In Wong Kar Wai’s movies, nostalgia is the characters’ constant state. In 2046, a sense of imminent loss gives the director’s vision an edge of defiance.
Toward the end of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, there’s a shot of Tony Leung silhouetted in a doorway. It echoes the famous framing of John Wayne that ends The Searchers, except that when the door shuts on Wayne, he’s outside, in the sun, stranded in the film’s mythic Western landscape, which will always keep him apart. In Wong’s movie, Leung walks toward us, away from the sunlight, his silhouette joining with the darkness, almost blocking out the landscape of Angkor Wat behind him. It’s as if, at the end of a film about the impossibility of retrieving lost time, he’s crossing over to join those of us who are sitting in the dark, trying to hold onto the images that have washed over us. We already know that what he seeks to recapture is long gone.
That sense of loss pervades World of Wong Kar Wai, the seven-disc collection of director-approved restorations (and in some cases alterations) released by Criterion. Wong’s world is one in which people mourn not just for their past, but for the present they know is soon to be past, like moviegoers who know the lights will inevitably come up. Much of his work takes place in a historic era—the dream evocations of the Hong Kong and Shanghai of the 1960s in Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, 2046, and The Hand—and nostalgia is the characters’ constant state.
But this world is not completely idealized. As captured by his great cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and later by Ping Bin Lee, Lai Yiu Fai, Kwan Pun Leung and Darius Khondji, the colors of Wong’s movies are a variation of the look Vittorio Storaro gave Last Tango in Paris—late afternoon reds and browns and golds and greens, colors just past the point where ripeness gives way to rot. The apartments and rented rooms Wong’s characters inhabit all show signs of wear, with cracked, flaking paint and light that doesn’t reach the dim corners; all the marks of use are disguised by human touches, like a sleek table lamp or graphic-print curtains. Sad as they are, the rooms are never depressing or seedy. Though they look as if they are ready to be left behind.
It’s the encounters that take place—social calls that mask the desire beneath the surface, assignations that try to deny the deeper feelings they provoke, the solitary mourning of lost romance—that are worth holding onto. Wong’s characters are both at the mercy of their heartbreak and wrapped in it like a cloak. They resemble Frank Sinatra on the cover of No One Cares, sitting alone at the bar amid happy couples taking no notice of him, protected from the smoke, the noise, the smell of spilled drinks. His sadness seems richer than other people’s happiness.
Memory calls up a distant world in these films, but Wong’s movies remind us that memory can be even more piercing than the present, because hindsight allows us to see what we were blind to at the time, especially about ourselves. (Related to memory, the restorations in the Criterion set are, in some cases, also alterations, with some films changed back to their original aspect ratios and monaural soundtracks. To my eye, nothing seemed startling or jarred my memories of the films I’d seen.) “That era has passed,” Tony Leung’s character says at the end of 2046. “Nothing that belongs to it exists anymore.” Of course it does, right there in front of us, but only as long as the memories last for the one remembering, only as long as the film runs through the projector.
If, in 1994, you had told Western moviegoers having their first exposure to Wong with Chungking Express that his movies would be described in the tones of melancholy I sounded above, they likely wouldn’t have believed you. Chungking Express is, like Breathless, one of those movies that seems to speak in a new language—a marvelous, spinning toy that treats the possibilities of cinema as a chance to play. I remember slipping into a preview of Chungking Express at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, knowing nothing about it, and emerging at the end feeling as if I’d just spent a delirious two hours standing on a busy city corner at night without my glasses happily watching the traffic whir by. A director who’s been known to spend years making his movies, Wong took a gamble with Chungking Express. (The movie was made during a break in the protracted shooting schedule of Wong’s insanely complicated martial-arts saga Ashes of Time, later released in a refined cut as Ashes of Time Redux; neither is included in the Criterion set.)
The two stories entwined in Chunking Express are both about cops who encounter odd and inexplicable and alluring women. The younger, more naïve cop (Takeshi Kaneshiro) moons over an old girlfriend, taking bets with himself that she’ll get back in touch with him, but then runs into a figure right out of noir: a drug courier in dark glasses and a blonde wig, played by the legendary Hong Kong actress Brigitte Lin. The other cop (Tony Leung) is slightly older, more experienced, and, because of that, the heartbreak he’s feeling over the departure of his air-hostess girlfriend has more weight. He becomes the unknowing obsession of a lunch-counter waitress (the saucer-eyed Hong Kong pop singer Faye Wong, pretty much redefining the movie icon of gamine look). She spends her afternoons breaking into his apartment while he’s at work and slowly redecorating the place, a development the cop greets with bemused acceptance, as if the apartment were redecorating itself. It’s a movie of coincidences, connections missed and connections made. Even the criminal behavior that hovers around the edges of the movie has a light, larky edge. A little girl’s brief kidnapping consists of her sitting happily in a café being plied with a procession of rococo-towered dishes of ice cream.
