[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a monthly feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
Jason Bellamy: "When did everything start to have an expiration date?" That's a question posed by a lovelorn cop in Wong Kar-Wai's 1994 film Chungking Express, and in a sense that line is a snapshot of what Wong's films are all about. In the 20 years and change that Wong has been directing, he's developed several signature flourishes that make his films instantly recognizable—from his striking use of deep, rich colors, to his affinity for repetitive musical sequences, to his judicious use of slow motion for emotional effect, and many more—but at the core of Wong's filmography is an acute awareness of passing time and a palpable yearning for things just out of reach. In the line above, the cop in Chungking Express is ostensibly referring to the expiration dates on cans of pineapple, which he's using to mark the days since his girlfriend dumped him, but in actuality he's referring to that failed relationship, to his (somewhat) fleeting youth (he's approaching his 25th birthday) and to the deadline he has created for his girlfriend to reconsider and take him back. In the cop's mind, at least, whether they will be together has as much to do with when as with why. Or put more simply: if timing isn't everything, it's a lot of it.
That theme pops up again and again in Wong's films. Roger Ebert zeroed in on it in his 2001 review of Wong's In the Mood for Love when he observed of the two lead characters, "They are in the mood for love, but not in the time or place for it." While that's particularly true of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, it could readily be applied to almost all of Wong's lead characters. In this conversation we're going to discuss Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love (2000), 2046 (2004) and My Blueberry Nights (2007), and over and over again we'll see characters united by emotion but kept apart by timing. So I'd like to open by asking you the following: Do the recurring themes of Wong's body of work strengthen the potency and poetry of the individual films or water them down? Put another way, are Days of Being Wild and Chungking Express enhanced by In the Mood for Love and 2046 or obliterated by them, or are they not significantly affected one way or the other?
Ed Howard: That's a great place to start, because Wong is one of those directors who often hardly seems to be making individual films so much as releasing fragments of one larger film that encompasses his entire career thus far. 2046 is more or less a sequel to In the Mood for Love, and characters in both films are slightly altered versions of people who appear in Days of Being Wild, but those aren't the only Wong films that seem part of a coherent larger universe. He returns again and again to his familiar stock company of actors, who often reappear from film to film playing the same characters, or variations on the same characters, or different characters with shared names. His films are linked in countless ways; that line about the expiration date is repeated in Fallen Angels (1995), which includes a character made mute by an accident involving expired pineapple. Similar repetitions and echoes recur throughout his filmography. It's hard to think of another contemporary director whose films are quite so thematically consistent or as intricately interwoven with one another.
The effect is cumulative, to the point where I wonder if Days of Being Wild is the Wong film that affects me least because it's really not quite as good as the others, or merely because it doesn't have the same already-constructed framework of associations, characters and emotions to build on. By the time Wong gets to 2046, the effect is dizzying, a wild patchwork of references and vignettes that swirl in a vibrant color wheel around the same story that Wong has been telling over and over again throughout his career, a story of missed connections, longing and desire, unresolved dramas. Wong's characters are often haunted by their pasts, so it's appropriate that the films—and especially 2046—are also haunted by the past, by the films Wong has already made and the characters he's already created. When Lulu (Carina Lau) appears in 2046, she fills us in on what happened to her after the events of Days of Being Wild, and her story is unquestionably enriched by the knowledge of her character from the earlier film. If one hadn't seen Days of Being Wild first, her story in 2046 might be just another element in that film's array of people desperately seeking love and connection, but with the earlier film as a reference point it's heartbreaking to realize that so many years later, Lulu is still looking for a "legless bird," a restless, dangerous, passionate man to replace the one she'd loved and lost so long ago.
The flipside of that argument, perhaps, is that Wong's films are so interconnected that one has to see them all, or a lot of them, to get the full effect, and that those who don't make that commitment might be a bit adrift with any given individual film. Certainly, it's hard to imagine getting a whole lot out of 2046 without having seen many of Wong's earlier films first—it's a loony apex of self-referentiality. Maybe that's a limitation, but I don't see it that way. Entering Wong's world is always a pleasure, and his cast of characters and types—restless romantics, would-be noir adventurers, lovelorn cops and self-consciously posing criminals—all seem to be engaged in a search that, for Wong, might just be the essence of being human. The searching, restless quality of his films and his characters, the desperate desire for love, is a core human quality, which Wong's characters simply express in more eccentric and dramatic ways than most, and Wong matches their inventive romantic gyrations with an equally exaggerated, expressive style. Film and characters together are striving for connection, remaking the world through the eyes of one hopeless romantic after another.
JB: I'd love to disagree with you just for the sake of argument, but we're of the same mind on this one. As you suggested, Wong seems to be creating one sprawling work—a feeling that is enhanced not only by the ways that his films overlap when regarded from a distance, but also by the episodic construction of his individual films, wherein narrative cohesion is often flimsy at best. While In the Mood for Love tells one story from start to finish, the other pictures we're discussing include abrupt shifts in narrative focus and even tone, to the point that when reflecting on Wong's filmography it feels more natural to think of each vignette within its own organic narrative and thematic margins, rather than according to the boundaries created by the opening and closing credits. One could argue, for example, that the story of the cop in Chungking Express would fit just as nicely into Days of Being Wild or 2046. Wong's vignettes are malleable that way, to the point that their assemblage within any given film seems almost arbitrary. It's an effect that reminds me, strangely enough, of the way that so many of Woody Allen's whiny rants on love are so readily interchangeable from film to film—any exchange from Manhattan could easily fit into Husbands & Wives or Deconstructing Harry, just to name three.
