Which Mood of Love? Analyzing Love in Wong Kar-wai’s Films
More often than not in legendary Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai’s films, the idea of amorous and romantic love takes on at times seemingly infinite dimensions and interpretations at the hands of its author. Considering the fact that all three of Wong’s critically acclaimed films—the ones I have examined for this project—revolve around the theme of love and relationships, I would like to discern the specific image and conception of love, if there is indeed one, that Wong presents to his viewers through his films. More specifically: What do Wong Kar-Wai’s films depict ‘love’ to be? Do his films present a specifically Chinese sentiment of love and relationships, and if so, what is it? How do aspects of performance such as acting, sound design, and cinematography contribute to and help achieve this specific ideal of ‘love’?
At times the conceptions of love that appear in his films can seem to be at odds with each other, yet at other times, they seem to resonate in perfect harmony. It is my explicit desire in the following analysis to ascertain the conception of love that director Wong Kar-wai originally desired to communicate to his viewers. It is only through careful dissection of all facets of experimental and avant-garde motion picture films such as these that an observer is able to accurately approximate the filmmaker’s intended ‘message.’ Consider if one were to attempt to analyze Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 1967 work, 2001: A Space Odyssey based solely upon its written screenplay—failure would almost certainly be inevitable, even for the most talented of film critics. As I am far cry from the status of a talented film critic, I have chosen to analyze Wong Kar-Wai’s films Happy Together (1997), In the Mood for Love (2000), and 2046 (2004) paying particularly close attention to the cinematographic, narrative, and plot-based elements that comprise the bulk of the films’ aesthetic effect.
Happy Together, the first film of the three in question chronologically speaking, also coincidentally happens to be the one that is most aesthetically unique. Part of the reason is that In the Mood for Love and 2046 are indeed two movies of the same narrative foundation, but visually, Happy Together is also quite different. While Christopher Doyle, Wong Kar-wai’s go-to director of photography, shot both In the Mood for Love and 2046 on high quality 35mm film utilizing industry standard cinematographic techniques such as jib and crane camera control and stabilization, Wong and Doyle made the stylistic decision to shoot Happy Together in an altogether more candid and hands-on fashion, utilizing handheld camera techniques and the grittier 16mm film medium. Upon examining the inner plot details of Happy Together, this stylistic choice begins to make more sense. While In the Mood for Love focuses upon the industry-standard typically heterosexual, adulterous characters Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-Zhen and the network of people surrounding them in mid-1960s Hong Kong and is encapsulated in the wrapper of a romantic period drama, Happy Together instead details a modern-day homosexual relationship between Hong Kong immigrants Lai and Ho who find themselves impoverished outsiders in Bueno Aires, Argentina. Almost all of the set and settings just enumerated as part of Happy Together’s plot resonate as non-standard in the realm of Chinese cinema—even by Hong Kong’s standards—so in a way, the film is both more adventurous and experimental than the latter two. However, as mentioned before, there is much more to all three of these films than what can simply be attributed to their basic plot structures—in synopsis, In the Mood for Love seems like a pedestrian permutation of Cantonese pop culture, yet in reality, there is a non-trivial reason as to why it resounds so well with both the local and global community and has stood the test of time. 2046 functions as the perfect middle ground between the two other films—It continues the story of Chow Mo-wan, yet while doing so, employs the techniques of abstract visual representation and mind-twisting plot structure, all while maintaining a consistently somber, inquisitive tone regarding the reality of love. All in all, when considered as a trio, each one of these films providers the viewer with a valuable vein into Wong Kar-wai’s inner directorial psyche and allows us, the audience, to understand more fully what love means in the midst of life’s peaks and valleys.
