Criterion Month: Wong Kar-Wai – A Master of Emotion

Wong Kar-Wai is an acclaimed Chinese director,  known for his impact on Chinese and international cinema throughout the 90s and early 00s. His most recognizable and critically acclaimed film In the Mood for Love (2000), often serves as a person’s first introduction to the legendary director. This doesn’t subtract from his prior films: Chungking Express (1994), Fallen Angels (1995), and Happy Together (1997); three films made in the span of fewer than seven years. Furthermore, the majority of his films from this era typically explore the feelings of love, loneliness, and time. Wong utilizes unique storytelling techniques to communicate prior said themes; creating a resonating voice found within all his filmography, as his work has greatly affected audiences who have seen them on a personal level. 

‘Chungking Express’ © Jet Tone Production

The characters in Wong’s films are usually struggling with something emotional that has to do with said themes. For example Chungking Express is a bisected story of two police officers, one of which has just been broken up with, trying to find love. Happy Together follows an on-and-off relationship between two men while they are on a trip in Argentina. In Fallen Angels, a mute struggles to make connections with the people around him because of his inability to speak. In the Mood for Love focuses on two married people desperately trying not to fall in love with one another. Each of these characters in Wong’s films is searching for a type of connection. They wander around the crowded, busy streets of Hong Kong, but feel utterly alone. There is always an obstacle stopping them from reaching what they truly desire. Most of these films end abruptly, in a place where not everything seems resolved. But at the end of them, his characters either achieve what they have been searching for or come to terms with what they cannot have. Somehow, audiences find comfort in these films, despite their resolutions, as the endings of them are unconventional compared to American film standards⁠ — there is no bow to tightly wrap up the stories and characters. The overall effect of this is a touch of realness to the characters and the worlds they are living in.

The filmmaking methods of Wong Kar-Wai considerably influence how the tone of his films play out. Many of the movies he made during this time were low-budget, heavily improvised, and quickly produced. Wong would have an idea for his next film and move forward with only a treatment or sometimes no script at all. He would write the script the night before each shoot. This led to much improvisation and spontaneous action, from the actors to the camera work. The nonlinear quality to many of his films is most likely a result of this, but the feeling that comes with it works within the story and its characters. 

‘In the Mood for Love’ © Jet Tone Production

The way Wong builds the atmosphere in his films helps communicate the sort of isolation his characters are feeling. With most of the films from this period being set in Hong Kong, the streets are always crowded with people. There is an incessant busyness surrounding the characters at nearly all times; so much so, that their loneliness is only made more apparent when they escape into their empty apartments. When the characters in Happy Together are separated, the small apartment seems much bigger with only one of them inside of it. A character in Chungking Express tells objects in his room goodnight and how much he loves them as he grieves over an ended relationship. While two married people attempt not to fall in love with each other during In the Mood for Love, their own partners’ faces are never shown, but the two are constantly surrounded by people who are always judging them. 

This chaotic atmosphere that Wong builds is aided by the style in which he produces them. The camerawork is usually handheld and shaky as it quickly follows the characters down streets and alleyways. The editing aids the hurried camerawork, implementing jarring jump cuts or choppy, slowed-down sequences. When the work is steady or slowed, it is done so to have a specific effect related to what the characters are feeling. The opening scene of Chungking Express showcases this perfectly. The woman in a blonde wig works her way through crowds of people as she runs her underground criminal business. At the same time, Cop 223 is chasing after a criminal. These shots are all in slow motion, where the movement is jarring from the handheld camera. The scene ends with a freeze-frame as the two collide, and Cop 223 narrates: “That was the closest we ever got, just .01 cm between us…” This is another trademark of Wong’s films. By utilizing this narration or inner monologue of the characters, it gives an effect of searching for belonging or understanding. 

‘Fallen Angels’ © Jet Tone Production

The outcome of this chaos is the feeling of a hurried existence: the need to find someone to be with while they still have the time. This is reinforced by the fact that every character in Wong’s movies acts in this similar manner. However, there are moments in his films where time is slowed for us and repeated. For example, In the Mood for Love has an encounter between Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan slowed down then replayed back in real-time. In Chungking Express, a character repeatedly comes over to her love interest’s apartment to clean it and go through his things. The use of repetition is a trademark of Wong’s films from this time period.  

In addition to repeated actions and scenes, Wong made use of repeated music as a device. “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” by Nat King Cole and “Yumeji’s Theme” are the songs replayed over the slow-motion scenes in In the Mood for Love. “California Dreamin” by the Mamas is played over and over again in Chungking Express. The use of the same song played over slowed down moments in Wong’s work help articulate what the characters are going through. The music is usually played as characters pass by each other, or are meant to be thinking about each other. The effect of the same music and the consistent slow motion are meant to draw the audience in; to make them realize that these are not just “moments.” These scenes are where our characters are longing for one another but are unable to disclose their feelings because of their circumstances. 

‘In the Mood for Love’ © Jet Tone Production

Repetition used in this way is unconventional for many Western films, but Wong Kar-Wai has a specific sense of how to turn ordinary things into distinct moments. He does this with more than just the use of repetition. For example, in another scene from Chungking Express, when Cop 663 speaks to the items in his apartment. He must speak to them, to “woo them to bed” because they are too sad. He holds his soap, his dish towel, and many other items in his apartment, crying as he tells them not to be sad or to change. In Happy Together, Fai’s friend Chang asks him to record something for him as a memory. Later in the film when Chang listens, he says he can only hear strange noises, “like someone sobbing.” In the Mood for Love turns walking past someone on the stairs into a melodramatic sequence full of meaning. These iconic scenes fill Wong’s films, adding to the sense of loneliness and romanticism that his films explore.

Every technique Wong implements create such an emotional effect, that at times it is hard to even articulate why his films are so moving. It is difficult to explain to someone who has not seen a Wong Kar-Wai film how truly affecting they can be. Music, honest narration, and joyful optimism, yet distinctive loneliness, are all elements used in combination to create an emotional piece that comforts the viewer. These characters are alive, as you can feel each breath they take. To understand them as real is to feel what they are feeling. All this is made possible via a masterful filmmaker. 

‘Happy Together’ © Jet Tone Production

It is within reason to state that Wong Kar-Wai is one of the most talented directors of our time. There is a reason his films are so highly celebrated by viewers. He bends the expectations of the audience and what is required of a filmmaker in order to directly connect with the viewer. The hurried camerawork that stops on a freeze-frame or a slowed-down moment draws the viewer in and connects them to the characters. The unusual repeated motifs, as well as heavy use of narration, can sometimes be used in cheesy or unemotional ways in other films. Wong, however, is able to use these methods in order to make us all emotionally attached to his worlds. Whether that be a kinship with the lonely characters, an understanding of the love-stricken ones, or the agony of the unrequited lovers, Wong Kar-Wai knows how to make you feel something.

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