Actually, maybe that isn't so strange. After all, Allen's films are often criticized for their repetitiveness, which is also a complaint I've heard aimed at Wong's body of work. We agree that the cumulative effect of Wong's films enhances the individual works, but what if Wong were as prolific as Woody? At that point might the magic spell be broken even among his most ardent fans? I'm sure some would argue that Wong has made enough films to have already answered that question. But before we jump to the end, let's begin with what for our purposes is the beginning: Days of Being Wild. You already mentioned that it's the film that affects you least, but why? Is it because it doesn't benefit from the momentum and background of the subsequent films? Or is it underwhelming all on its own? And if so, how?
EH: It's hard to pinpoint exactly why Days of Being Wild doesn't quite move me like Wong's other films. To be sure, there are wonderful moments in this film. The opening scenes, in which Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) seduces Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) through cocky persistence and smooth talk, are delightful, especially his romantic gesture of spending a minute watching the clock with her, telling her he'll remember her forever because of that minute. (That all of this later turns out to be just the game of an unregenerate ladies' man doesn't quite erase the romanticism of those scenes.) There's also the wonderful sequence in which Li-zhen spends the night walking around town with the cop Tide (Andy Lau), talking through her heartache and sadness with him. It's a beautiful sequence, with a late-night noir atmosphere as the two near-strangers stroll through the dark and empty town with its rain-slick streets.
The imagery in this film is gorgeous throughout; this was Wong's first film with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who has shot nearly all of Wong's subsequent films, and it's the beginning of a very fruitful creative partnership. The lush green jungles of the Philippines, where Yuddy eventually goes to find his birth mother, seem to hang over the film like a premonition: the credits roll over a tracking shot of the jungle, thick and wet, with layered shades of green, and this image is reflected in the overall green tint of the film. It's as though that jungle aura has subtly infiltrated the city, overlaying these urban spaces like a damp blanket.
So the film's atmosphere is certainly enthralling, and it has sequences that are as potent as anything in Wong's later work. If it's still a little underwhelming, I think it's because I just don't connect with these characters as deeply as I do in Wong's other films. Li-zhen has more substance here than Maggie Cheung's rather generic yearning girlfriend in Wong's debut, As Tears Go By, but she's still fairly one-dimensional, and the same could be said of Corina Lau's Lulu; both women are defined almost exclusively by their desire for the male protagonist. There's not as much of the eccentric character detail that fleshes out the similar romantics and heartbroken drifters of the later films, and the result is that the film feels like a stripped-down template for a typical Wong scenario. The later films were built on top of this foundation, and the flourishes and elaborations of the films to follow are what make them truly special. Wong's best films are highly specific in their examinations of the desire for connection—one character channels his loneliness into the collection of pineapple cans, another rearranges the apartment of the object of her desire, another recasts his life and loves as a sci-fi adventure story—and Days of Being Wild, for all its admirable qualities, is comparatively lacking in that specificity.
JB: Indeed, there's a kind of directionlessness to Days of Being Wild that keeps it from feeling centered on its axis. The film's core themes are the same ones we outlined earlier, and yet both times I've watched it I've come away uncertain as to what it's really "about." Over the final 20 minutes, there are several moments that feel like the period at the end of the sentence, only to turn out to be commas or semicolons: Yuddy walks away from his mother's home, not allowing her to see his face; Yuddy leaves Tide's hotel room with both of them now remembering one another (or maybe not) from Hong Kong; Yuddy gets shot on the train; Yuddy's mother, in a flashback, watches her infant son being taken away from her; Yuddy, in voiceover narration, has his epiphany about the bird with no legs; Yuddy and Tide talk openly about the woman that unites them; and the phone rings at the booth where Tide told Li-zhen to call him. Each of those moments feels like good places to end the film, and yet it keeps going. And while it's not my place to argue how the film should end, I've never felt a clear sense for why it keeps continuing, especially given its ultimate destination (more on that in a moment). Those final 20 minutes feel slapped together, strongly at odds with the first half of the film in which many scenes are unnecessarily drawn out. (I want to slam my head into the wall each time Yuddy's "aunt" delivers one of her "haven't we covered this already?" monologues about why she won't help Yuddy find his mother.)
I wholeheartedly agree with you that there are terrific moments within the film—a few of them moments that, not surprisingly, are part of the requisite mini-montage that precedes one's ability to press "play" on the DVD menu: Yuddy's goofy-suave dance of solitude in his apartment; Lulu seductively swaying her hips in front of Yuddy before they have sex; Lulu, glammed up, strutting into the frame in search of Yuddy; and of course those treetop shots of the Philippines. And you've mentioned some other great scenes on top of those. But compared to the rest of Wong's work, everything seems a click or two off. Take, for example, that over-the-shoulder shot of Lulu strutting toward the door in search of Yuddy: earrings dangling, cigarette in her lips, the bright door reflecting enough light to create an alluring silhouette. Lulu throws open the door and Wong rack-focuses to Zeb (Jacky Cheung) sitting in her dressing room, and then rack-focuses back to Lulu, her face turned toward us over her shoulder so that we can see her bright red lipstick and blue eyeliner. It's a stunning shot—and yet it's not quite in focus. Not at first. That might seem like a petty criticism, especially in isolation, but it's the kind of inexactitude that you couldn't imagine from Wong in the ever-so-precise In the Mood for Love. (To think about it another way: the classic reveal of Harry Lime in The Third Man wouldn't have the same panache if the camera needed a moment to focus on Orson Welles' face.) It's still a great moment within the film, but it's one with a small yet glaring imperfection.
I feel the same about the way Wong handles a subsequent scene between Lulu and Zeb at the restaurant, immediately after their violent confrontation in the rain when Lulu scolds Zeb for thinking he can become Yuddy just by taking his apartment and his car. The restaurant scene begins with Zeb putting a large wad of cash on the table in front of a depressed Lulu and then sliding into the booth. "What's with all this money," Lulu asks. After a long silence, Zeb replies: "Like you said, you've got to deserve something." Zeb's body is slightly turned away from Lulu, his eyes searching the ceiling for words. "He looked real good in the car," Zeb continues, in reference to Yuddy. "I looked like a joke. So it was better just to sell it." Again there's a long silence. Zeb's sadness and longing hang there like the moisture in the air. He wishes he were Yuddy, wishes Lulu wanted him like she wants Yuddy. It's a moment that comes almost out of nowhere (Zeb is a minor character), but it might be the most poignant moment in the film. And yet from there Wong employs an awkward cut to look Zeb in the eyes, from Lulu's point of view across the table, as he convinces her to take the cash and go to the Philippines in search of Yuddy. It's a simple cut to a sensible enough camera angle, but with that cut the mood is broken. The subsequent shot doesn't seem like a new point of view but like a new take, a new scene, a new moment. It's like hearing a record skip.