Happy Together (1997)
So, what exactly does each film communicate to its viewers about the concept of love? In Happy Together, there are quite a few both visual and narrative elements that provide its viewers with a glance into what a truly trying relationship asks of its participants. The first element that, quite literally, stands out to the viewer is Wong’s ability to communicate emotional depth not from dialogue or a narrative perspective—more on that later—but from a visual one. Although fairly standard practice amongst the independent and avant-garde filmmaking crowd, this cross-dimensionality still remains striking. Take for example one of the very first scenes of the film that shows Lai and Ho together (and happy![ish]) driving along an Argentine highway, in search of the famed ‘falls’ mentioned so many times in the film. When the car refuses to start, Lai is given no choice but to get out and push the car in order to get the engine running. Note also that Ho made Lai do the pushing—this is the first indication of the asymmetry of the couple’s relationship. When Lai gets the car running, its engine starts and keeps driving along the highway. Now, although Lai gets in later and the two continue on their journey, the shot of Lai after the car begins to drive away signals to the audience the separation that exists between the two. Instead of a look of complete relief that their car is indeed running again, Lai’s face is a glass half empty:
This sentiment of separation is echoed many times throughout the film, another example of it comes when Ho entices Lai onto a bus after the two had broken up—one of many times to come. In sitting on the bus, the frame of the shot displayed below is partitioned into two clear segments:
As a final visual example, consider the following image and Gary Bettinson’s accompanying commentary:
“Stationing the camera inside the bar, Wong shoots Yiu-fai through the glass surface, a prominent window inscription partially blocking the protagonist from view. The inscription does more than obfuscate, however—it has the effect of embedding Yiu-fai father into deep space, augmenting his exclusion from the bar interior” (67)
Not only is Lai separated from the bar interior, as Bettinson has duly noted, but in that, he is also separated from Ho, his unfaithful lover. Still other examples are abundant: When Ho wanders off of the highway in the opening sequence alone; as Ho drives away in the backseat of his new lover’s car, with the camera tracking Lai’s disappointed face through the rear windshield; ad nauseam. It is clear that separate movement is a key component of the love that characterizes the relationship between Ho and Lai in Happy Together.
The choice of film color also acts as a visual queue to the audience—while some sequences in the film are shot in black and white, others are shot in fully saturated, unrestrained color. Remember also that this transition between film media does not follow any discernible pattern—It is crucial to recognize this as it shows that while periods of happiness and inverse depression do indeed oscillate within Ho and Lai’s relationship, their behavior and the general state of their relationship is largely unpredictable. The end of the film reinforces this ideal, as Ho and Lai remain broken up. In summary, the two key characteristics that embody the ideal of love in Happy Together are: Love through the lens of separation, distance, and partition; and Love as unpredictable and oscillating.
In the Mood for Love (2000)
Within In the Mood for Love, love is characterized in a not entirely different fashion, but certainly adapts its own distinct set of attributes. The concept of separation still remains, as the focus of the camera falls upon the main characters themselves—Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-Zhen—and rarely, if ever spends valuable time on the faces of other characters. Even if other characters are shown on screen, they are always either narratively insignificant or their faces are never actually shown on screen a la Christopher Nolan. This leads us to a very significant visual and narrative detail: neither Chow’s wife nor Su’s husband is ever shown directly on camera—the most the audience ever sees of either of these two characters is the back of their heads, but mostly what the audience sees is either Chow or Su talking to their spouses on the telephone:
This shows us that love, in Wong’s modern conception of it in In the Mood for Love, is less about the surrounding people, but instead more about the actual lovers themselves. Wong himself offered some insight as to why he chose to never show the respective spouses directly on screen:
“’…mostly because the central characters were going to enact what they thought their spouses were doing and saying. In other words, we were going to see both relationships—the adulterous affair and the repressed friendship—in the one couple […] It’s like a circle, the head and tail of a snake meeting’” (Rayns 44).
This polymorphism that the four central characters of the story exhibit—Chow, Su, and their spouses—seems to be one of the central focal points of the film and its conception of love, and it is perhaps best exemplified in the scene in which Chow and Su meet in a Western-style restaurant to passively confront the relationship that was growing between them:
In this scene the two talk indirectly about how similar the other is to their spouse, and relate these similarities through the medium of chatter about ties and handbags. In a certain vein of thinking, this playful exchange could be dismissed as insignificant small talk, but on the other hand, it is significant as it glances upon the ideals of consumerism and capitalism, a significant portion of what Hong Kong’s identity was growing to be as ‘The Pearl of the Orient,’ and intermixes them with the love that Chow and Su share for each other. Consider also the manner in which Chow and Su are physically separated in the film—by the walls of their respective rooms. This physical partition acts as synecdoche and represents the personal space that exists between the two lovers that cannot and will not ever be transgressed by either party:
The third key element that characterizes love in In the Mood for Love is Wong’s penchant for repetition. Repetition appears everywhere in the film—plot-wise, Chow and Su plan to repeat the same infidelity that their spouses have committed against them; visually, the element of the clock appears again and again; sonically, the main theme is repeated time and time again; and narratively, Su practices asking her husband if he has a mistress several times with Chow. In this repetition relationships are shown to the audience not as refreshing, new experiences, but instead as recycled experiences which will inevitably expire, as Chow and Su’s relationship eventually does. So, in summary, Love in In the Mood for Love is characterized by three major attributes: Love as the result of separation, Love through polymorphism, and Love as repetitive.
