From Nobody To Master

Changes of Wong Kar Wai’s movies before and after 1997 through a close observation on Chungking Express and The Grandmaster

In order to answer the question “what makes Chungking Express (1994) the quintessentially Hong Kong movie before its return to Chinese sovereignty and in what ways is The Grandmasters (2013) a representative post-handover Hong Kong movie”, we have to clarify three main questions first — what is Hong Kong movie before its return to Chinese sovereignty like? What is a post-handover Hong Kong movie like? And these two movies are all directed by Wong Kar wai, so why Wong Kar Wai?

For the first question, before its handover to Chinese sovereignty, Hong Kong society is immersed in a mood of fear, uncertainty and anxiety. They are eager to know who they are and how to act. Hong Kong movies at the time were trying to depict people’s lives and spirit state from various angles. In 1990s, comedy movies and wuxia became the popular genres since they reflected the anti-intellectualism, secularity and subversiveness in Hong Kong society. “Mo lei tau” in comedy movies was treated as an outlet of emotion, and a way of spiritual sustenance. The outstanding box office of films starred by Stephen Chow also indicated the aching void and depression in Hong Kong people’s heart. However, the hyper-reality in both comedy movies and wuxia makes them non-realist, which compromises their reference value. Instead, films that draw a close observation of common people’s ordinary life, like As Tears Go By and etc. could demonstrate Hong Kong people’s real spiritual situation and value proposition before 1997.

In terms of the question “why is Wong Kar Wai”, it is safe to draw a conclusion that Wong Kar Wai is the exact representative of Hong Kong movie — the auteur who is always telling Hong Kong history, with In The Mood For Love representing the 1960s, As Tears Go By the 1980s, Fallen Angel the 1990s, and The Grandmaster the 1950s. And all of his films focus on the once colony’s fate. In Days of Being Wild, he depicts the homlessness of Hong Kong as a colony. Happy Together probes into the issue of how Hong Kong people should act faced with the approaching handover. In The Mood For Love indicates Hong Kong people’s attachment to the colonial times. And The Grandmaster regards Hong Kong as the successor of Chinese culture.

Another repeating theme — homelessness also makes Wong the most appropriate representative of Hong Kong cinema. Homelessness means rootlessness, idling around without a destination, physically and psychologically. Wong started to make films in 1988, and directed 5 more films before 1997. Homelessness ran through all these films. In Days of being wild, Leslie Chueng wanders around until he gets the clue of his own mother. He regards himself as a bird without feet, always flying, leaving audience an impression of rootless Hong Kong people. In Happy Together, the gay couple loses each other on their way to the dreaming waterfall, and then these two broken souls wander about in Argentina and Taiwan in succession. The theme of homelessness is more remarkable in Ashes of Time. All of the characters exile themselves with aching heart, with plots unfolding in Leslie Chueng’s guesthouse, but not home. Characters in Wong’s films are all broken souls struggling to find a home to return of, but always fail. The plight of end-result is in line with the same spiritual situation of Hong Kong people.

On the other hand, Wong is able to draw a close-to-life drama serial, instead of larger-than-life one. From 1970s to 1990s, popular films ranging from wuxia, Kung Fu comedy films, hero films, hooligans to undercover films are all larger-than-life ones. They all depicted one certain side of Hong Kong society, thrilling and hysterical, forming the outlet of depressing emotions, but not real. Instead, despite trivial, movies depicting ordinary people’s life are more powerful and expressive to reflect the exact living condition and spirit situation of contemporary people. For Wong, throughout his entire career, which spans four decades of filmmaking, he has manifested his obsessive preoccupation with daily life details and minutiae time, and the little fleeting moments and impressions that add up to a mood. And the emotional currency he deals in is romantic love, in all its forms but especially those tending to be on the melancholy end of the spectrum: love stolen, lost, unrequited, doomed, remembered but inaccessible. These depictions and amplifying portrays of negative emotions, which constitutes the main content of his films instead of plot, manifest estrangement among people, indicating that Hong Kong people were struggling to search for acknowledgement and cultural identity.

