Consisting of three critical essays and an extended interview with the filmmaker, the Editions Dis Voir publication Wong Kar-wai provides an evocative, thoughtful, and articulate introductory framework into the signature aesthetics and recurring themes of Wong’s cinema. In the overview essay Images from the Inside, Jean-Marc Lalanne equates Wong’s films to the disintegrating, abstract remnants from the painstakingly detailed maps of novelist José Luis Borges’ cartographers whose commission to capture the geographical specificities of an empire had resulted in a sprawling, unusable, full-scale map that exactly covered the entire territory it was intended to represent. In essence, Wong had envisioned such complexly interwoven, large-scale projects that were so ambitious, detailed, and comprehensive that only fragments would remain to provide a tantalizing glimpse into the scope of the unrealized, overarching vision: As Tears Go By was the first film of a larger triptych on urban crime, Chungking Express was to include three other vignettes (noting that Fallen Angels does not exclusively function as an extension of Chungking Express but also as a continuation of As Tears Go By), and Happy Together was initially envisioned as a three hour film on an expatriate couple trapped in a love/hate perpetual limbo of “starting over” in Argentina in 1997 that was subsequently pared down to 90 minutes for the Cannes Film Festival. A similar open-ended ambiguity occurs in Days of Being Wild in the seemingly truncated, extraneous inclusion of Tony Leung near the end of the film as he grooms himself in a Philippine hotel room, providing a visual parallel of an earlier shot of Yudi that was conceived as an introductory segue (in a similar scenario of passing between characters as Chungking Express) to Leung’s character in a planned, but ultimately unrealized, diptych. Wong later validates this theory of “integrated” filmmaking in a subsequent interview with Jimmy Ngai through his comment, “To me, all my works are different episodes of one movie.”
Lalanne also examines the filmmaker’s familiar motif of the “fantasy of pure image, shown before having been seen” as part of a larger methodology of temporal and spatial abstraction, as represented by the prefiguring shot of Iguazu Falls in Happy Together – a destination that the two lovers undertake on a trip together but, upon getting hopelessly lost, never end up seeing. A similar device exists in the recurring use of the magic wine of Ashes of Time, and also in the bookend image of the lush and exotic Philippine jungle as Yudi seemingly experiences an imagined moment of revelation regarding the circumstances of his adoption, a truth that he is earlier shown as having been denied when his birth mother refuses to see him. In Chungking Express, Cop 633 waits for Ping in real-time as people pass by him in accelerated speed. In essence, reality in Wong’s films is not absolute and objective, but serves more as malleable, subjective, and coincident existential spheres that allow for the interpenetration of personal desire, longing, and expectation.
The theme of atemporality in Wong’s cinema is also addressed in David Martinez’ essay, Chasing the Metaphysical Express: Music in the Films of Wong Kar-wai, citing the filmmaker’s selection of anachronistic music in Days of Being Wild, a film that is set in the 1960s but whose soundtrack – cha-chas and rumbas by Xavier Cougat – are from the 1940s and 1950s). Similarly, the traditional tango music by Astor Piazzola that is featured in Happy Together may be geographically accurate, but is not intended to be representative of contemporary Argentinean music. Rather, the (zero displacement) movement of the tango mirrors the state of lovers’ adrift relationship (note a similar integration of musical structure and narrative strategy in Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó). Moreover, Wong’s use of pop music, most notably, Happy Together and California Dreamin’ (for Chungking Express) also serve as abstract, sentimental expressions of the characters’ unarticulated thoughts and unreconciled longing.
In the essay, The Erotics of Disappointment, Ackbar Abbas approaches Wong’s cinema from a sociopolitical context of Hong Kong’s existential soul searching in the years leading to the impending reversion of the British colony to Chinese rule in 1997. Perhaps the most directly allusive of the cultural situation is Happy Together, a film in which the two lovers, Po-wing and Yiu-fai, live out the final days of their passionate, yet volatile and dysfunctional relationship in self-imposed exile on a foreign land – essentially relegated to perpetually reliving their “start over” lives of 1997 – that also serves as a national allegory for the crisis of identity and cultural erasure that seemed imminent with the handover. Abbas equates Wong’s use of undefined, shared spaces (such as Faye’s presumptive appropriation of Cop 633’s apartment in his absence in Chungking Express) and blurred distinction between equally anonymous city landscapes (illustrated by the inverted shot of Hong Kong from Buenos Aires in Happy Together) as the antithesis of uniqueness and individual sense of space. Of this interchangeability, Abbas writes:
Both cities take on the quality of what Gilles Deleuze has called any-space-whatever: ordinary spaces which have somewhat lost their particularity and system of interconnectedness. In this sense then, Hong Kong and Buenos Aires are repetitions of each other. This ambiguous interchangeability is also part of the experience of what is called globalism, and one important implication is that home loses its specificity, and homelessness its pathos.
Acquarello, 2004 [reprinted]