Wong Kar-wai’s films are nostalgic and contemporary, personal and political. They capture Hong Kong’s anxiety about its identity and future from the 60s to the 90s, ultimately expressing its inhabitants’ alienation and detachment. This video examines how time and space affect the relationships between the characters and their environment, their romantic desires and memory, in and across Wong Kar-wai’s films.

Urban space is ultimately the psychological space between its inhabitants. Chungking Express (credited as Kar Wai Wong, Hong Kong, 1994) is a collage of spatial complexes, which obscures the boundaries between urban space. These images capture the characters’ immobility against the speed of urban life, thus setting up and evoking elements constitutive of the ‘nature’ of the metropolis: obscurity, fragmentation and evanescence. The roamers have nowhere to go but are nonetheless rubbing shoulders with the urban mass every day.

Kar Wai’s protagonists are lonely and ordinary, trapped in an endless monologue. They wander about the urban time and space; their identities are obscured, they are alienated from their lovers and environment, eternally lost in self-indulgence and aphasia. Here, the ‘express’ of the title stands for a personal space where time is spent, love occurs and memory withholds. The chance and distance of encounters ultimately result in and express urban alienation.

Confronting the socio-political ramification of 1997, the gay community in Hong Kong felt most helpless. By moving to an entirely foreign space, the characters in Happy Together (credited as Kar Wai Wong, Hong Kong/Japan/South Korea, 1997) now escape into exile and allow themselves to start all over. Geographically and psychologically, Argentina becomes a refuge. It offers an external space for the couple to wander and live. It transcends their fantasy of love and the desire of going back to Hong Kong. Their emotional wrestling and utopian romantic desires are externalised into the almost baroque interior space. Taipei is a place Zhang can always go back to, an alternative space between foreign land and hometown, where love, families, warmth belong to. For the couple, hometown Hong Kong is eventually a piece of illusion and fantasy, the reverse side of Argentina. Their romantic love remains as a historical and spatial problem, unsolved and eternally deferred as the train stops. Neither does Hong Kong, nor the fall is the destination. The fall is just another spatial-temporal loophole, which holds its destination in futility, happiness forever delayed.

Ashes of Time (credited as Kar Wai Wong, Hong Kong/Taiwan, 1994): time and feelings that are wasted in the endless desert. Kar Wai now moves his characters into the wasteland–a true geographical and mental exile. The roamers discard themselves into the alternation between day and night, between seasons.

Ou-yang (Leslie Cheung) is the axis of the narrative, connecting the fragmentation of individual stories through the half house. The desert stands at the crossroad of illusion, desires and loss. Its vastness echoes with the empty spaces in other Kar Wai films. The spatial distance is both the physical and psychological distance between characters. And it is ultimately the distance between affection and feelings. The characters are constantly gazing at the distance, in meditation and dreams. The moving shadows and reflection cast from off-screen space projects their internal wrestling. The immobility of their futility for love is thus sharply contrasted with the movement from the external world, the same space in which inhabits them.

In this vast desert, water and tides sparkle and turn, the wind blows, flag and banners move, sand fries and man meditates. Perhaps a roamer truly belongs to the desert, belongs to the exile of time and feelings.

Now we move into Kar Wai’s temporality. Time is the background soundtrack to melancholy. Time is the very essence of everyday existence. Time is nostalgic sentiment and memory. Time is a force that cannot be neglected. The roamers now watch time as pure time and step into the unstoppable flow of history. Meanwhile, they attempt to catch the ephemeral present for their romantic relationships and historical identity. Ultimately, time is also the mental clock of characters. Even a minute can last a lifetime. Yuddy spends a lifetime to find his identity but finally gets rejected by his root and dream. The one-minute walk is sensible in slow motion. The music echoes with the forest sequence, which is the last thing he sees before death. The forest turns out to be the space of personal desolation and spiritual desiccation, with time spent on it as futility.  The ephemeral present is uncatchable. It remains as pieces of memory that forever exists in the roamer’s mind, as part of the personal history against the vast passing era. After all, time is wasted into the ashes for seeking love and identity.

Kar Wai refers to time as the biggest factor in relationship, which creates space for emotions to happen within the daily trace of life. Here, time is also conspiracy and secrets. Time is both a visible entity and a self-conscious form that contains implicit narrative potentials, the rubbing shoulders, the promise and feelings that are delayed or missed.

In this sequence from In the Mood for Love (credited as Kar Wai Wong, Hong Kong/China, 2000) shown in the video, time is represented as at a standstill. The light’s pendulum-like swinging behind Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) seems to freeze the temporality into a dreamlike effect. The score beats synchronically with Lizhen’s undulating gait. The sequence beautifully accentuates the arrest of time, withholding the missed encounter and invisible desires between two characters. Lizhen and Mr Chow’s (Tony Leung) temporality is packaged in the imaginary fragments. Here, time is self-conscious and relationship is postponed into imagination.

Meanwhile, time is referred as an era gone past that took away memory and promises. Cambodia marks temporality as a specific historical time. It is the place where Mr. Chow whispers his secrets inside the tree hole. At the end of the 60s trilogies 2046 (credited as Wong Kar Wai, Hong Kong/China, 2004), he creates a utopian spatiotemporally in his novel, to resonate with the room where he and Li-zhen spent the happiest memory.  But Li-zhen has disappeared into the flow of history, as into the endless and cavernous black hole of time.

Time can be eternal, finite, material and tangible, illusory, and frozen. Every character and their stories are trapped in a unique sentimentality under Wong Kar Wai’s manipulation of time and space. They are faded in the vast environment, roaming in destiny and history, lost in love and chance. Then the final question arises: Where are they destined to?

Cassandra Qiu

Filmography:

Days of Being Wild (1990)

Chungking Express (1994)

Ashes of Time Redux (2009)

Happy Together (1997)

Fallen Angel (1995)

In the Mood For Love (2000)

2046 (2004)