Days of Being Wild seems undone by similar small but significant scratches that repeatedly taint the atmosphere that Wong is attempting to create. Wong frequently recreates that atmosphere—because that's one of his greatest gifts—but soon it's lost again, or it seems disjointed from the rest. The final scene is a perfect example of the latter: After the aforementioned moment when the pay phone rings in the sad darkness, Wong cuts to a well-dressed man sitting on a bed, filing his nails, getting ready for a night on the town. The room is dark. Is it Yuddy? Is he still alive? Is it Tide or Zeb; have they become what Yuddy was? No, no, no and no. Instead it's a character we've never seen before (played by Tony Leung), who primps and preens for about two-and-a-half minutes to the sound of Xavier Cugat's haunting "Purfidia," before turning off his bedroom lamp and walking out of the frame, ending the film. According to a typically thorough post by David Bordwell, that last scene was intended as a prequel of sorts for a sequel that never happened, but nevertheless it's the final scene of this film. And I'm curious to know what you think about it, and whether it's damning that two-and-a-half of the film's most engaging minutes really have nothing whatsoever to do with the film itself.
EH: I think it's pretty typical of this film which, as you say, has lots of interesting images and moments but often leaves them dangling, disconnected from one another and from the film as a whole. The last twenty minutes or so—which, I'll be honest, were utterly baffling to me the first time around—are especially disorienting, and not just because of the elliptical storytelling or the sudden introduction of Tony Leung's unnamed character. The scene where Yuddy triggers a shootout with a group of thugs and gangsters is a sudden and bizarre diversion from the tone of the rest of the film, like it was pasted in from a wholly different film. Wong had a background in Hong Kong crime dramas, first as a writer and also in his directorial debut As Tears Go By, and this scene makes it clear that those films were still a lingering influence in his work, one he'd soon submerge much more deeply. (Another obvious reference point is Taxi Driver, and Scorsese in general, especially in the use of music.) Violence often erupts suddenly in Wong's work, fast and frantic, but in the later films such incidents become less common, and when they do happen they're jarring because of the violence and its effects on the characters, not because, as here, there seems to have been a stylistic tear in the surface of the film itself.
That's not the only sign that in Days of Being Wild Wong was still pulling together the elements of his style into the coherent—but eclectic and unpredictable—aesthetic that would fully gel with his next film, Chungking Express. It's funny you mentioned Orson Welles, because sometimes Days of Being Wild seems modeled on the angled cameras and striking framings of Welles the director, with the camera frequently either looking down on the characters from a skewed godlike perspective or craning up at them from the gutter. At one point, as Tide walks away from Li-zhen into the night, the camera suddenly positions itself, for no apparent reason, down by her legs as she leans against a wall; for a moment, the composition allows this shy, awkward young woman to become a femme fatale, her bare legs towering over the decreasing figure of the cop as he strolls away down the street. In other scenes, Wong's visual language references the conventions of melodrama, particularly in all the mirror shots in which the characters aren't seen directly, only their reflections appearing from odd angles. Yuddy's "aunt" and Lulu are especially suited to melodramatics, and it's fitting that they're often the characters associated with mirrors in this film—most notably when Lulu, enraged over Yuddy's sudden departure for the Philippines, throws everything off her dressing table and shatters her mirror at the nightclub where she works.
Even if everything doesn't quite fit together in this film, the stylistic clashes are fascinating, and there's a sense that Wong is discovering and assembling for the first time the distinctive elements of his personal style. The joy of the filmmaking is palpable, as when Wong and Doyle construct a bravura tracking shot that follows Yuddy up multiple flights of a staircase and into the train station bar where he'll soon be embroiled in a shootout. It's the flashy look-at-me maneuver of a director announcing his presence with a style-for-its-own-sake flourish. There's a similar joy in the sequence of Lulu dancing for Zeb in the stairwell of Yuddy's apartment, raising her arms above her head and swinging her hips seductively. It's the moment when Zeb falls for her, and the camera peeks down on the scene from above, glancing over Zeb's shoulder to convey a sense of his perspective, the dizzying angle creating a sensation of vertigo, as though the smitten young man might fall, or leap, into his feelings of desire and love. I feel like I could just keep picking out these moments, because this is a film of moments, where the individual elements never quite cohere into a whole. In subsequent films, I think, Wong would figure out how to maintain that emphasis on the heightened reality of individual moments while slowly accumulating those details as part of a larger picture; here, many of the details are compelling even if the film as a whole doesn't have that cumulative impact.
JB: There's no question that Wong learned to better maintain the tone of his films—even with significant shifts in point of view—in subsequent efforts. Like you, when I watch Days of Being Wild I find it fascinating to see an artist discovering his form in the film's thrilling moments, but I find the stylistic clashes far too jarring to feel that the film is thrilling on the whole. The outbursts of violence are a good example. The film has three of them, and while the first one is poorly staged (Yuddy's assault on the lover of his "aunt" is one of the least convincing ass-whuppins this side of the hurtin' that Sonny Corleone puts on his brother-in-law in The Godfather) and the third one is curiously extreme (the shootout), the second one is rather well done: Zeb striking Lulu in the middle of a rain storm and knocking her to the ground. But the scene doesn't quite work because it doesn't feel earned. We just haven't seen enough of Zeb or Lulu to be emotionally invested in either of them, and so it plays like a narrative aside. It's a potentially great scene, it just isn't great in this movie.
