreaking and beautiful, they tend to serve more directly to the older, more openly nostalgic generations. Given the current theatrical run, however, it seems like an appropriate time to delve into two of his films made almost a full decade earlier, the more youthful and eccentric Chungking Express and Fallen Angels.

There is a distinct link between these two pieces of Hong Kong filmmaking that causes them to be somewhat inseparable as an overall experience. While both are self-contained in their own right and are set apart visually (Fallen Angels even goes so far as to flash the words 'It is different' in a screen-side IMB commercial), there is a structural and thematic link between the two that provides an impressive emotional engagement and a sense of heightened awareness when the second of the films, Fallen Angels draws itself to a close. This closure may well lead into a timeless and ever-evolving opening of its own right.

Wong Kar-Wai

Neither of these films tells a complete traditional narrative with an opening, middle and ending. Chungking Express follows a handful of characters in two almost completely different back-to-back tales, while Fallen Angels does much of the same, while intertwining its stories slightly more. The simple fact of the matter is that one of the core situations in Fallen Angels -- the events surrounding a contract killer -- was actually originally intended for Chungking Express, but it was dropped due to time issues. With this in mind, it should be noted here that it would be somewhat unfair to think of the link between these films is merely that they both tell a variety of separate tales. Indeed, that may actually be the entire point, but in a more complicated and personal sense than what is immediately obvious, with the ever-evolving opening.

Wong Kar-Wai

The two core stories that serve to make up the bulk of Chungking Express are connected in one sense by a mere brush of the shoulder. In another sense, however, they are connected through a growing character empathy wrought in shameless loneliness that goes on to make something as simple as a brush of a shoulder to gain an enhanced meaning all in itself. What is on one hand a gimmick to 'tag' one story over to the other also represents the simple fact of life that we pass by thousands of people each day, some of whom may become friends, some of whom we may become even more intimately involved, and the majority that will just pass on through our memories as quickly as their clothing brushing past us.

In a world where people close themselves off into their own sheltered existences, populated by cell phones and other technologies, this simple observation can be quite harrowing when effectively portrayed, and Wong Kar-Wai portrays this very effectively indeed. It is perhaps to the film’s credit that it establishes this from the opening scene, while shunning off any desire to play with the 'what happens next' appeal in the same motion. Coming straight out in a blur of rapid and jerky video, Officer 223 pauses for reflection upon brushing past a blonde woman wearing a long coat and dark glasses, in order to reflect upon the fact that in fifty-seven hours from this moment, he will fall in love with this woman.

Wong Kar-Wai

It would be a mistake to follow the line of thought that links love directly to dedication and self-sacrifice. In these films, as is often the case in real life, love is fleeting. It has to be wondered just how far Chungking Express has its tongue buried in its cheek when the main protagonist of the second story, Officer 633 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), finds himself realizing that his airhostess girlfriend left him after a change in her takeaway food order led her to realize that she has other choices in her life as well. The entire event hinged on something as simple as changing an order of a chef’s salad to an order of fish and chips, but maybe that's just a metaphor to trigger a character’s self-realization.

Not that such a realization can provide a whole lot of comfort. Being a leading man in this film seems to require heartbreak and a delivery that is as quirky as it is sincere. In fact, it may just be this quirky aspect that allows it to feel so genuine. While attempts at profound words of heartfelt meaning often fall dead on their faces and end up filling a narrative with enough cheese to kill fifty cows from over-milking, there is something deeply empathetic about watching this man plead with his slimming soap not to starve itself, and to ponder if his dripping rag of a towel and flooded apartment are actually crying out of sympathy for him.

Wong Kar-Wai

Moments like this make up a good bulk of both movies. Whether either officer will win back the girlfriends that so vividly occupy their memories, or if they will move on and find someone else isn't of any real concern. What is of concern is capturing the effect that such experiences have on people. It's filled out with moments such as the Midnight Express counter girl, Faye (Faye Wong) acting on a crush of bizarre magnitude by secretly breaking into Officer 633's apartment on a regular basis, and gradually renovating it and his life in the process. The film’s purpose is found in events such as Officer 223 wolfing down a month’s worth of canned pineapple -- May's favorite food -- with each can marked with the expiration date of the first of May. Later on, he heads down to a bar, where he proceeds to promise himself that he will fall in love with the next woman who enters.

The characters here are all cute, naïve and ultimately likable. In particular, the counter girl, Faye carries a remarkable presence about herself. She moves with a natural and mesmerizing groove that makes it difficult not to be left smitten by her childish character as the camera devoutly follows her unique movements. Aesthetically, smoke wafts, clouds boil, clocks tick, and California Dreaming plays repeatedly with prophetic intent. Efficiently cinematographed on the fly by Australian-born Wong Kar-Wai stalwart Christopher Doyle (the cinematographer of Hero), Chungking Express uses style as a net in which to capture its actual substance.

Wong Kar-Wai

The film’s Hong Kong is crowded yet lonely, illustrated with amazing poignancy as Officer 633 takes a sip of his Midnight Express coffee, while Faye gazes longingly at him in extreme slow motion. In the foreground, hundreds of people stream past in astonishing speed. As Officer 633 slowly puts down his coffee cup, it becomes difficult to escape the sensation of sand slipping through fingers. All those moments in life, all those people, everything that could have amounted into something, but inevitably became another missed opportunity is captured almost perfectly within a few seconds of silent film footage.

It is possible to describe both of these films as 'practically experimental,' as they come off as looking attractive, but different from each other as a result. Fallen Angels is expressive, taking place almost exclusively in a neon-soaked nighttime setting that displays an array of burning, over-saturated colors that brings to the nighttime streets of Hong Kong an uncommon level of visual vibrancy.

