Living in Dreams with Wong Kar-Wai

Wong Kar-Wai’s films desire to make the external world as beautiful as the internal one

Dreams and the Everyday

Fluid and erratic, viscous and elusive, Wong Kar-Wai’s films are feats of dream logic. Scattered across genres and generations, they reveal that, despite their strangeness, they concern familiar human experiences: loyalty, sadness, obsession, and, of course, love. Wong Kar-Wai’s genre reference and twisting bring to mind other cinematic masters, from Jean-Luc Godard in Chungking Express (Chong Qing Sen Lin, 1994) to Martin Scorcese in As Tears Go By (Wong Gok Ka Moon, 1988). But Wong also creates a space entirely his own, with his signature use of bright colors, strobe effects, handheld camerawork, pop music, and broad themes.

It’s no surprise, then, that a retrospective of Wong Kar-Wai’s work, shown from 14-23 May 2004 at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) BAMCinematék, leaves one feeling a little less bound to waking sense, a little caught up in a hallucinatory world, and a little short of breath. “Living in Dreams: Wong Kar-Wai,” contained nearly every film written and/or directed by Wong Kar-Wai and was scheduled to nearly coincide with the debut of the director’s newest film, the mysterious 2046, due to be released this year. So far, he has declined to reveal the subject of this film, which could, according to published reports, be science fiction, a continuation of In the Mood for Love (Fa Yeung Nin Wa, 2000), or some combination of the two.

Set in Hong Kong, China, and even Argentina, the films of “Living in Dreams” span nearly 15 years of filmmaking, from The Haunted Cop Shop (Meng Gui Cha Guan, 1988) to 2000’s highly acclaimed In the Mood for Love. Rapturous, frustrating, emotional, occasionally disappointing, but always invigorating, “Living in Dreams” offered a chance to watch Wong Kar-Wai emerge from studio stylist to visionary artist.

In nearly all of Wong’s work, vibrant color hints at bottled-up emotions or unexpressed desire. At the end of As Tears Go By, just before Wah (Andy Lau) is shot, the camera peers at the foreboding parking lot where he is to meet his fate through orange plastic curtain flaps. In this sudden glimpse of color, we see the location of Wah’s death before he even arrives. It is both distancing and shocking distancing because we are forced to take a step back, to examine the establishing shot through a filter, and shocking because the color is unlike any other we have seen yet in the film. Up to this point, it’s been all neon blue and muddy browns, and now with a simple switch in foreground color, Wong Kar-Wai eerily sets the stage for an equally shocking ending.

Twelve years later, for In the Mood for Love, Wong Kar-Wai used breathtakingly colored and patterned costumes, paired with clashing wallpaper and house decorations. Shooting Maggie Cheung as Mrs. Chan in stunning dresses next to thickly detailed wallpaper results not in an overload of visual stimulation, but in a new expression of longing. All the urgent passion that Mrs. Chan and Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) cannot show, lest they fall into infidelity, is revealed in the explosive hues that fill both foreground and background. Switches from black and white to color photography in Happy Together (Cheun Gwong Tsa Sit, 1997) illustrate the changes in the relationship between Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Yui-Fan (again, the incomparable Tony Leung) that even the two men cannot fathom. For Wong Kar-Wai, color expresses the delicate twists and turns of love and fate that the characters cannot control or even name.

Kar-Wai and cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s fondness for strobe effects, handheld camerawork, and jumpy editing are similarly evocative of complex emotional states, beyond language. Their films together feature whirling, tilting runs through outdoor markets and city streets in Shanghai, Hong Kong, or Buenos Aires. From the active neon marketplaces of Chungking Express and the exotic heat of tango bars in Happy Together to the ancient Chinese deserts of Ashes of Time (Dung Che Sai Duk, 1994), such imagery is alive with possibility. Even the early Haunted Cop Shop contains a similar moment: the opening credits feature a handheld camera running through temples and Peking opera theaters in Shanghai.

While such mad dashes appear frequently in Wong’s films, they read differently in each. In Happy Together, streets are ominous and lonely, places to pick up a one-night stand or be disappointed once again. The frenetic camerawork exaggerates the highs and lows of a disintegrating relationship. In Chungking Express, however, frantic runs through Hong Kong signify the excitement of first falling in love. And in As Tears Go By, similar shots exemplify the young gangsters’ short, tumultuous lives. In each case, the streets represent what is impossible to put into words.

Beautiful though such imagery is, it would ring false were it not incorporated with Wong Kar-Wai’s singular notions of romance and obsession, the belief that all great loves fade and die. The inability of Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow to articulate their love for each other, the violence that tears apart Ngor and Wah, Po-Wing and Yu-Fai’s unworkable relationship: few artists communicate infatuation and loss so poignantly or to such devastating effect.

In Happy Together, Po-Wing and Yu-Fai try desperately to see the famous waterfalls at Iguazu, but circumstances prevent them from doing so. Instead, the audience sees the falls in rapturous slow motion, the waters tumbling through a deep blue filter as Caetano Veloso’s mournful rendition of “Cuccurucucu Paloma” plays gently on the soundtrack. From this point on, we are aware that the lovers cannot be together, but that their efforts to salvage their relationship keep Po Wing and Yu-Fai from really getting rid of each other. When Yu-Fai visits the falls alone, at the end of the film, he finally misses Po-Wing deeply and sorrowfully, regretting what could never exist in the real world, only in fantasy.

Such sentiment drives all of Wong Kar-Wai’s films, the desire to live in a dream, to make the external world as beautiful as the internal one. His dreams evoke the splendor of the everyday. At the end of Chungking Express, when Faye (Faye Wong) takes a job as a flight attendant in order to see California, she brought her dreams into real life. And that is Wong Kar-Wai’s gift to his audiences, bringing his dreams into our real lives.

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