In the Mood for Love (花樣年華, Wong Kar Wai, 2000)

“That era has passed. Nothing that belonged to it exists anymore.” So runs a melancholy title card placed a little before the conclusion of Wong Kar Wai’s Sirkian melodrama, In the Mood For Love (花樣年華). Extracted perhaps from the hero’s nascent foray into romantic fiction, the lines hint both at his plaintive sense of longing for lost love, and also to a changed Hong Kong which leaves the lovers stranded having missed their moment for happiness and thereafter trapped, like so many Wong heroes, in a perpetual evocation of the nostalgic past. 

Set like Days of Being Wild in the Hong Kong of the early 1960s, In the Mood for Love is in a sense an anti-melodrama concerning itself with the other side of an affair as betrayed spouses find in each other a kind of solace which ironically leads to love but a love that can never truly be fulfilled. Reporter Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) first brushes past secretary Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk), sharing a name with the lovelorn box office girl of Days of Being Wild, when he attempts to rent a room for himself and his wife only to discover she has already taken it. The couple next door, however, are also looking to rent out their spare room now their son has married and so the pair find themselves next-door neighbours. Their respective spouses, seen only from behind and heard only on the other end of telephone calls or distantly from another room, eventually become more than that, their affair exposed as much as by their excessive business trips and suspicious overtime as by the rather crass practice of buying identical gifts for the illicit lover and legal partner, something also practiced by Li-zhen’s sleazy boss (Kelly Lai Chen) who enlists her husband to pick up a pair of handbags for wife and mistress. 

Li-zhen’s husband Chan (Roy Cheung Yiu-Yeung) seems non-plussed by the request but it perhaps gives him ideas, though not particularly good ones considering his mistress lives next-door, Li-Zhen pointing out to Mo-wan that a woman might not like a gift of a handbag identical to that of her neighbour before admitting she’s noticed his wife carrying just that, while Mo-wan is wearing the same tie as Chan who claimed it was a present from his boss which is why he’s been wearing it every day. Confronted on a similar point, Li-zhen’s boss makes a point of changing his tie before meeting his wife for a birthday dinner. Male adultery is, it seems, normalised and to an extent permissible as long it remains a secret even if openly. With her husband so frequently away, however, Li-zhen becomes a figure of suspicion, her landlady Mrs. Suen (Rebecca Pan Di-hua) warning her that her late night returns have not gone unnoticed while others marvel at her elegance, unable to accept she’s all dressed up just to buy noodles in the rain. 

For all these reasons, the relationship between Mo-wan and Li-zhen must remain chaste and pure even as they consciously role play their adulterous spouses. “We won’t be like them” Li-zhen insists, later echoed by Mo-wan’s admission that “I thought we wouldn’t be like them, but I was wrong.” He wanted to know how it started, and now he does. “Feelings can creep up just like that. I thought I was in control” he remarks in a speech which seems to echo Celia Johnson’s shattering revelation in Brief in Encounter “I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people”. Like the old busybodies of Coward’s prurient, middle class England, the landlady acts as an enforcer of conventional morality, always on the look out for breach of conduct and believing herself acting in Li-zhen’s best interest even as her admonition leaves her in a moment of virtual collapse, grasping the doorframe for support as her eyes momentarily fill with tears. 

Yet it’s Mrs. Suen’s eventual absence that informs us of a sea change. Years later, in 1966, she’s one of many in an apparent mass exodus fleeing the political instability in the wake of a series of riots against British colonial rule. Mrs. Suen is vacating her apartment to live with her daughter in the US where she may stay indefinitely. The Koos from next-door have already moved to the Philippines to live with their son, laying bare the ongoing expansion of the Hong Kong diaspora. Mo-wan eventually finds himself in Singapore, though fleeing emotional rather than political instability, eventually travelling to Angkor Wat in a failed attempt to exorcise his sadness, while Li-zhen, unable to act on her desires and trapped by patriarchal ideas of conventional morality is, like Happy Together’s Po-Wing, left only with memory living in the metaphorical past of Mrs. Suen’s apartment. Something has changed, a once impossible love may now be possible, but “that era has passed”. The couple have missed their moment, trapped on either side of an unbreachable divide. 

