Wong Kar-wai: Mortal Memories of Passion

“Turns out all lonely people are the same…”

A bar in Argentina glows a drunk orange glow and vivifies the atmosphere with Bossanova from the speakers. Inside, the people dance, they drink, they love and they spill it everywhere. We follow two Hong Kongers making a toast to their friendship. They contemplate escape routes and idyllic destinations because there is nothing here for them anymore. One of our characters (wearing a baseball cap as a symbol of his exuberance) says he’s going south to Ushuaia, which is known by the other as “the end of the world.” The other man (who is small and sunken in his loose, unfitted jacket) strokes his beer glass without drinking it. He tells the livelier man that there is a lighthouse in Ushuaia, where heartbroken people go to leave their unhappiness behind. The man with the baseball hat pulls out a tape recorder and asks the sunken man to say something to it, as a souvenir from his only friend in Argentina. “Anything from your heart,” he says, “even something sad. I’ll take it to the end of the world.” The sunken man insists he’s not sad, but the livelier one leaves the recorder with him and stands up to dance. The sunken man is quiet, thinking of something to say. He looks hopeless as he contemplates the nature of his being here in Argentina, on the opposite side of the world from his home. Finally, all the sunken man can manage to record is a frustrated whimper to no one.

This is a scene from Happy Together, my first dive into the filmography of Wong Kar Wai. It was late August when I discovered the film; my depression had begun its course and my girlfriend of the time had just broken up with me. The road was my only medicine back then; I would drive nowhere until it was dark and I was lost, then I would eat someplace new (usually endowed with agonizing light and acid-breathing waitresses), then sleep in my car for a few hours before heading back somewhere familiar. Picking through the CDs at an ambiguous media store ninety miles from home, I found a soundtrack album that was stuffed with polaroids of the film it scored.

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stills from Happy Together

The pictures themselves were rhapsodic to me. I was drawn to the provocative colors and the intimacy the actors displayed with each other and the camera – it was as if they were inviting me to their delusion of happiness. I played the CD on my dawn drive home; the first track began with a waterfall, powerful and infinite, waning into a silvery Orchestra as Caetano Veloso sings his melancholic “Cucurrucucu Paloma.” As the sun rose above me and I felt my heart strings resuscitate, I knew Happy Together would give me something I needed desperately. For the first time in a while, I raced home with rapturous desire – I had to see this movie immediately.

It’s safe to say this film changed the course of my life. Soon after the screen burnt black, I bought a one-way bus ticket to Orlando, Florida in the hopes of finding some personal conclusion in the way Ho Po-wing and Lai Yiu-fai found theirs. Maybe if I had disappeared, if I traveled to the end of the world, I could leave my unhappiness behind. Maybe I could finally solve the leftover anguish of my adolescence.

It was the best decision I’ve ever made.

“Love is all a matter of timing. No use in loving somebody too early or too late.”

Every great film director has a signature. A trademark visage or a concept that follows them as an ongoing thematic essence throughout their work. Cronenberg has a great interest in the human body, even if a perverse one at times. Miyazaki and Anderson both put emphasis in the smaller acts of genuine humanity that we oft unknowingly show. Del Toro builds these romantically dark fantasies to showcase his misunderstood, fish-out-of-water characters. Tarantino has that foot fetish. When you observe a filmmaker long enough, you can get a sense of who they are as a person, and what their soul looks like. What do the directors hold their camera on? What do they pull your attention to? What colors do they swathe their frames in? The answers to these will pretty much give you an outline of the auteur’s fixations. What they want or need, what they fear or love…this all manifests into each unique style of filmmaking.

Wong Kar-wai’s style is the manifestation of passion itself. Or more specifically, it manifests the memory of passion.

The scene above (from Chungking Express) is about two and a half minutes long and somehow summarizes an entire relationship. It is both beautiful and mournful at the same time, playing out like a daydream in its Oliver Stone-like floatiness – the feel of an airplane suspended in purgatory.  I’ve found that most of Wong’s filmography has this same disconnected sense of time. He often laces these moments with nostalgic narration that gives us a sense that we’re talking to someone or reading a heartfelt letter they wrote to us.

“When I think of the way human beings process consciousness, it’s much more in line with the way Wong tells that story. It’s not linear, it’s sort of circular. When we think about the things we’re feeling, we often tie them – not to what’s happening to us right now – but something that happened either in the past or something that we’re anticipating happening.” – Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) on Wong Kar-wai

Time is ambivalent to Wong Kar-wai. His characters are always either searching, waiting, or running from something; no one has the ability to exist in the present moment. The cop in Chungking is always hoping his ex will show up in his dresser where she used to surprise him, but never shows interest in opening the letter she sent to him with his key attached. In Happy Together, Ho Po-wing stays in Argentina for no apparent reason other than the desperate need for connection. Time-worn love androids can only react to their circumstances hours after they occur, too late to return the affection they received. He shows this concept of subjectivity in time with his editing style; some scenes are shot with a lower frame rate and sped up, others with protagonists in slow motion – juxtaposed against the high-speed world around them. These are the perspectives of the lonely, of the heartbroken, everybody that lives in their own warped realm of time.

The disparity between oneself and the faceless masses that surround you can be jarring. Wong spent most of his life in Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated cities in China. It’s no wonder his films are often frustrated with the immensity of the city and its fleeting sense of time. If so many different people brush past you every single day, how many connections are you doomed to miss? How many times have you made eye contact with someone who could have changed the course of your life had you met them under different circumstances? The ones you do meet and spend your time with, invest your soul into just so they could leave – would they have left if you had said something different? “What ifs?” are damning to entertain but we do so anyway as an emotional band-aid, disregarding the larger, inescapable emotional truths.  Because these truths rest at our feet, right below our chins while we search the sky for something else – something easier than loneliness, something easier than love. We would rather run away to Argentina to start over with someone because maybe they aren’t the problem, but the environment is. We would rather jog as fast and far as we can so that there is not enough water in our bodies to cry. We would even jump aboard a train to 2046 to regain our lost loves before we dare move forward into the abstract future.


But as much as we are terrified by the immensity of life and the relentlessness of time, we can be empowered by the connections made in spite of it. Because as dauntingly infinite as life is, it is also extremely personal. We contemplate our purpose here, but our purpose is simply that we are here. We live for ourselves and for each other. As much as we trap ourselves in our memories or lose our heads in false futures, we can never fully leave the reality of now. There is no outrunning it, no train escaping it. Earlier, I talked about a sunken man who wanted to say so much but could only release a cry of anguish. The summit of Wong’s fixation – that when we most want to tell someone how we feel, we are at a loss for words. That no words can fully surmise how one feels. That lonely people are all the same, and love is all a matter of timing. What we want, need, fear or love – the fantasies we create for ourselves are often perverse and antithetical. What makes Wong’s style so idiosyncratic as well as utterly heartbreaking, is that these fantasies are common for all of us. That the doomed memory of passion in the face of ambiguous time is a mortal folly.

Sometimes it takes traveling to the end of the world to leave those fantasies behind.

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