At last, Wong is one of a few mature auteurs in Hong Kong cinema. With auteur’s own opinions expressed by characters, like novels written by Milan Kundera, Wong’s films are able to depict the exact image of post-modern people, and further break the monotonous narration pattern and pale characters in traditional Hong Kong movies. His films integrate commerce and arts at the same time, making him a lyricist poet in advanced capitalism.

Turning to Chungking Express, it is more like a pop masterpiece, exploding with color and lust, not so much a story of wayward lovers as a map of the shared journey of broken and mended hearts. This film contains two stories. In the second story, only superficially related to the first, a chirpy shop employee (Faye Wong) who falls for another cop (Tony Leung), only to take it upon herself to crash into his perceived destiny, breaking into his home and providing a cleaner living environment. It is more playful than the elliptical beginning, and all his other films.

Chungking Express is indeed a common people’s romantic story, while characters in other films of Wong are more marginalized, like hitman in Fallen Angel and hooligans in As Tears Go By. Stories of common people have more general meaning to understand the exact spiritual situation of the society. On the other hand, Chungking Express depicts a fast-paced and fickle metropolitan life. With several scenes shot in convenience stores, and Takeshi Kaneshiro’s anxiety of expiration date, it implies that people in metropolis are hard to sit around in a restaurant or a serene café to confide in each other, making it hard for people to understand each other. With corridors, halls, rooms and various people popping up and popping out in a short time shooting, Express in the title also conveys a sense of speed that people need in metropolis. People are shuttling from one space to another, having nowhere to go to. Furthermore, most scenes are depicting a specific space, while there are few long shots depicting the whole environment. Space is fragmented into pieces, making depth and direction fleeing away. It adds up to the sense of wandering about and rootlessness.

Behind the fast-paced and fickle life lies a sense of solitude. We can only see six main characters in Chungking Express, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Brigitte Lin, Tony Lueng, Faye Wong, Tony Lueng’s ex, the ardent owner of the shop, and several shop employees. Both Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung do not have any friend. Even appearance of Tony Leung’s colleagues is hidden away. They are all alone. With no friends to talk to and no community belonging to, solitude teaches them to talk to themselves, and the latent absent audiences. Tony Leung mutters to toys, Takeshi Kaneshiro talks to the cans, and Faye Wong sneaks into Tong Leung’s house instead of speaking her feelings out to Tony Leung. They need to and are eager to communicate with others, while they are not able to and not willing to do so.

Another evidence proving that they are solitary is the ubiquitous fetishism. Things are always good listeners, never betraying, hurting or leaving someone. Takeshi Kaneshiro is addicted to the pineapple cans, to which he attaches his depression. Tony Leung collected and kept all kinds of toys, clothes and even towels. Things replace human beings to be the listeners.

In Chungking Express, people are living in a confined space in a crowded metropolis with nobody to talk to. And so do Hong Kong people. When Hong Kong was to be handed over to China, they were isolated and left alone since the well-established western ideology (meaning freedom, independent justice, and etc.) would be distorted by another ideology, despite the same cultural origin. Neither British nor Chinese has empathy on them and could help eliminate the psychological disparity. People could only ask themselves for the answer of cultural identity and autonomy.

All in all, as a close observation of common people’s romantic love and living conditions in Hong Kong, Chungking Express enables itself to draw a true picture of Hong Kong people’s psychology before 1997.

With respect of the question, “what is Hong Kong movie like after handover”, it is easy to notice the great changes of Hong Kong cinema’s attitudes towards Mainland China. Before 1997, Hong Kong cinema was once intended to influence Mainland China through penetration of Hong Kong movies, and Hong Kong values inside, which is called “Northing Imagination” (“北進想像”). However, after the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998, Hong Kong people started to be panic, for fear that they would be surpassed and besieged by inner-land cities. And after 2003, the declaration of CEPA (Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement), Hong Kong cinema was further divided into two factions — mainlandizaiton and conservation.