That's kind of the way I feel about the finale, too, although in that case I think it is a great scene, even within this movie. The drawback, though, is that it makes me wish I'd just watched that movie—the one about Tony Leung's invisible man. I think those final minutes expose Days of Being Wild's biggest fault: Leung isn't in it. Leslie Cheung and Jacky Cheung give solid enough performances, but they don't have Leung's magnetism. Over the course of the films we're discussing here, Leung proves himself to be unfailingly watchable. He has an effortless energy. The camera loves him, even from afar when he's buffing his nails. He has the kind of magnetism that we've seen recently from George Clooney in The American—Leung can make the most mundane acts compelling. I think Days of Being Wild also suffers in comparison to Wong's other works due to its blue-green color palette, which feels muted compared to the vibrant reds, yellows and greens that we encounter elsewhere. But even with the subdued palette, and even with all those little imperfections that I mentioned earlier, I find myself thinking that if Leung had been cast as Yuddy, that might have made all the difference.
EH: One place we definitely disagree is on the film's color palette, which I think is gorgeous and wholly appropriate to the film's melancholy mood; it's muted, but deliberately so. We also seem to disagree about Leslie Cheung, and maybe about Yuddy, because though there's no doubt that Tony Leung has movie star charisma to spare—along with Maggie Cheung he's probably the most compelling presence in Wong's films—I think Leslie Cheung does an excellent job of making Yuddy an interesting character.
But not an especially likable character. He's a womanizer whose smooth words and tough guy pose are eventually stripped away, revealing a fragile and pathetic loser who is unable to take responsibility for his own life. He likes to think of himself, romantically, as a bird with no legs that can't stop flying for even a moment: "The bird can only land once in its life. That's the moment it dies." This dialogue could be uttered by any number of (overly) romantic Wong heroes, including those played by Tony Leung in the later films, but the difference is that in Days of Being Wild the main character and his romantic pretensions are utterly demolished. Yuddy is twice told off in the film, his shield pierced by people who see right through him. First, his "aunt," finally sick of his incessant moping over his missing mother, tells him that he's using his adoption as an excuse, which is of course true, as evidenced by the somewhat stunned look on Yuddy's face when she finally tells him where to find his mother, and his obvious ambivalence about getting what he's always claimed to want. In his eyes you can see the realization that his bluff has been called, and now he'll actually have to do something besides complain and half-heartedly seduce women.
The second time Yuddy's cool façade is broken is by the cop, Tide, when the two meet up in the Philippines. Yuddy starts rattling off his familiar bird metaphor, but the cop interrupts him, dismantling the romanticism of Yuddy's self-image as a free spirit. Yuddy is just a drunk who was found in the garbage, the cop says, referring to the pathetic scene he'd witnessed where Yuddy was robbed by a prostitute after passing out in the street. I don't think any other Wong protagonist gets his ego and his sense of "cool" punctured as thoroughly as this.
JB: That's certainly true. And we're actually not that far apart on Yuddy and Leslie Cheung's performance. I agree that Yuddy is a compelling enough character and that Leslie Cheung delivers a thoroughly convincing performance. And yet those final two-and-a-half minutes with Tony Leung are almost enough to make you forget about everything that precedes them; that's my point. Each time I watch the film I find myself thinking back to that last shot of Yuddy on the train, looking upward as the life drains from his face, and I can't help but feel that somehow Leung would have made that scene the definitive end point. There would have been no need to go further.
Of course, that's speculation, an attempt to understand why the film doesn't affect me as deeply as Wong's others. And, actually, Chungking Express is kind of in the same boat. It's a more tonally consistent film than Days of Being Wild—within its vignettes, at least—but it, too, feels like a collection of arresting moments scattered within less-than-absorbing filler. Chungking Express is a sweet film, by far the most lighthearted of the works we're discussing here, and while Wong does sweetness quite well, he doesn't do it extraordinarily. Most of the film's best moments are the ones where heartbreak and loneliness are close enough to touch. That's not to say that they're "sad" scenes, necessarily. One of my favorite moments in all of Wong's filmography is the shot of Leung's cop landing a toy airplane on the naked back of his flight attendant girlfriend (Valerie Chow)—a romantic and sexy scene if there ever was one, but a heartbreaking one also, because Leung's character is remembering this moment after their breakup, missing the relationship that he thought would last forever.
That's Wong's gift—the ability to make a scene touching and devastating all at once. But in between such moments, Chungking Express offers many that are atypically frictionless. For a film that's about two heartbroken guys, it's unusually cutesy, isn't it? Or do you think Wong finds his usual level of emotional conflict from a different angle of approach?
EH: Wow, I don't agree with you on this film at all. Chungking Express is quite possibly my favorite Wong film, with 2046 a pretty close second. For all the lighthearted humor and "sweetness" to be found here, Chungking Express isn't exactly a cuddly film, and if it's "cutesy" at times then it's a cuteness mixed with real pain and also real beauty. It's a hyperactive pastiche that evokes a very complicated stew of emotions, with Wong's familiar heartache and loneliness spiced with brighter, warmer emotions. The film is practically overflowing with style, bursting with visual ideas, ways of capturing the characters' internal states in colorful torrents of inventive imagery. It's a remarkably sensual film, not just in that sexy interlude that you mention (which, I agree, is one of Wong's very best scenes) but in the beautiful candlelit sequence where the candles' lights seem to elongate, stretching upwards, or in the kaleidoscopic, fragmented reflection of a cop (Takeshi Kaneshiro, the cop in the first half of the film) and the unnamed blonde-wigged woman (Brigitte Lin) in the surface of a bar.