For Mo-wan, “the past is something he could see but not touch” a subject of perpetual longing blurred and indistinct as if seen through a dusty window pane. Working again with Christopher Doyle, Wong’s sweeping cinematography captures Mo-wan’s etherial existence through comparatively restrained composition and use of gentle tracking shots following the lovers as they repeatedly pass each other in shadow on the stairs or wander along the deserted, rainy streets of a midnight city. Like a long slow waltz, In the Mood For Love sends its protagonists spinning back towards opposite sides of the floor, trapped in a world which no longer exists and consumed by an irresolvable longing for the nostalgic past. 


Transfer: presented in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio though like the other films in the series of 4K restorations featuring the near universal green tint in a significant change for a film known for sumptuous colour and particularly associated with the use of deep reds.


In the Mood for Love is currently available to stream in the UK via BFI Player in its newly restored edition as part of the World Of Wong Kar Wai season.

Restoration trailer (English subtitles)

Happy Together (春光乍洩, Wong Kar Wai, 1997)

4K

“Turns out, lonely people are all the same” according to the hero of Wong Kar Wai’s melancholy handover romance, Happy Together (春光乍洩). A statement cutting straight to the heart of Wong’s sensibility, it at once casts the individual as the universal as a man is forced to see himself from another direction, mirrored in the eyes of his former lover a man he can neither keep or forget. The title’s all too apparent irony becomes plain as the couple find peace only in incapacity, lovers on the run perpetually in search of but unable to attain the image of idealised romance. 

As if to signal his intent, Wong begins with a zoom in on the symbol of the love the two men can never fully realise in the colourful lamp bearing the image of a majestic waterfall they continue to search for but only one of them finds. Switching to a melancholy black and white he shows us for the time at least a semi-explicit sex scene between two men played by two of the biggest stars of the day while the hero, Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), laments in voiceover his tendency to give in when his lover, Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung), utters the phrase “Let’s start over” encapsulating the tempestuous quality of their romance. To do just that, they’ve fled pre-Handover Hong Kong for Argentina in the hope of fixing their relationship but have discovered only more of the same, their contradictory qualities highlighted by their isolation in an unfamiliar environment. 

Tellingly Po-Wing first breaks up with Yiu-Fai on the road after they fail to find the waterfall as if in acknowledgment of the impossibility of mutual acceptance. Both ending up in Buenos Aires the pair awkwardly reunite, Yiu-Fai working earnestly as a bouncer at a tango bar while Po-Wing becomes a sex worker, his sharp outfits and sunshades an immediate contrast with Yiu-Fai’s somber workwear. Nevertheless, when his new life implodes leaving him badly beaten it’s to Yiu-Fai that he returns. By turns resentful, Yiu-Fai will later describe these days as their happiest, those in which Po-Wing was in a sense tethered, incapacitated, and dependent, his worst qualities neutered by his present need. Demonstrative and affectionate, he attempts to rekindle his relationship with the reluctant Yiu-Fai but is soon up to his old tricks again as his wounds begin to heal while strangely jealous as Yiu-Fai develops a friendship with an itinerant young man from Taiwan, Chang (Chang Chen), who works at the restaurant he transfers to after getting into a fight avenging Po-Wing at the tango bar. 

