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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
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   The Seduction of Wong Kar Wai  



 

The Seduction of Wong Kar Wai

by Chris Khoo

Auteurism is defined as the analytical process of "choosing in the artistic creation the personal factor as a criterion of reference, and then postulating its permanence and even its progress from one work to the next" (Bazin, 1957 as cited from Stam, Burgoyne & Lewis, 1994, p. 190). It goes to show that an auteur is a director who brings distinctive and recognizably stylistic or thematic characteristics to a film. Wong Kar Wai is touted to be the most Eurocentric auteur, bearing Jean-Luc Godard’s influences, his nebulous servings of lost-love and loneliness in a seductive pastiche of visual topiary reach out to a wide international audience. Although his films failed at even the local box office, Wong’s films contain the sublime universality that struck a deep chord with the postmodern audiences. Wong Kar Wai is a bona fide and consistent postmodern auteur. He is one of the few Chinese auteurs who truly steps out of defunct modernity and dives into the evolutionary postmodern world today. Postmodern, as one would understand from Cahonne (2000, p. 4), is the acceptance of non-singularities and ambiguities of the world, contrary to the modernist view that dwells in totality, realness and conclusions about disinterested truths.

Besides his evident filmic preoccupations with postmodern themes, his filmmaking style can attest to his reputation of being a postmodernist – working without a standard script. As Stokes and Hoover (2001) described, his "process-oriented working method is organic, operating on the value of pursuit ‘as’ happiness rather than pursuit ‘of’ happiness" (p. 270). In so far, Wong admits that he does not truly learn what his movies are about until he edits them (Stokes & Hoover, 2001, p. 270). He consolidates his explorations on postmodernism by creating cinematic symbols and motifs in his films. If postmodernism is the key to his distinctive auteurship, it is crucial to examine his film form and the facets of postmodernism in his films.

Wong Kar Wai’s narrative structures contain postmodern philosophers, Baudrillard’s philosophy of ‘seduction’ and Nietzsche’s philosophy on ‘the innocence of becoming’. He integrates these philosophical parallels into his films and creates a charm that thrills and perplexes audiences alike. Firstly, ‘seduction’ as Miller (2002) suggested, contains "an enigmatic aura, which is part of its charm and power: even if it could be analyzed, we wouldn’t want it analyzed, as that would rob us of this charm" (p. 2). Secondly, according to Nietzsche’s ‘innocence of becoming’, the world is constant and incidental. Events must happen; occurring for the sake of occurring and human actions must not be prompted. It must happen not through choice but through chance. It is what Nietzsche would describe as an interminable process of becoming, a metamorphosis. The combination of these philosophies in his films postulates the enigmatic visual. The enigmatic is essential in Wong Kar Wai’s films because "it is also seductive: it retains a certain uncanny mystery or sublime charm" (Miller, 2002, p. 3). The strong undercurrents of Wong Kar Wai’s films, Chungking Express (1994) and Happy Together (1997) reverberate with such enigmatic themes – that life is full of interpretations and changes, a mystery itself.

The notions of ‘seduction’ and ‘the innocence of becoming’ are exemplified through the characterizations of Chungking Express (1994). The first part of the two disparate tales tells the transient noctivagations of a beat cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and a woman in blonde wig (Brigette Lin). After being dumped by his ex-girlfriend and many futile attempts on hitching up with a new girl, cop 223 makes the absurd decision to fall in love with the first woman who walks into the bar and hence the woman in blonde wig. In his naiveté, he actually pesters a worn out drug smuggler who has just escaped her enemies. The first seduction stems from the mysterious image of the drug smuggler incognito with a blonde wig and perpetual sunglasses while the pairing of these two characters constitutes a second seduction. If we look at another root meaning of seduction, it means leading astray from a normal or straight path of conduct (Miller, 2002, p. 2). In this case, we see a cop and a criminal, the young man and an older woman; it is something out of the norm, postulating a kind of seduction. In Happy Together (1997), seduction takes on a different form where Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung are paired up as homosexual lovers. Firstly, it is essential to maintain that homosexuality is not something special as Wong confesses:

It is the story about two persons living together, and it so happens that the two persons, they are both men. The story can apply to a man and a woman, or two women, even a man and a tree…people kept asking me about 'why you make a film about two men?', and I think, maybe when people stop asking these questions, then there won't be any difference in making a gay film or a film about a man and a woman (Eng & Lebinh, 1995, Wong Kar Wai exclusive interview).