As I alluded to in discussing Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express is the film where Wong consolidates the elements of his style into a coherent and powerful whole, even while telling two different stories connected by only the slightest of threads, and even while splintering each of those stories into discrete moments and incidents. What holds the film together, more than anything else, is music, a very rigorous and programmatic use of music that closely associates songs with particular characters. Each of the women in the film has a single song associated with her. For the blond-wigged drug smuggler, it's Dennis Brown's great "Things In Life," which announces the blond woman's presence whenever it's chosen on a bar jukebox. For Faye (Faye Wong), who desires Leung's cop, it's "California Dreamin'," which she blasts at work at the food stand, turning up the volume and bobbing her head, lost in the world of the song. Even the stewardess ex-girlfriend gets a song, a soulful Dinah Washington tune, and when the cop finds Faye playing this song one day instead of her familiar "California Dreamin'," he tells her it's wrong for her, recognizing that the song belongs to another woman.
What Chungking Express is about, ultimately, is the possibility of human connection in an increasingly impersonal and distancing world—a theme that runs throughout Wong's work but is perhaps expressed most potently (and most optimistically) here. In this film, just as songs come to define the essence of a person, in a more impersonal way numbers often stand in for people as well: the answering machine service where Kaneshiro's cop is known only by a number, the cops' badge numbers that pretty much replace their real names. In this context the urgency of emotional connection, of real feelings, is even more important, though often it seems that these characters are better at channeling their feelings into things rather than people. That's why Kaneshiro's character attempts to quantify his heartbreak in cans of pineapple, while Leung's character in the second half anthropomorphizes his apartment and talks to beer bottles when Faye stands him up. He says he likes to see his apartment cry when it's flooded with water or when a towel drips tears after getting wet; he likes to feel that these objects are not impersonal, that there is feeling and emotion invested in them.
Indeed, that's the impulse behind Faye's interventions in the cop's apartment, rearranging things and adding new elements in an attempt to insinuate herself into his life through incremental adjustments to his living space. That's a frequent trope of Wong's films, in which his lovelorn characters often try to achieve closeness and connection through the empty apartments occupied at other times by the people they desire. This is the only form of intimacy available to the killer and his partner in Fallen Angels, and similar scenes recur in Happy Together and In the Mood for Love. I think Wong finds it such a compelling and enduring concept because it so completely expresses the simultaneous distance and intimacy between these characters. In the living space of a loved one, his characters are surrounded by intimate details of the person they desire, but it's a strictly one-way connection, and often a closer, more physical connection eludes them. In Chungking Express, the idea is expressed most poignantly in the scene where Leung's cop wanders all around his apartment looking for his stewardess ex-girlfriend, half-convinced that she's returned to him, and in the process he completely fails to notice Faye, who's dodging him and hiding just out of his sight. It's a playful and funny sequence, and even a little "cutesy," but it also expresses the heartbreaking fact that, obsessed with his past and his pain, the cop is unable to see the hopeful future that's right in front of his face.
JB: Oh, come on, man. That scene is "cutesy," and not just "a little." We don't have to consider "cutesy" an insult, and, truly, I don't, but we at least have to call it what it is. I think you're right, of course, that there's genuine heartbreak in this film, and even in that scene (although to a far lesser degree), but in the traditional sense Chungking Express is more comedy than tragedy, not just because of the somewhat atypical happy ending, but also because almost every scene of anguish is festooned with humor and/or whimsy. For example, think of Qiwu, the cop in the first half of the picture, making funny expressions as he munches through one of his cans of pineapple, or offering pineapple to his confused beagle. Think of the montage of Qiwu calling seemingly every woman he's ever known in an effort to land a date, at one point phoning someone who he hasn't talked to since the fourth grade, who not surprisingly doesn't even remember him. Think of Qiwu repeating his lame pickup line four times to the blond-wigged drug smuggler until he lands on the language they share. Think of Qiwu coming up with three reasons why a woman would be wearing sunglasses at night, never considering that they might be a disguise, or later cleaning the drug smuggler's shoes, perhaps wiping away evidence, thus repeatedly proving his bumbling ineptitude as a cop. Or think of Leung's cop, number 663, talking to a bar of soap or to a "crying" dishrag. Or think of almost every scene with Faye, the virginal innocent, a schoolgirl in a woman's body, playing in Leung's character's apartment: flying a toy plane around the room, submerging the toy in a fish tank, swapping out the labels on cans of fish or calling her uncle on a sunny day to say that she's trapped in a rainstorm when really she's watering a plant in the shower. None of those moments are riotous knee-slappers, but I think they're more likely to induce smiles than tears, and while I would never suggest that genuine pain is entirely overlooked in this picture, I certainly don't feel Chungking Express has the same soul-crushing emotional intensity of the other films we're talking about here.
In saying that, I don't mean to imply that Chungking Express is a lesser film than Wong's other works. I only mean to point out that it's quite different. Chungking Express is an optimistic picture, one that suggests that no matter how bad things seem at any given point, there is always hope for improvement, sometimes in the most unpredictable of ways. Kaneshiro's character begins his birthday convinced that no one out there is thinking of him, and he leaves his story fortified by the simple gesture of a woman he doesn't know. Leung's character begins his story in love with the flight attendant, then falls in love with Faye, then loses Faye just as quickly and ultimately finds happiness giving up his badge and taking over the food stand where they met. What I enjoy most about the film is the way it reflects how childlike and vulnerable we can be in private moments: Kaneshiro's character tries to exude cool, but the password to access his voicemail is "Love you for 10,000 years," and his apartment includes large stuffed animals; and then there's Leung's character, who walks around his apartment in his underwear while clinging to the playfulness that he enjoyed with his girlfriend. In some of Wong's films, his characters are perhaps overly poetic, but these characters feel modest, accessible and familiar, and there's something to be said for that. It's an ultimately touching film, but I don't find nearly the level of poignancy in it that you do.
