Sunday, December 27, 2020

Films of Wong Kar-wai

Wong Kar-wai is an auteur whose signature style is instantly recognizable in his films due to the presence of eye-popping visuals, memorable music and characters that linger long in the memory. This style jumps out even if the film genre is crime (As Tears Go By, Fallen Angels), romance (Happy Together, In The Mood for Love), sci-fi (2046) or wuxia/martial arts (Ashes of Time, The Grandmaster). The core style of Wong Kar-wai consists of a few common elements whose presence is akin to his signature on each frame. These common elements are both visual and thematic and include rich colours, memorable music that echoes in each frame and the usage of chance encounters to explore relationships and feelings of the characters. Wong Kar-wai manages to ensure that each distinct element works in perfect harmony with other elements such that all elements enhance the overall film experience.

Wong Kar-wai’s films are a feast for the senses and that feast starts with his usage of colours. The frames in each Wong Kar-wai film are infused with colours that evoke mood and emotions. He often uses both warm (red, yellow) and cool colours (green, blue and purple) to fill the frame. In the hands of Wong Kar-wai, these colours help set the mood for the scene which aided by the music turns a scene into a tender romantic moment, a melancholy feeling or something seductive. This video by Glass Distortion highlights the usage of rich colours in Wong Kar-wai’s cinema. When needed, he has also shown his ability to drain all colour from the frame (Happy Together) to mirror the broken heart of the main character (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) who fails to find anything interesting around him.

Music and songs have been an integral part of Wong Kar-wai’s cinema right from his first feature As Tears Go By which featured a Cantonese cover of Berlin’s “Take my Breath away”. Chungking Express is defined by the song “California Dreamin” and In the Mood for Love comes to life when the “Yumeji’s Theme” score comes on. In fact, the title In the Mood for Love is named after Bryan Ferry’s song of the same name. In Wong Kar-wai’s films, the music and songs don’t exist in isolation. Instead, the music is married to the visuals in such a way that one associates the memory of the film with a particular piece of music. This point is beautifully highlighted in the movie In The Mood for Love when “Yumeji’s Theme” is famously used for the noodle-stand scene between Maggie Cheung and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung’s characters. There is no dialogue in the scene and the score turns a normal occurrence of going to the noodle stand into a seductive waltz. 

Wong Kar-wai’s usage of music mirrors how many people associate a memory with a piece of music. We may not remember everything about our lives but often listening to a piece of music makes us recall a moment in our lives when we were doing something or were at a place when the music first played. In a similar fashion, we may not end up remembering all aspects of a Wong Kar-wai film but often particular scenes with music persist long after the film has ended.

The colours and music helps set the mood for the audience while the overall cinematography helps shape the visual experience when watching his films. Wong Kar-wai has worked with some of the best cinematographers in his films such as  Christopher Doyle, Andrew Lau Wai-Keung, Mark Lee Ping-bing, Kwan Pung-Leung, Darius Khondji and Philippe Le Sourd. However, one can still find similarities in the visual language of his films even though he has worked with different cinematographers. In Wong Kar-wai’s films, the camera can energetically buzz around the characters or it slows down to allow us to observe fine margins of time and distance that separate characters.

There is also the glorious usage of the step-printing technique which allows the viewer to experience both fast images and slowing down of certain elements in a frame. This technique was used to loving effect in both Chungking Express and Fallen Angels

There is a distinct purpose to the usage of all the different camera techniques. Slow motion or step-printing allows audience to focus on certain moments that are critical to a character’s life. In other instances, the camera allows audience an immersive experience in the film. In a wonderful sequence in Happy Together, the camera allows the audience to become an extra player in a carefree soccer game that employees at the restaurant indulge in during their breaks. In the case of his wuxia films, the camera allows us to properly observe the hand movements thereby emphasizing the art in martial arts. The cinematography helps craft the aesthetic beauty in his frames especially with how each frame is lit and how Wong Kar-wai manages to find beauty in normal everyday objects. This is illustrated by his usage of rain which is commonly found in his movies.

In the hands of Wong Kar-wai, rain attains a poetic beauty. Of course, one of the best uses of rain comes at the start of The Grandmaster which features a stunning fight sequence in rain and the camera movements ensures the entire sequence is a sumptuous work of art.

It is not only the visual elements in his films that share a common bond but even the thematic elements are linked. Many of the characters in Wong Kar-wai’s films are either lonely or isolated. Even if the characters are in a relationship, they are solitary as illustrated by In the Mood for Love where both partners of the main characters are always away. In his films, lonely characters are often pondering about their lives or waiting for something good to happen. Their waiting is highlighted by clocks which are prominently displayed on screen. 

Sometimes, the changing time in the clock signifies a key moment in the characters’ lives. On other occasions, characters wait for the clock to change time so that they can make a phone call or can meet someone. However, characters in Wong Kar-wai’s films don’t have to wait too long in their lonely state as each moment in the film is a chance for a character to turn things around. The opening words of Chungking Express perfectly describe a majority of Wong kar-wai’s films:

“Every day we brush past so many other people.
People we may never meet…or people who may become close friends.”

In his films, a chance to turn a new leaf is only a corner away and the possibility of finding a new love isn’t far away. That is why his films also feature many instances of characters running into each other, narrowly missing each other even though they exist in close proximity to each other. In Chungking Express, Cop 223 specifies he was “0.01 centimetres" from the one woman he loved. The mention of an exact measure is not a random dialogue because such close proximity of characters is on display in Wong Kar-wai’s other films as well. All it takes is one moment; a single second, for characters to collide into each other, or brush their hands against each other before the music starts and a new life begins.

With the aid of his signature elements, Wong Kar-wai has redefined cinema by freeing it from the shackles of traditional scripts and has instead turned cinema into a stylish art form where each frame exudes colour and rich emotions. He is interested in exploring spaces where humans interact, where they make connections or where they narrowly miss each other. He undertakes this exploration by portraying moments which involve glances, an encounter, an affair, heartbreak and agony. These scenes are not presented in silence but are instead stitched together with breathtaking music resulting in seductive, immersive and emotional experiences. This depiction of moments with memorable music gives his films a universal feel and that is a big reason why his films have gotten recognition around the world. His films could be set in Hong Kong or Buenos Aires yet the mood and feelings his characters evoke could take place in any country in the world.

Note: This article was originally published as part of the Cinematheque’s Master Series on Wong Kar-wai in 2017.


Pacze Moj said...

Good write-up, Sachin. Moments (a visual, a song, an effect, a mood) from Wong Kar-wai's films have stuck with me for so long I imagine they'll be there forever. I don't always remember the entire films. I was going to write that the last film of his I saw was My Blueberry Nights (13 years ago, wow!), but I checked his filmography and realized that means I've only missed one, The Grandmaster. He seems to have another in the works. The other element of his early films that now seems so alien is how rooted they were in a Hong Kong that now feels impossibly distant and different. One of the things I remember about Chunking Express is the use of expiration dates. Hong Kong reverting to China. The Cranberries, whose singer is now dead. How time flies...

Sachin said...

Thanks Pacze. Yes, even I recall moments from a lot of films. Even things like rainfall in some sequences. We see so many movies with rain yet I can't recall all those films but I can recall some scenes of rain from Wong Kar-wai's films. In Happy Together, I remember a scene where the character was asleep watching a Boca Juniors game in a packed stadium (not happening anytime soon). This scene had no relevance to the story but helped show how the character was exhausted/lost meaning in life. Yet, it stood out. So many such moments.

For last few years, I kept reading about his new movie about to be released. It didn't happen in 2019 as I had hoped but this year, it may happen.