Wong is trying to say that real sexual dichotomies do not exist. Sexuality is symbolic and it is not bound by predisposed biology. Wong’s statement tallies with Baudrillard’s notions of sexuality in his book, Seduction,

Neither homosexuals nor transsexuals, transvestites like to play with the indistinctiveness of the sexes. The spell they cast, over themselves as well as others, is born of sexual vacillation and not, as is customary, the attraction of one sex for the other. They do not really like male men or female women, nor those who define themselves, redundantly, as distinct sexual beings (Baudrillard, 1990, p.12).

Wong seeks to appeal to the audiences’ emotions and imaginations with this pseudo non-rationality (a homosexual relationship).

Wong explores seduction through his integration of semiotics in his strong visuals. According to Monaco (2000, p.157), semiotics is a system of signs. There are three types of signs – iconic, indexical and symbolic (Burgoyne, Flitterman-Lewis & Stam, 1992, p. 5) and Wong’s favorite seems to be the last category, which happens to be the most abstract of all (Juanita, lecture, 2 July 1996), serving as the very foundation of Wong’s seduction. The beauty of Wong’s seduction lies in the connotation of symbolic signs, which can be explained through Metz’s studies of denotation and connotation in the semiotics of cinema. Metz (1968, cited from Mast, Cohen & Braudy, 1992, p. 171) maintained that connotation plays a major role in all aesthetic languages and the artistic aesthetics of cinema stems from the semiotics of connotation that is symbolic. There are many connotations in Wong’s symbolic signs; most of them emanate from his variegated speed photography, color intensive mise-en-scPnes and elliptical editing.

Wong likes to seduce his audience by manipulating time and achieves it through photography speeds. In Happy Together (1997), Wong makes a visual statement of the homosexual couple’s existence beyond time with the sped-up shot of Buenos Aires, he keeps a digital clock within the frame and the audience sees time literally flashing by. Setting and temporal sense are kept surreal and mystical until the end of the film. It suggests how the relationship between Ho Po Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu Fai (Tony Leung) is not something that could last. After their split, time and space gradually become more concrete. Chang (Chang Chen) has saved enough money (we get a sense of some time having passed), and when Lai talks about shifting back to Hong Kong time, one is made aware of the summer rushing by, and Christmas' approach. Within the extract, the audience is bombarded with extreme specifics of time. Lai and Chang both mention the date explicitly, likewise the news excerpt. The news jolts one back to reality. This adds to the sense of closure of the film’s end, it moves from a temporally displaced mood to a realistic one as Lai says, "as if I [we] have woken up from a deep sleep."

In Chungking Express, Cop 223, He Zhiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) crossed paths with the drug smuggler (Brigette Lin) and Faye (Faye Wong) in the second tale. As he bumps into the drug smuggler and later with Faye, his voice-over narrates the detailed measurements of their distances apart, falling in love with the drug smuggler 57 hours later.

Wong’s obsession with the possibility of falling in love through close proximity and contact is a form of seduction. These seemingly diurnal and casual contacts between two human beings are amplified through Wong’s freeze frames and slow motion. The utilization of this technique serves as an explosion of time so that one could absorb the beauty and essence of human contacts that are often taken for granted in the callous and urban city life. The voice-overs further romanticize these moments, connoting the many possibilities generated from the close encounters – a seduction of distance, time and space.

In Happy Together (1997), Lai Yiu Fai (Tony Leung) works in a restaurant as an assistant and gets to know Chang (Chang Chen). Both become fast and gradually good friends. Although Lai is portrayed as a homosexual lover of Ho Po Wing (Leslie Cheung), there are apparently sexual innuendos between Fai and Chang. When Chang decides to leave Buena Aires, he bids farewell to Fai with a hug. Seduction emanates from this scene where Wong uses a series of jump cuts through different photography speeds including the freeze frame to repeat this physical gesture. Fai’s monologue further seduces the audience with a hint of intimacy, he wonders if Chang could feel his heartbeat at such close proximity where their chests are against each other’s. It is another example on how Wong’s photography speeds could render emotive elements and consolidating motifs.