Like Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing, Chang claims he left Taipei because he was “unhappy” and is currently on a journey to the “end of the world”, looking for a lighthouse where it is said the brokenhearted can leave their sadness behind. It isn’t exactly clear if Chang realises Yiu-Fai is gay, seemingly shocked on picking up the phone to hear a man’s voice where he expected a woman’s but saying nothing of it and continuing to frame his conversation in heteronormative terms, though Yiu-Fai certainly seems worried what the fallout might be of Chang’s accidental discovery. Perhaps in flight from an uncertain future in a Hong Kong on the brink of a “reunion” with an authoritarian regime, the two men live freely bathing in the isolation of being two alone together in an unfamiliar culture, but their paths are always set to diverge. Sobbing into Chang’s Walkman, Yiu-Fai bounces to the end of the world and back again, observing the roaring waters for himself before travelling on echoing the footsteps of Chang, representative of another Sinophone nation, coming to realise that his wandering is possible only because he has a place to which he can return. 

Po-Wing, meanwhile, unexpectedly clings to the past, attempting to mend the lamp while living in the apartment he once shared with Yiu-Fai now regretful that they can perhaps never again “start over”. Leaving his sadness at the end of the world, Yiu-Fai extricates himself from a previously toxic relationship in exercising his right to “start over” having accepted the impossibility of his idealised dream of romance. Impassively observing the news of Deng Xiaoping’s death, he travels a nighttime Taipei, apparently resolved to reclaim his home choosing perhaps a kind of rooted independence following Chang’s example as he rides the elevated train into a neon-lit night filled with energy and positivity for the future. Shot with the melancholy greens and woozy ethereality of Wong’s emotional landscape, Happy Together deceptively mines the joys of moving on in a gradual unburdening that spells the end of loneliness.  


Transfer: As the original negative was damaged by fire and could not be fully restored, some of Tony Leung’s monologues have unfortunately been trimmed though the presentation is otherwise more faithful to the original than others in the series if also deepening the greenish tint.


Happy Together is currently available to stream in the UK via BFI Player in its newly restored edition as part of the World Of Wong Kar Wai season.

Restoration trailer (English subtitles)

Chungking Express (重慶森林, Wong Kar Wai, 1994)

4K

Despite scoring an early success with his debut film As Tears Go By, an atmospheric gangster picture starring some of the most popular actors of the day, Wong Kar Wai’s second feature Days of Being Wild, a melancholy arthouse drama of loneliness and longing set in the heady 1960s, proved disappointing at the box office and divisive with domestic critics. Unable to secure funding for a planned sequel, Wong founded production company Jet Tone Films and agreed to a studio offer to direct a wuxia adventure which was at that time an extremely popular genre. The shoot on Ashes of Time was however notoriously difficult (Wong eventually extensively revised the film for its 2008 “Redux” re-issue), and during a short break from its various demands he shot Chungking Express (重慶森林), an extremely vibrant, zeitgeisty journey through pre-Handover Hong Kong in which a lovelorn policeman is preoccupied with expiration dates while another reflects on new possibilities when his stewardess girlfriend rediscovers her right to make her own choice. 

Lovelorn policeman He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), badge number 223, has just been dumped by his girlfriend of five years but as she chose April 1 to break the news, he assumed it was a joke. To go along with it, he’s been buying tins of pineapple which expire on May 1, firstly because his girlfriend May loves pineapple and secondly because May 1 happens to be his birthday. If she hasn’t got back with him by then, he’ll accept that their love has “expired”. A rather melancholy young man, Qiwu gets his emotional release through jogging in the rain, avowing that while running your body sheds water so you don’t cry as much and in the rain no one can see you anyway. The password for his answering service is “love you for 10,000 years”, but his attempts to hook up with old flames from his little black book are a series of embarrassing misfires, the first having turned in early, another already married with two children, and the last not even remembering him. Nevertheless, despite his melancholy he lives in a constant state of possibility as his opening monologue reminds us in his defence of the city as a place in which one may brush past a hundred people a day some of whom may later become friends or lovers. 