EH: I never meant to imply, of course, that Chungking Express isn't funny and lighthearted, because it undoubtedly is both. But that humor, that playful sensibility in these sometimes almost-childlike characters, doesn't diminish the poignancy of their floundering search for love and intimacy. The film focuses on the same themes of heartache and connection as Wong's other films, but does so with much more humor, and with much more optimism about the place these heartbroken characters ultimately end up. (For the most part, anyway: notably, the blond-wigged woman kills the former partner who betrayed her and then wanders off alone, a much more expected Wong ending.)
Wong uses his newly assured, eclectic style to explore these emotions, balancing the playfulness of the characters—and of the stylistic flourishes he slathers over the film—with the more painful and heartbreaking aspects of the stories and characters. The scene you bring up where Qiwu gets a birthday call from the blond woman is a good example. Wong's aesthetics magnify the moment, enhancing its emotions and its surprising beauty. Qiwu makes the call to his answering service, gets the message, and Wong inserts a shot of a clock turning from 5:59 to 6:00, marking the anniversary of the exact moment when Qiwu was born. That's what Wong is all about, that kind of heightened reality, an intensified reality where every gesture is meaningful, where every coincidence is magnified into a real movie moment. Qiwu is happy to get a call on his birthday, just when he most needs that assurance of human connection, and he says he'll remember the moment forever, that he wishes he could can it like pineapple. Wong freezes the frame on a shot of Qiwu with his hand on his chest, as though trying to hold what he's feeling now in his heart. It's a very moving scene, one of many in this film.
That's because the flipside of your correct assertion that "almost every scene of anguish is festooned with humor and/or whimsy" is that all that humor and whimsy is wrapped around characters who are, like most of Wong's romantic heroes and heroines, desperately seeking to either regain the love they've lost or to discover love anew. That scene where Qiwu calls all the now-long-outdated names in his little black book is very funny, yes, but there's also something sad about it, especially since it draws attention to his now-ended five-year relationship, as some of the women he calls say they haven't heard from him in exactly that many years. Chungking Express may not have the "soul-crushing emotional intensity" of most of Wong's other films, but only because its emotions aren't really "soul-crushing," for the most part—they're certainly intense enough, though.
JB: That's true, and my comments about the frictionlessness of Chungking Express are relative to its place within Wong's filmography, which is heavy in "soul-crushing" gravity. Meanwhile, I have to recognize that your defense of the film's poignancy, in spite of its playfulness, is somewhat upheld by the fact that the blond-wigged woman's story makes for the least powerful vignette in the film, despite its considerably more severe tone—one marked by violence and death. To be clear, I'm not saying that her vignette is unaffecting, because I'm consistently crushed by the simple brutality of the moment when she kidnaps the shop owner's daughter and leaves him to agonize over his daughter's fate, unaware that the kidnapper is treating her to bowls of ice cream with every intention of returning her safely. For the most part, though, the wigged woman's story draws its power from the ways it overlaps with Qiwu's story, and perhaps from its intrigue, and when her story ends we're reminded of how little we know of her. Her anonymity, of course, is one of the main reasons that her vignette is less affecting than that of either of the cops, as is the fact that she has less screen time than either of them. But I suspect that another key factor is attributable to the vignette's style.
Earlier you said that Chungking Express is "practically overflowing with style, bursting with visual ideas, ways of capturing the characters' internal states in colorful torrents of inventive imagery." I agree with the latter part, but I don't think the first part requires any sort of modifier, and sometimes I wonder about the ultimate effect of Wong's "visual ideas." Chungking Express is, indeed, overflowing with style, and no more so than in the vignette of the drug smuggler, which is highlighted by off-kilter slow- and fast-motion sequences that turn the florescent city lights into neon blurs. It's an appropriate visual treatment, underlining the way in which the drug smuggler is always on the run, never settled (until, of course, she meets Qiwu and reduces to his speed, eventually even taking a nap), but it's not a treatment that lends itself well to repeated use, and by the midway point it feels overdone. It's a flourish that can be defended but that doesn't quite fulfill—an exercise in style that has substantive justification and motive that nonetheless winds up feeling like nothing more than gratuitous ornamentation. It's the most obvious example, in my opinion, of a time when Wong shoots for that "heightened reality" that you mentioned and misses the mark. But I suspect you might think otherwise.
EH: You suspect right. Part of it is that I may just have more appreciation for gratuitous style for its own sake than you. But more than that, I find the style of Chungking Express to be utterly thrilling in every way, including the manipulation of speed that makes the drug smuggler's scenes leap unpredictably from frantic action to languid lyricism. As we've both pointed out, Wong is usually dealing with very strong, intense emotions, so it makes sense that he's developed a visual style that's suited to expressing those emotions with an appropriate level of intensity. At the same time, the hyperactive pastiche of the scenes with the drug smuggler represent a nod to Wong's immersion in genre filmmaking, and the blond-wigged woman herself is another of Wong's genre archetypes, even if Chungking Express as a whole distances itself from the hyper-violent stylization of As Tears Go By or Fallen Angels.
The drug smuggler seems to come from a different world (and a different film) from the cops, who despite their profession don't exactly seem like they come into contact with high crime every day. You've already pointed out some of the most comical signs that Qiwu is a lousy cop, but my favorite is the throwaway bit of dialogue where he says that he used to call his girlfriend every time he made an arrest, which makes it sound like a very rare special occasion. When Qiwu and the smuggler come into contact, it's not just two different people clashing, but two different styles, two different types of films: the self-conscious gangster poseur and the idiosyncratic romantic. The clash is embodied as well in a playful Easter egg, the one scene (as far as I've detected) where the film's two main women come into contact, when Faye walks by the blond-wigged woman during the film's first half. The blond woman is posing dramatically in her trench coat, considering her next action in trying to track down her betrayers, and Faye goes strolling by carrying a tremendous Garfield stuffed animal; that about sums up the gulf between the cutesy and the intense in this film. It's a conscious clash, as is the scene where the blond woman kills her former partner, and his bloody body falls in an alley surrounded by cute, cuddly kittens, his lifeless hand extended towards an expired pineapple can, which brings the two thrusts of this story together, so that the genre story and the breakup story are resolved with the same moral: everything expires, everything comes to an end.
