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In the films of Hong Kong’s most international filmmaker, the ravishing beauty of characters, costumes and interiors re-imagines the real replacing it with a collective fantasy.
I used to spend quite a bit of time at the Curzon cinema in London’s Soho neighborhood, right across the street from Chinatown. One autumn evening in the year 2000, the weather was getting chilly as I queued outside Curzon, waiting eagerly for my turn to see Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love. The line was long, spilling over out on to the pavement. Suffice it to say that it was a packed house, not least at the cinema’s largest screen.
With the competitive and struggling market for foreign language films, to say its popularity was a rare occurrence was an understatement. Once inside, as the repeated images of Maggie Cheung, dressed in a series of elongated, elegant, impeccably cut and snugly fitted cheongsams (or qipaos), ascending and descending narrow staircases, her every stop, every turn—demure, yet seductive—encapsulating in the minds of many a bygone era: namely, that of Hong Kong in the 1960s.
The film has a simple premise: a 98-minute depiction of a secret and ultimately unfulfilled romance between the characters played by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, each married to their respective (and never seen) partners who are in turn supposedly engaged in an affair. But what makes the film so arresting, beyond the nuanced unfolding of its painfully romantic plot, is its pure, exquisite, and at times decadent beauty. With varying shades of crimson and flowery patterns featured prominently throughout (a clear nod to the film’s Chinese title, which can be translated as “the blossoming or flowery years”), each component, from its costume and set design to its cinematography and framing, weave together to form an immaculate, richly cohesive visual language. It corresponds with the story to give clues to a fast-moving body of undercurrents beneath a surface of apparent stillness and control, emitting a strong sense of suffocated desire and underlying forbiddance simmering throughout the narrative framework.
In the past two decades, the name Wong Kar Wai has become synonymous with the art house cinema of Hong Kong, celebrated for his highly recognisable and distinctive aesthetic expression. Wong, together with his frequent collaborators—most notably William Chang Suk Ping (art director/costume and set designer/editor) and Christopher Doyle (cinematographer)—have employed a string of diverse recurring concepts, elements and visual motifs to construct a cinematic world unlike any other before. The 1960s undoubtedly represent a key focus in Wong’s feature length oeuvre, having visited it three times: Days of Being Wild (1990), 2046 (2004), and of course, In the Mood for Love. He is, however, just as comfortable shifting between diverse moments in time, from the contemporary (As Tears Go By (1988), Chungking Express (1994), Fallen Angels (1995), Happy Together (1997) to the ancient (e.g., the wuxia drama Ashes of Time (1994) and his most recent martial arts output, The Grandmaster (2013), which spans from the 1930s to the 1950s). The recurring factors within these films—blonde wigs, lush and saturated hues, cheongsams, lingering gazes, household cleaning gloves, claustrophobic interior spaces, repetitions, brightly illuminating lamps, the passing of time (both visible and invisible), cigarette and opium smoke—are just a few of the signposts that populate this world. It is a world that has been decidedly consistent in terms of its visual storytelling, imagined through interpretations of Chinese/Hong Kong visual culture from various time periods.
In both Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, the maze-like architecture and neon-lit night sky of present-day Hong Kong play a large role in shaping the films’ visual texture. While the city’s urban landscape and skyline have long been a source of reference or inspiration to filmmakers, what Wong and his team of collaborators have managed, besides making every single frame a picturesque marvel, is to infuse its familiar sights—Chungking Mansions, McDonalds, the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui, plain apartment blocks—with a sense of mysterious and seductive allure. Coupled with the enigmatic presence of femme fatales like Brigitte Lin and Karen Mok, the films have produced what can be considered as a slightly surreal (or reimagined) version of the city in which everyday reality is given a veiled filter. In In the Mood for Love, the period setting of 1960s’ Hong Kong is in part substituted by Bangkok. It’s a practical choice of setting, since most of today’s Hong Kong bears little resemblance to its 1960s self, but more importantly, it is also an apt reflection of Wong’s approach to the idea of simulated “reality” or “authenticity.” Instead of blindly chasing period accuracy, Wong looks to offer his audience a vision of the 1960s Hong Kong—an engineered look and mood of that period: somewhat run-down and claustrophobic yet owning a certain degree of charm at the same time.
Wong’s cinematic world, however, is beyond mere representation or nostalgia: it is a highly constructed (visual) fantasy in which certain recurring factors transcend the bounds of time and place, notwithstanding their ravishing beauty. While I have yet to see the exhibition, Wong’s involvement as artistic director in “China: Through the Looking Glass” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, seems rather fitting, not least because of its emphasis on how “Chinese-ness” has been represented through fashion and cinema in Western culture. As the show’s curator Andrew Bolton has said: “The show is not about China, per se.” It is instead about the “collective fantasy of China.” In this sense, maybe the exhibition is just another physical manifestation of Wong’s fantasy.
Wong Kar Wai (Hong Kong, b. 1956) is an internationally renowned filmmaker. His upcoming feature is Blossoms, an adaptation of short stories by Jin Yucheng set in 1960s Shanghai.
Yung Ma is Associate Curator of Moving Image at M+, the new museum for visual culture in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District. He recently curated the multi-site project “Mobile M+: Moving Images.”
Film still from Wong Kar Wai, The Grandmaster
Film stills from Wong Kar Wai, 2046