Nevertheless, the Hong Kong he inhabits is one of infinite nostalgia. He tells us that his girlfriend is often likened to ‘70s Japanese pop star Momoe Yamaguchi, only to lament that he was never quite her Tomokazu Miura, Yamaguchi’s frequent co-star whom she later married and thereafter left showbiz to become the ideal housewife and mother. The woman that he falls for, a mysterious drug trafficker (Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia) hot on the trail of a group of Indian tailors she’d hired as mules who absconded at the airport, wears a trench coat, blonde wig, and sunglasses seemingly modelled on Gena Rowlands in Gloria. She too however is caught in a moment of crisis, admitting that the sunglasses and raincoat are in a sense an attempt to hedge her bets while the expiry date on an abandoned can reminds her that time is running out. The conclusion Qiwu comes to is that to May he is no different to a can of pineapple, past his best and fit to be abandoned, while the mysterious woman eventually implodes her assumed identity by taking her revenge and thereafter shedding her trademark wig to recede back into the crowd pausing only to send Qiwu a happy birthday message via his pager in another act of distanced communication.  

The irony of Qiwu’s seeming obliviousness to his proximity to crime is never touched upon despite his apparently deep, essential connection with this slightly older mysterious woman whom he manages to woo despite his awkward opening gambit of asking if she likes pineapple in four different languages. Nor does he seem to be familiar with fellow officer badge 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) who frequents the same late night food stand as he does, while neither of them apparently know the mysterious “Richard” who seems to have beaten them both to win the heart of previous assistant also coincidentally named May who has now been replaced by proprietor’s cousin, Faye (Faye Wong). Obsessively listening to California Dreamin’ at high volume because it stops her thinking too much, Faye falls for 663 who is apparently unceremoniously dumped by his air hostess girlfriend (Valerie Chow Kar-Ling) after being persuaded to alter his regular order of Chef’s Salad for Fish and Chips introduces a new element of choice into their relationship. 

In a kind of meta, expressionistic irony, 663 becomes obsessed with his sadness gently consoling the inanimate objects of his apartment in his girlfriend’s absence, lamenting that his soap bar has grown thin while his dish cloth weeps until finally the whole place floods. This last incident is partly down to the ministrations of Faye who has been, in the nicest possible way, semi-stalking him, using the keys which were returned to the food stand along with a letter 663 refuses to read to break into his flat and literally breathe life back into it by tidying up and replacing the fish in his fish tank. 663 appears not to notice as her distanced care seemingly nurses him back to health even as they begin in a sense to swap roles, he shedding the policeman’s uniform his ex mistakenly thought suited him better for the flannel shirts left by Faye which reflect perhaps his authentic self as observed by the woman who truly loves him. 

Even so she remains restless and bound for (temporary) exile while 663 once again refuses to open correspondence which may prove hurtful or unpleasant, getting a second chance at a fated love only thanks to the magical coincidences of the forever buzzing streets of Hong Kong. At once frenetic and anxious, Christopher Doyle’s swooping, mobile photography with frequent alteration in frame rate and transitions to slow motion capturing a sense of nervous energy, Wong’s take on the pre-Handover society is more positive than most as his neurotic, lovelorn protagonists breeze through their melancholia ultimately discovering a sense of forward motion in hope for the future born of chance connection in an ever moving city. 


Transfer: The 4K restoration is presented in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio and in keeping with new the house style, has shifted slightly towards the green in terms of colour grading which is overall darker and richer than the previous Criterion release.


Chungking Express is currently available to stream in the UK via BFI Player in its newly restored edition as part of the World Of Wong Kar Wai season.

Restoration trailer (English subtitles)

Days of Being Wild (阿飛正傳, Wong Kar Wai, 1990)

“I used to think a minute could pass so quickly, but actually it can take forever” laments a lovelorn heroine in Wong Kar Wai’s melancholy ‘60s romance Days of Being Wild (阿飛正傳), somehow neatly encapsulating the director’s entire philosophy. The heroes of Days are obsessed with minutes, seconds, hours, years, the barely perceptible passing of time. Clocks pervade the frame, their violent ticking the most prominent element of Wong’s strangely barren soundscape, a constant reminder of a life slowly etched away ceaselessly beaten towards an inevitable conclusion. 