It's interesting that you criticize the repetitiveness of Wong's style in this film, because Chungking Express is largely built around repetition, around parallels and mirrors, and not only because it's split in half between two stories of heartache and recovery. I've already praised the repetitive use of music, which is my favorite element of the film, and Wong often pairs these aural repetitions with visual cues that signal a particular song's appearance, like the CDs spinning and reflecting light in a jukebox display, an image that's linked to Dennis Brown's "Things In Life" and by extension to the blond-wigged woman. While I can see why you might say that film overuses certain of its stylistic devices, I find the recurrence of these flourishes both purposeful and hypnotic, an integral part of the splintered but inherently playful world that Wong is creating, where some people play at being gangsters and others play at interior design.
JB: What we're getting down to here is a matter of personal taste in a very specific area. Because, see, I like Wong's use of repetition—it would be almost impossible to enjoy Wong otherwise. It's just that whereas "Things In Life," "California Dreamin'" and Faye Wong's cover of the Cranberries' "Dreams" stand up well to their repetitive aural implementation, I don't feel the same about Wong's visual treatments in regard to the blond-wigged woman. Again, Wong's use of alternate speeds is perfectly appropriate and easy to defend, from a structural, mathematical standpoint, but it's a device that simply proves tedious to me—much in the same way, I suppose, that 3-D proves tedious to many viewers of James Cameron's Avatar, even when it thematically enhances the otherworldly experiences of the protagonist. To those who enjoy the visual flourishes, it's poetry. To those who find those flourishes empty and irritating, it's gimmickry. The shots you mentioned of those spinning CDs in the jukebox showcase Wong's ability to create arresting visuals out of the mundane; I love those shots. But when Wong attempts to enhance a chase sequence by altering the frame rate, it reminds me of the kind of overdirection that too often dooms Danny Boyle. I agree that it's a gimmick that's "suited" to the emotions of that scene, but that's different than saying that Wong's manipulations actually enhance the effect.
Perhaps then that has something to do with my fondness for In the Mood for Love, which has no shortage of style or repetition but is the most tonally and aesthetically consistent film we'll cover in this discussion. It's the film that, to me, shows Wong at his most refined. I realize that could be a disappointment for some who appreciate Wong precisely because of the way he's willing to cross genres and mingle moods, but each time I watch this film I'm taken aback by its cohesion, by the way each and every second of the film seems in balance with the rest. At the outset we discussed something I'm sure we'll come back to later—the way Wong's films overlap to create one sprawling opus—but In the Mood for Love is the film that best stands alone, as if it's the axis on which the other films pivot. It's a painstakingly crafted film that feels effortless, one in which each flourish seems borne not of concept but of soul. It is, I think, cinematic perfection (which is not to imply in any way that it is the only kind of cinematic perfection).
It's also an emotionally devastating film, and a special kind of emotionally devastating film at that. As Steven Santos summarized over at The Fine Cut, "Every image sticks in your head like remembrances of a lost love. It is almost embarrassing to even attempt to communicate how devastating this film is. I often space out the viewings of this movie because it does become hard to deal with in that aspect. It's a movie that almost actually begs to be watched alone, the very opposite of what most romantic pictures (aka 'date movies') are designed for."
EH: That's an interesting way of putting it, that this is a romantic movie that should be watched alone, because In the Mood for Love is very much about a romance in which both of the people involved remain alone, together and yet not, simultaneously intimate and isolated. The film is a moving quasi-romance between Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung), who live in the same building and who form a connection when they realize that their spouses are cheating with one another. At one point, Mr. Chow rents a new apartment as a place to write—he's trying to write kung fu serials with Mrs. Chan's help—and the two of them spend many days there, talking and working. They have all the accoutrements of an affair, including a secret apartment just for them, without actually moving beyond their emotionally charged friendship.
In these scenes, Wong's camera glides around them, showing them in mirrors or partially obscured by the hazy gauze of curtains, images that prevent them from being seen directly. One tracking shot reveals Mrs. Chan in a segmented mirror, smiling at Mr. Chow, but as the camera pans right across multiple reflections of him at work, he's looking down, not meeting her gaze. Then the camera tracks back to pass her again (she's now intent on reading as well) and finally all the way back to the left to catch one more reflection of him, looking up at her now that she's no longer paying attention. They are together yet separated, each feeling for the other but not quite connecting, their gazes falling on each other at different times. Sitting across the room from one another, they're brought closer only in an illusory way by the mirror.
A similar effect is achieved by panning from one room to another in the building where they live in adjoining apartments; they sit back to back in their individual apartments, separated from one another by the wall between the rooms, so close and sitting in the same solitary pose, but unable to get any closer. It's the perfect visualization of the frustrated romantic connections that are one of Wong's primary subjects, and In the Mood for Love is full of such formally rigorous shots. You're right that this is Wong's most "refined" and "aesthetically consistent" film, a film where every element of the mise en scène and composition contributes to the sense of separation between these two people who clearly love one another.
JB: The relationship between Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan is one of the most interesting you'll find in cinema. They clearly love one another, yes, but they are also united in their suffering. As much as this is a story about the creation of a new relationship, it never stops being a story about the destruction of existing relationships: the marriages of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan. That makes In the Mood for Love a 180-degree turn from the trajectory of the typical Hollywood romance, wherein new love is almost always cherished over old or existing love, to the point that there are films like 2001's The Wedding Planner, in which the audience is encouraged to root for Jennifer Lopez's character to steal away the groom of the very wedding she's been hired to coordinate—a plot twist that if it happened in real life would cause people to recoil in horror but that within the film itself is treated like the pinnacle of romance and soul-mating. In Wong's film, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan can never get beyond their marriages, in part by choice (they don't want to become their cheating spouses) but mostly because the hurt of those betrayals is too strong to escape.