As 2046 operates off of the same approximate plot line that In the Mood for Love created—Chow is main character, the main timeline remains in 1960s Hong Kong—it undoubtedly shares several characteristics in common with its predecessor. The idea of separation appears again, yet, again, it has changed shape and manifests itself differently in the film. In 2046, Chow still experiences love, yet it is a different type of experience altogether. Gone are the monogamous emotions he felt for Su Li-zhen, and in their place he substitutes promiscuity and widespread infidelity. According to Tony Leung’s own account, “ is about a man who is trying to get rid of his past. Wong told me that it was the same character as before, but that I should treat him as a completely new character.” Around this metamorphosis of Chow’s character, the viewer also witnesses a sea change in terms of how love is shown to them: Love is rarely directly experienced—at least by Chow himself—but rather an element of voyeurism is introduced as one of the main devices by which individuals experience love and memories of it. Consider the fact that many times characters witness others having sex in other rooms via holes in the wall.
This concept of voyeurism maps conveniently to the science fiction aspect of the film. The film opens on a Japanese man on a train to an undisclosed location, ‘2046’:
Here, in ‘2046,’ love is not experienced directly, but instead via memories, only accessible there, and once one has entered, they can never escape. Of course, we as an audience learn the whole science fiction aspect of the film to be an act of escapism on Chow’s part as a way of escaping the pain of his failed love with Su Li-zhen. So, in summary, the most important aspect of love manifest in 2046 is indirect Love through separation, voyeurism, and escapism.
After analyzing Wong Kar-wai’s three most critically acclaimed films Happy Together, In the Mood for Love, and 2046, it is easy for us viewers to ascertain that Wong believes love to be a complex, ostracizing, unpredictable, divisive, yet oddly fulfilling emotion. As complex and ever-morphing as his movies’ characters’ relationships and love lives are is most likely an accurate indication of how complex he believes the real emotion itself to be. In fact, if one were to ask him today about love, he would almost certainly give an entirely different answer than the caricatures that populate his movies might suggest.
Wong Kar-wai’s representation of love in his filmography is indeed much different than anything I have so far experienced in our class over the semester, but then again, in class, we have mostly focused upon mainland Chinese filmmakers, musicians, and dancers who most certainly were not afforded the creative freedoms that have been afforded to Wong Kar-wai over the course of his career. Consider musician Cui Jian, comedian Zhao Benshan, or visual artist Ai Weiwei—all three of the aforementioned performance artists at one point in their career were reprimanded by the CCP for engaging in creative behavior unbecoming of the image of the People’s Republic of China. Given the recent news that China banned all depictions of homosexual relations, drinking, smoking, and drug use on television, a film like Happy Together still could not be feasibly produced or released in the mainland, even in 2016.
Comparing Wong Kar-wai’s representation of love to other such representations we have encountered in class, Meng Jinghui’s Rhinoceros in Love and William Sun and Faye Fei’s Hedda, or Aspiration Sky High, our understanding of what love means to people all across the world increases tenfold, as we notice some similarities, yet we notice other differences. In Rhinoceros in Love, the audience is exposed to pleasantly authoritarian diatribes railing against capitalism, and in In the Mood for Love, the concepts of love and consumerism cross paths in the utmost, subtle way. In Hedda, or Aspiration Sky High, Haida struggles to reconcile with herself her failing marriage with Simeng and ultimately wreaks havoc upon her former lover’s and her own life, and in 2046, Chow, in an attempt to leave his former life behind, treads upon the emotions of many women in the meantime. Yet, certain key aesthetics are different—In Hedda, or Aspiration Sky High, the plot follows a very contiguous and linear plot, very much influenced by traditional Greek tragedies, yet 2046’s plot is full of flashbacks, time jumps, and other disorienting points of departure. Wong Kar-wai’s films should not serve as an end-all-be-all example of what love means in a Chinese sense, or even a Hong Kong sense really, just as Ai Weiwei does not represent the mentality of all visual artists in China. Instead, Wong’s works should be used to expand our knowledge of Chinese film in general, and they are direct evidence of the importance of Hong Kong’s political and intellectual sovereignty.
Let me leave you with my favorite scene from all three movies:
Bettinson, Gary. The Sensuous Cinema of Wong Kar-wai: Film Poetics and the Aesthetic of Disturbance. Hong Kong: Hong Kong UP, 2015. Print.
Brunette, Peter, and Kar-wai Wong. Wong Kar-wai. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2005. Print.
Rayns, Tony. In the Mood For Love (Huayang Nianhua). Londin: Palgrave, 2015. Print.