The hero, Yuddy (Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing), describes himself rather poetically as a bird without legs cursed to fly and fly meeting the ground only once at the moment of his death, an overly sentimental metaphor for which he is later taken to task by the equally rootless Tide (Andy Lau Tak-wah), a former policeman turned sailor who wonders if it’s just a line he uses to seduce lonely women with boyish sadness. We might wonder the same thing as he picks up the lonely Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk), a Macao émigré apparently unable to sleep, by telling her she’ll see him in her dreams before forcing her to look at his watch for a whole minute as if that after 3pm on April 16, 1960 were now a sacred date forever etched in time. She thought that sounded “so sweet”, but as he later tells her Yuddy is not the marrying kind and she too is trapped inside that moment, often framed behind bars or the tiny window of her box office booth before the door is cruelly slammed on her romantic delusion seemingly by automatic operation of the clock. 

In a twist of fate, Li-zhen meets Tide during his previous life as a policeman when she makes a fairly embarrassing attempt to get back together with Yuddy after he reacts coolly to her suggestion of marriage only to discover him with his new love, cabaret dancer Mimi (Carina Lau Kar-ling). “I’m not gonna be as stupid as her” Mimi insists flouncing out of his apartment only to find herself just that, making a desperate visit to Li-zhen at the stadium after the affair has ended to tell her to her back off only for the rather unsympathetic Li-zhen to point out they’ve both been deceived, “he treats all women the same”. 

A perpetual lothario Yuddy moves from woman to woman without touching the ground, but his rootlessness is seemingly born of maternal disconnection in his ambivalent relationship with the Hong Kong sex worker who raised him but refuses to disclose the identity of his Filipina birth mother supposedly a noble woman who for unknown reasons paid a foreigner US$50 a month to raise her son. Like the other women in Yuddy’s life, Rebecca (Rebecca Pan Di-hua) does her best to tie him down, apparently unwilling to reveal his origins in fear he’d leave her, but also mirrors him in her constant quest for affection bought from a series of younger men and apparently one older who threatens their relationship in inviting her to a new life overseas. Ironically enough, she soon tells her son to “fly, fly as far as you can” all the way to the Philippines, though Yuddy already suspects he’s been a flightless bird all along, dead from the very beginning.

Yuddy’s search for closure and identity ends disappointment and a painful lack of resolution, as does the nascent romance between the policeman and the box office girl, her mistimed phone calls amounting to a literal missed connection while Tide ponders lost love from foreign seas, and Mimi tragically chases the ghost of Yuddy all the way to Manila pined for by Yuddy’s self-conscious friend Zeb (Jacky Cheung Hok-yau) left behind alone. Trapped in the timeless present, they are each denied either past or future, lost in a lovelorn dream of perpetual longing. As if to ram his point home, Wong shows us another clock and then another man we’ve never seen before (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) as he gets ready for an evening out, crouching slightly in what appears to be a shallow, sub-divided garret making it clear that these stories have no endings, flying and flying until they hit ground and seemingly born in the air. A woozy, zeitgeisty journey through mid-century loneliness, Wong’s second feature leaves its melancholy heroes consumed by nostalgia for an ill-imagined future unable to escape the cruel tyranny of an interminable present. 


Transfer: Among the more faithful of the recent 4K restorations, Days of Being Wild nevertheless shifts to a slightly greener hue in keeping with the house style adopted for the series, adding to Wong’s sense of melancholy nostalgia and perhaps in keeping with Doyle’s original artistic vision.


Days of Being Wild is currently available to stream in the UK via BFI Player in its newly restored edition as part of the World Of Wong Kar Wai season.

Original trailer (unrestored, English subtitles)