That, as much as anything, is why this film is so devastating and why it begs to be watched alone, because is so superbly shows how difficult it is to move beyond heartbreak, which as a rule is a deeply personal and isolating experience. And what's interesting is that while most films suggest the isolation of a failed relationship precisely by creating isolation—think of Jon Favreau's emotionally inhibited Mike in 1996's Swingers, who can't ever get a relationship started with a new girl because he's still fixated on the last one—In the Mood for Love makes that feeling of isolation excruciatingly palpable precisely by bringing two characters together. It's because we know that Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan have feelings for one another that we fully appreciate the trauma of their spouses' infidelity—because the latter paralyzes them from fully giving in to the former.
Wong captures the coming together of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan with the kind of heightened reality that you might expect if this were a straightforward romance: all those slow-motion pass-bys on the way to the noodle stand, the characters illuminated by street and shop lights, the haunting "Yumeji's Theme," which suggests yearning and passion and, just as much, sadness and isolation. But despite appearances this isn't a film in which new love will soothe the pain of lost love, and even though these early scenes seem to foreshadow a typical romantic partnership, the rest of the film will consistently thwart those expectations.
EH: One way in which Wong thwarts those expectations is the clever way he stages conversations between Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, in which it initially seems as though they're finally getting beyond their platonic joint suffering, finally expressing their real feelings for one another, only to turn those conversations on their head as we realize that they're actually role-playing as their cheating spouses. In one scene, they act out what they imagine might have happened when their spouses first began their affair, trying to guess who would have made the first move. The scene thus plays out twice with virtually identical dialogue, the only variation being which person is the assertive one. The first time through, it seems like the conversation between Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan has suddenly turned flirtatious and light, but by the end it's clear that, though they're speaking words of seduction and desire, the words aren't meant to apply to one another. They recreate their spouses' affair verbally, and perhaps even emotionally, but not physically. Still, the words they're saying during these recreations often seem like expressions of the characters' own feelings for one another, though ostensibly they're just trying to understand and cope with their spouses' betrayals.
As you say, their fixation on the past prevents Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan from forming a new romance of their own, but they're also held back—as Ebert implies in the review you quoted at the start of this conversation—by the time and place in which they live, by social pressure and their sense of propriety. They are very conscious of perceptions, very conscious not only of maintaining their marital fidelity (even when their spouses don't) but of maintaining the appearance of fidelity. That's why Mr. Chow rents an apartment across town where they can be together while avoiding even the suggestion of an affair. Before that, when Mr. Chow's landlady and the neighbors unexpectedly return home early from a night out, Mrs. Chan is trapped in Mr. Chow's bedroom, unable to leave without creating the impression that they've been caught cheating.
There are thus several barriers that prevent these two lonely and sad people from starting the romantic relationship that they clearly wish they could. To continue your analogy to the conventional Hollywood romantic tradition, if Hollywood romances are in almost every case about the formation of a romance, Wong's film is instead dedicated to exploring all the reasons why a romance doesn't form between these two characters, why a romance is unable to form. The closest they come to real romance occurs after Mr. Chow leaves, on his own, for Singapore. He never sees Mrs. Chan again after this, but at one point she does come to visit him, entering his apartment when he's not there, walking around the room, laying on his bed, smoking his cigarettes, and stealing his slippers as a souvenir before she leaves. As I said before, this is a recurring trope in Wong's work. It's a kind of intimacy, a way of being close without actually being close, and it's also a downer echo of the playfulness of Faye in Chungking Express. Like the cop in that film, Chow comes home to an apartment that's been subtly altered, its interior marked with the presence of a woman who loves him, but whereas these visits were a precursor to future connection and romance in Chungking Express, in this film the woman leaves for good after a single visit, leaving behind only phantom traces.
JB: That's a powerful scene because of what it signifies, even though the scene itself is quite unassuming. When Mrs. Chan sits in Mr. Chow's apartment, it's as if she's sampling the life she could have had, and frankly could still have, with him. Up to that point, Mrs. Chan has been in the apartment that Mr. Chow shared with his wife, and she's spent time with him in the apartment that they both maintained was nothing more than an office for writing, but until she steps into his Singapore apartment, she's never seen what Mr. Chow's life looks like free from his wife and free from the pretense of marital fidelity. In Chungking Express, Faye infiltrates the cop's apartment because she's too uncomfortable to find another way to initiate intimacy, but in this film Mrs. Chan has already been intimate (emotionally speaking) with Mr. Chow, and so when she enters his Singapore apartment it's as if she wants to conjure the closeness that she'd felt so many times before.
That scene is ambiguous enough that we can't know Mrs. Chan's specific intentions. It's possible that she shows up in Singapore open minded to the possibility of staying there, giving in to her feelings for Mr. Chow. But mostly it feels like a quiet goodbye, like someone lingering in the doorway watching her lover sleep before she returns to the real world. That would make that scene the first of two heartbreaking solitary goodbyes, because the film's final scene of Mr. Chow at the temple is cut from the same emotional cloth: a man, on his own, whispering into a notch in the rock wall, speaking secrets that we cannot hear but have no problem guessing. In that latter scene, Mr. Chow is spontaneously following up on a practice from an old legend in which people would climb mountains, whisper their secrets into a hole in a tree and then cover up the hole with mud to lock their secrets inside. The spontaneity of his action—he sees the hole and comes up with the idea—is a sign of how much he still thinks of Mrs. Chan, even though they have gone their separate ways.
Wong captures that scene from a variety of angles, each of them powerful in their own ways. Most memorable for me are two specific shots: one from far above Mr. Chow, as seen from the vantage point of a confused onlooker, which shows just how fully and unselfconsciously he commits himself to the exercise, and one from close up, near Mr. Chow's hands, as if seen from the vantage point of the wall, which allows us to watch Mr. Chow's jaw ri