Wong Kar-Wai

The film was shot almost exclusively on a super-wide lens, lending to the entirety of the film a sense of depth that is exceptionally distorted and often intrusive. This visual decision is more than merely stylistic; the distorted depth serves to echo the mental states of the film’s characters. The camera is frequently used intrusively to hug character faces, displaying them as too close and too distant in a reflection of the surface and the inner workings of their relational states beneath. It allows for a simple shot of a woman eating noodles to have a greater sense of insecure frailty than what words can convey.

"I didn't say that. I just want a companion. Just for the night."

Wong Kar-Wai

The characters in Fallen Angels are an over-the-top bunch who are somewhat uncomfortably easy to relate to. A self professed 'lazy' hit man (Leon Lai Ming) has a chronic masturbator of a partner (Michele Reis) who lusts insecurely after him. From his past is a woman with fake blonde hair (Karen Mok), who he has since forgotten, but he is quite willing to have a second quick fling with her. There is also a mute (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who breaks into stores after-hours to run his own business, forcing his services upon any unfortunate and unwilling customer who happens to pass by, and there is his first love, an aggressive and fickly emotional woman of a spontaneous nature. Fairly enough, these people seem too bizarre to be believable, but for all of the excessiveness in their traits, once you stop looking for 'realistic realism' and start to recognize ‘emotional realism,’ then they become very real. It may be easier to look at them not specifically as people, but rather as vessels, embodiments of the various sensations and traits that most of us can identify within ourselves.

"Maybe you'll like me better tomorrow."

After being cowardly stood up on her first actual date with her hit man partner, who opted to leave a coin behind so that a jukebox could tell her to 'forget him,' Fallen Angels shows a harrowing and impulsive moment by Michele Reis' character when she breaks into his room, masturbates on his bed, and then collapses into a stream of frustrated tears. The naive despair here is brought about without compromise.

Wong Kar-Wai

The blonde woman desperately wants to be remembered, and it may be this desire that controls her hyperactive personality traits. There is someone behind all this who is left crying "I'm crazy! I'm so crazy! ... Somebody please love me. Please remember me... or at least remember my bite," as she sinks her teeth into the arm of a man who decided that he didn't like her better once tomorrow had come. Then it rains, and where an apartment was seen as shedding tears in Chungking Express, an entire city weeps in Fallen Angels, boosting the melodramatic ambience through the roof with its play of association, revalidating the effect of a typical cinematic contrivance.

There are a number of more or less ‘cute’ or 'clever' ways in which Fallen Angels harkens back to Chungking Express. The most notable example comes in the form of the mute character, played by same actor who was in the role of Officer 223 in Chungking Express. This character is the most genuinely eccentric of the bunch, having done time behind bars with the prison number 223, and more importantly, having lost his voice at a young age after eating an expired can of pineapples. Moments like these are cute, but the visual motifs return, and most importantly of all, so do the locations. Kaneshiro's mute lives with his aging, accent-bogged father, who is the caretaker at the Chungking Mansions, and later on in the film, we will see him in the Midnight Express, playing with the sauce bottles in a way that brings back immediate memories of Faye's distinctive movements. This scene goes on even further to become a bottled moment, one of incredible similarity to the ending of Chungking Express, and one which drives home the point that all of these drifters are bustling around in the same city with the same strangers, all together.

Wong Kar-Wai

The 'emotional reality' mentioned earlier acts as the glue to hold together Fallen Angels, as well as Chungking Express. Meaning in Fallen Angels, as it is in Chungking Express, comes out of how the scenes are arranged. The structure echoes the content. Be it in the over-the-top shootouts, or simply in the way in that the camera never stays completely still, Fallen Angels develops a tremendous emotional baggage simply through its form and construction. Watching Michelle Reis drape herself over and slowly dance with an intensely lit jukebox not only brings back recollections of a moment from Chungking Express, but it inspires a sensation that mixes the sultry and the sorrowful to marvelous effect. Like many scenes in this film, this one could successfully stand all by itself.

Both Fallen Angels and Chungking Express, and all of Wong Kar-Wai's work in general possess some of the most astounding examples of voiceover dialogue ever written. Everything that audibly runs through a character’s mind comes from a unique perspective, one where they are somehow treating the audience as themselves. They aren't explaining anything directly, but neither are they keeping things too overly private. More to the point, they wear their hearts on their sleeves in their thoughts, and the viewer is granted an immense privilege in being privy to these thoughts and feelings. Thoughts trickle through as genuine contemplation, while the bodies that they relate to perform any manner of mundane tasks, adding to the wistful nature of the atmosphere while infusing a strong sense of nostalgia for every present moment. It's a fantastic usage of an often cheap and tiring gimmick, one that expands each and every character in a way that is natural rather than explanatory.

Wong Kar-Wai

Essentially, Wong Kar-Wai's youthful characters tend to drift. They occupy city streets that are either crowded or almost totally devoid of other people. These streets are a harrowing place, one where transience ultimately rules. It's not that there are ideas here that are explained at length; it's more that it's hard not to care, and as a series of often-insignificant moments are portrayed, it's hard not to gain a degree of empathy. The ultimate message may be that nothing lasts, that life is as fragmented as the portrayals of the characters in these two films, and that transience is as beautiful as it is sad and inevitable, something that hits home with heavy poignancy as Fallen Angels draws to a close.

A woman who may never find true love, a man who will never be able to give it to her, a passing moment of acknowledged temporality, and the sense of incredible warmth and content that comes with the fleeting experience of a short journey home. Never mind. As it passes on, so does the audience, and as the sun rises, the city reappears, and it's now time to leave. It's time to let these people go and find somebody else. The city is the main character of these films, a city populated by millions of people. This is what the joining of the films brings about, and as time goes by, people come and go, and a million or more unseen moments will be acknowledged in countless tomorrows.

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