I can think of very few movies—A Hard Day’s Night is one—that create the physical elation that Chungking Express does. There’s a similar playfulness (perhaps due, once again, to working on a tight schedule) in Wong’s lone American film, My Blueberry Nights (2007). It is unloved by almost everyone, including the director, although, for my money, it’s completely charming. So many foreign directors who work in this country, perhaps looking to replicate the pleasure they got from first seeing classic Hollywood films, try for an American tone, fail, and lose their own voice in the process. My Blueberry Nights is like a dream of America made by someone following a guidebook designed to take you off the beaten path. The movie crosses the country from a Lower East Side café to a New Orleans bar to a dinky Reno casino and then back again, all the locations as scuff-marked and vital as the Hong Kong rooming houses of Wong’s period films. But where those films are suffused with the love of the fondly remembered, My Blueberry Nights hums with affection for what the filmmaker is just discovering. It’s a Valentine of a movie, with an amazing cast (Norah Jones, Jude Law, David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz, Cat Power, and Natalie Portman, who does the freshest and most likable acting of her adult career), and it deserves far more regard than it’s been shown.
My Blueberry Nights is mostly unpopulated, which is odd for a movie about America, and except for Chungking Express, that’s true of Wong’s other films as well. There are no families in Wong’s movies, no friends stronger than work acquaintances, few crowds. The two lovers of the 1997 film Happy Together, Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung (whose suicide six years after the movie was made now haunts his sad performance), have moved to Buenos Aires for a change of scene and to see the Iguazu Falls, which, as shot by Christopher Doyle, are terrifying in their majesty. By the time the movie starts, however, they’ve already broken up, and they never get to the falls. The movie follows them as they drift into separate lives; Cheung’s character works as a hustler, and Leung, in a cheap tux, lures tourists into a tango nightclub. The patrons of that club seem like the only other people in the movie. That might seem strange in another director’s film, an unnoticed mistake. In Wong’s movies it’s perfectly natural, as if the loneliness of his characters has banished all but the essential inhabitants of their world.
Wong’s greatest achievements—In the Mood for Love, 2046, and The Hand (which originally appeared truncated in the 2004 omnibus film Eros and here, in its full hour-long version, is revealed to be a small, perfect gem)—seem to take their inspirations equally from classic Hollywood melodrama and from the glamorous strain of 1960s European art-house cinema. Wong avoids the aggression of melodrama—opting instead for delicacy—as well as the chic, empty alienation that defined so much of Michelangelo Antonioni’s work.
In the Mood for Love, set in 1962 in Hong Kong, tells the story of two neighbors, a newspaperman (Tony Leung) and a businessman’s secretary (Maggie Cheung), who discover their spouses are having an affair together and then proceed to fall in love themselves. They move through a nightscape of restaurants, noodle shops, deserted street corners, staircases, and taxi cabs. Wong’s approach is both discreet—there’s a tearful hug, a head rested on a shoulder, a quick caress of a soon-withdrawn hand—and so passionate that the deserted streets make sense: there’s no need for anyone else.
Something strange often happens when movie stars are cast as ordinary people. Filmmakers decide that in order for them to be believable, they must be drabbed down. It’s a completely wrongheaded approach, condescending to the characters and naïve as to the reasons we go to see movie stars in the first place—namely, because their beauty and magnetism can intensify and heighten the emotions of the characters they’re playing.
The movies produced during the flowering of Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s and ’90s were so refreshing and so exhilarating in America because audiences here had long chosen a kind of cheap knowingness over surrender. Neither Hong Kong filmmakers nor audiences were jaded about the impulse to entertain or to be entertained. What Wong shares with the more commercial end of the Hong Kong film industry is a rejection of easy irony and the utter absence of the need to put quotation marks around either genre or emotion. For Wong, glamour is at the heart of movies, and glamour is what makes our hearts break for these characters. And there’s almost no one in contemporary movies with the charisma or glamour of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung.
Cheung hasn’t appeared in a major film role in seventeen years, but even so, she is to our time what Greta Garbo was to the 1920s and ’30s (and a better actress). Cheung is one of those performers whose face expresses every emotion that passes through her, no matter how fleeting. She conveys hesitancy and the simultaneous pull of desire just by the way she places a protective hand over her purse. In In the Mood for Love, she plays a respectable middle-class woman trying to save face while dealing with both a cheating spouse and her own feelings for another man. The tension between that surface and the roiling emotions underneath, despite this woman’s grounded common sense, give her an almost tremulous quality.