With the help of his long time collaborator and cinematographer, Chris Doyle, they constructed dreamlike and memorable ghettos such as the Buena Aires run-down apartment in Happy Together (1997). In the film, Wong builds a home for the lovers; he manipulates the backdrop and transforms the setting of their Buena Aires’ home into a psychedelic dreamscape. Chris Doyle said in his journal, ‘Our interiors are consciously timeless, they're not logically lit. Time of day is not a concern in this film. Tony and Leslie's world is outside space and time’ (Doyle, 1997). From the long cold corridors to Fai’s impoverished bedroom, the sophisticated use of colors and its textures instill a profound magical quality to the protagonists’ home in Buena Aires. In its true sense, the scenes of Fai’s rundown apartment, the long cold corridor and filthy kitchen were all but attractive. However, with colors such as the bright green lamp bathing under warm bleeding red, orange, overexposed whites and flooding glares, it transcends our narrow perspectives on a ghetto lifestyle revealing a kind of dreamlike theatrical beauty. Amid this unchanging settings, the characters evolve and grow, as how Leung Ping-Kwan (2000, p.246) would describe Chungking Express’ documentation of various changing values and attitudes against the Hong Kong city backdrop. Nobody knows for sure what happens to Ho but for Lai, he seems to slip out of this fantasy world in Buena Aires. The dichotomy between reality and fantasy becomes clear when we are presented with dull colors textures in the hotel room when Fai stops over at Taipei, close to the other end of the globe. Even as Lai walks down Liao Ning Market Street, we see grayish blue tones as compared to the colorful Buena Aires. Though less kaleidoscopic and colorful, the real world or rather the true home (a Chinese community) spells familiarity that keeps a person secure – a message that Fai is trying to insinuate.

Wong does not only utilize colour to decorate and construct mise-en-scPnes but also promoting its use to elicit emotions and feelings. The colour-filled cinematography connotes beauty and poignancy in Happy Together. Toward the end of the film, Lai takes up a job at the slaughterhouse. As he cleans the floor, his voice over narrates about his apprehensions of Ho calling him and asks, "Lai Yiu-Fai, why don’t we start all over again?" He describes how that sentence alone can inflict pain on him and the next shot reveals the floor with a pool of blood. One does not see blood coming out from the body unless it is hurt or damaged, thus, the sight of blood may elicit thoughts of pain. This connotes the pain that Lai is going through but at the same time the shot’s meaning is very directly linked to what he is saying which seems denotative too, rather than connotative.

Wong is an inspiring auteur who values improvisations in the whole process of filmmaking. He displays an adventurous and invigorating quality of filmmaking that reflects in his postmodern explorations in films. Often leaving the audience with open endings, he celebrates the process instead of the outcome. His monologues generate poetic aesthetics that seamlessly translate into a visual medium (Teo, 1997, p.197). It is almost impossible to watch his films with a modernist attitude. The modernist would fail to access the hidden meanings, because they seek totality, wholeness and productive spoon-feed meanings that are absent in Wong Kar Wai’s films. As Teo (1997) would describe, "Wong clearly favours an abstract reading of his films" (p.197). Wong dwells on "the innocence of becoming," one chooses to play in this game and participate in this world of conflicts to experience possibilities. These are reflected in his arcane characters. Like them, we watch his films to experience possibilities, the goal is secondary to the process. There are endless debates on how his films are unfathomable but to ‘know’ is not the way to enjoy. One would just simply have to give up the goal, be seduced and enjoy the experience of being seduced by Wong Kar Wai.

References

Baudrillard, J. (1990) Seduction. (B.Singer, Trans.). Canada: Macmillan.

Burgoyne R., Flitterman-Lewis, S. & Stam, R. (1992). New vocabularies in film semiotics: Structuralism, post-structuralism and beyond. London and New York: Routledge.
Chan, Y.C. (Producer), & Wong, K.W. (Director). (1997). Happy Together [Film]. Hong Kong: Block 2 pictures inc. & Jet tone production co., Japan: Prénom H co.Ltd. & Korea: Seo woo film company.

Chan, Y.K. (Producer), & Wong, K.W. (Director). (1994). Chungking express [Film]. Hong Kong: Jet tone production co.

Doyle, C. (1997). Happy together: Don’t try for me Argentina. Retrieved June 6, 2002, from http://www.wongkarwai.net/stories.php?story=01/10/17/8651364

Eng, D, & Lebinh, K. (1995) Exclusive interview with Wong Kar Wai. Retrieved October 30, 2002, from http://www.astyle.com/interviews/members/wongkarwai.html

Juanita (1996). Film appreciation: Semiotics. [Lecture].

Leung, P.K. (2000) Urban cinema and the cultural identity of Hong Kong. In Desser, D. & Fu, P. (Ed.). The cinema of Hong Kong: History, arts, identity (pp. 227-251). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Metz, C. (1999). Some points in the semiotics of the cinema. In Mast, G., Cohen, M. & Braudy, L. (Ed.). Film Theory and Critism: Introductory readings (pp. 68-74). New York: Oxford University Press.

Miller, R. (2002). Baudrillard’s philosophy of seduction: An overview. [Lecture].

Monaco, J. (2000). How to read a film: The world of movies, media and multimedia: Art, technology, language, history, theory. (3rd ed). New York: Oxford University Press.

Stokes, L.O. & Hoover, M. (2001). City on fire: Hong Kong cinema. New York: Verso.

Teo, S. (1997) Hong Kong cinema: The extra dimensions. London: BFI