Leung combines two strains of the classic leading man—the solidity of actors like William Holden with the more wounded emotions that Montgomery Clift brought to Hollywood movies. He’s playing a decent man here, one who hasn’t chosen what seems to be the traditional route of having a wife and a mistress, and one who seems to want to both hold onto his self-respect and ditch respectability to be with the woman he discovers he loves.
It’s the memory of that decency that we carry into 2046, which begins four years after In the Mood for Love. Leung, playing the same role, has left the newspaper business to work as the pulp writer of erotic science-fiction serials; he has also abdicated his respectability to operate as an unabashed ladies’ man. It’s a mark of Leung’s seemingly infallible audience rapport that he can make callousness seem like a mark of hurt, as when he pays a young escort (Zhang Ziyi) who lives across the hall from him for their night together, when she wasn’t selling.
Zhang’s character, wearing party-girl versions of the cheongsams Cheung wore in the previous film, is a stunning creation. She seems at first as lithe and indolent as a cat who expects that she need only stretch her elegant frame for the world to do her bidding. Zhang lets the character’s vulnerability in, drop by drop, avoiding cliched bad-girl pathos. By the end, she seems to have become an adult, which means developing a sense of loss. Her role is the most prominent of the women Leung is paired with here, including Carina Lau, Gong Li, Faye Wong, and Cheung (glimpsed in a brief black-and-white flashback to In the Mood, during which Leung says the words that could be a benediction for both films: “Some years back I had a happy ending in my grasp, but I let it slip away”).
At the end of 2046, Zhang asks Leung, by now her former lover, for one last night together before she leaves Hong Kong for good, with a heart-cracking line: “Let me borrow you.” It’s the motto for the Wong characters who are lost in their private reveries. Around them, Wong has recreated a vanished world in which every object is invested with affection: populuxe ashtrays, tie clips with the aerodynamic lines of a sleek sedan, plummy restaurant booths. And clothes, clothes everywhere: hard leather lace-up shoes for men and high heels for women that produce rhythmic susurrations as the grit is brushed between soles and pavement; Tony Leung’s immaculately tailored suits, tab-collar shirts, and skinny ties with a spare space-age pattern; and above all, the slim fitting, high-necked cheongsam dresses worn by Maggie Cheung and Zhang and Carina Lau.
There is another aspect to 2046: a science-fiction interlude based on a story Leung’s character has written, set in a Hong Kong in which one can take a trip to the year 2046, a year where, we are told, nothing ever changes. In this section, a young man (Takuya Kimura), the only person ever to return from 2046, falls in love with an android, played by Faye Wong, on the endless train journey back. You could argue that the section isn’t essential to the movie, but the meaning behind it is. As part of the handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China, the Chinese government had promised that Hong Kong would be able to maintain its way of life until 2047 (we can see what that promise has been worth). And so, for the people of Hong Kong, 2046 was, symbolically, the year that the life they knew hovered on the brink of extinction. This sense of imminent loss is part of what keeps Wong’s love of the past from being mere nostalgia, what gives his vision an edge of defiance.
Even without that political subtext, the sense of loss in 2046 hits you with the velvet glove of the most luxuriant and melancholy jazz singing. You sink down into exquisite sadness and, immersed in it, wonder if it isn’t worth skipping the pleasures of romance to get right to this. Maybe because of the film’s protracted production history—it took four years to make, and its Cannes premiere had to be rescheduled—2046 has a reputation as somewhat self-indulgent and ill-shaped. For me, it’s an imperfect paradigm of romantic longing that, like another movie that can be described that way, Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, is perfect in its imperfections. I don’t watch this movie as much as buy passage to it.
When you think of the greatest elegies for lost eras that cinema has produced—The Magnificent Ambersons, The Leopard, Once Upon a Time in America—you might recall their magisterial quality but feel they lack a sense of urgency. But lack of urgency does not equal emotional distance. It would be easy to praise Wong Kar Wai’s movies yet undervalue them as mood pieces; he is one of the only working directors who can be justifiably called a master. And you need only look at film history to see the unexpected riches great directors continue to give us as their careers progress (sometimes at the very end of their careers), which gives us much to look forward to in the Wong movies yet to come. With all the talk about what movies are going to be even a few years from now, we risk losing sight of what movies, at their best, already are. Whether they retain their capacity for grandeur and their emotional largeness remains to be seen. It would be the final melancholy note to Wong Kar Wai’s films if the vanished world they recreate turns out to be not just the director’s dream of Hong Kong but the entire world of glamour and heartbreak once conjured by the phrase “the movies.”
Charles Taylor is the author of Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70s. He lives and writes in New York.