Investors from Mainland China replaced those from Taiwan after 2003. Changes of audience and taste compelled Hong Kong directors to comprise, namely, to mainlandize and historize. Subject of films and actors should no longer be confined in Hong Kong. And to be responsible for the investors, directors would not make a movie that cannot yield a profit. Director Derek Kwok said that there is a brand new Hong Kong value— “走精面” in Cantonese, which represents the money-oriented way of making films. All these concerns entail poorly made Hong Kong movies, and the recession of Hong Kong cinema.

Another faction represents a kind of nostalgia of the old golden time of Hong Kong. They re-create the old Hong Kong films and tend to revive the old Hong Kong values, like The Man From Macau pays its respects to All For The Winner, The White Storm salutes to Bullet In The Head, Unbeatable salutes to A Fighter’s Blues. However, these films fail to capture the change of the local society like what their precedents did. Neo-Hong Kong movies are besieged by themselves.

Turning to The Grandmaster, we can see the obvious change of Wong’s taste regarding mainlandization— the historical subject, casting of inner-land actors and Taiwanese actors, and the way of expression, to cater to the inner-land audience’s expectance of a blockbuster.

In terms of the historical subject, it is clear there is an attempt being made at a sprawling epic, a film that spans decades and sees invasion and civil war tear apart old hierarchies, through all of which the characters draw strength from their dedication to the ancient spiritual art of kung-fu. Change of the character played by the same actor—Tony Leung, reveals the transformation as well. Unlike the anxious nobody cop (called in the number 633) in Chungking Express, Tony Leung becomes an influential Kung Fu master who shoulder the responsibility of inheriting Kung Fu to the next generation in The Grandmaster.

In addition, Wong has never been one to shy away from the all-star cast in evoking the audience’s interest in movies. And we can also see that Wong compromises in the way of expression by abandoning his consistent lyric narration, and adopting the common way of story telling. In The Grandmaster, Zhang Ziyi expresses her feelings to Tony Leung directly, while the previous Wong Kar Wai would choose to express Zhang’s feelings through her behaviors and emotions, instead of words.

However, it is still safe to draw the conclusion that The Grandmaster is the most appropriate representative of Hong Kong movie after handover, in that it maintains Wong’s concern for Hong Kong. With IP Man as the typical Hong Kong icon of inheriting Chinese culture, the movie links the story to Hong Kong history in its 1950s. Comparing to The Grandmaster, other commercial films, like Red Cliff and The Warlords directed by Hong Kong people lack this kind of concern.

If we make a close observation of films which try to maintain HongKongness, Gallants and A Simple Life and Cold War are also good examples. However, both Gallants and A Simple Life do not go beyond its narration, leading to confine themselves in a small story-telling framework. And Cold War is little bit more commercial and surreal. The Grandmaster succeeds by combining both Hong Kong spirit and the profound narration, which also makes it a bigger winner Hong Kong Film Awards.

Talking about The Grandmaster itself, theme— succession of Kung Fu implies the succession of Chinese culture. Gong Er, IP Man and Yi Xiantian are played by actors and actress from Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan respectively, which represents the underlying argument of which area could shoulder the responsibility of inheriting Chinese culture.

As a Kung Fu master, Yi Xiantian ends up in being a barber, instead of passing over his Kung Fu to the next generation. It is just like the contemporary situation where Taiwan people would rather immerse in Chinese culture before 1949 than acknowledging its development after 1949. Turning to Gong Er, she is the person who attaches more importance to Win or Lose and revenge (persist in killing Ma San who inherits half of the Kung Fu of Gong’s), giving rise to the failure of succession of Gong’s Kung Fu. Nevertheless, it is IP Man that in deed inherits Wing Tsun and promotes it to the next generation, which creates Bruce Lee and the popularity of Kung Fu around the world in the end, making IP Man go beyond Gong Yutian, the previous leader of Martial Arts Association, to become the master who is worthy of the name.

Interestingly, Wong Kar Wai expresses himself the same opinion with IP Man when giving a testimonial in Hong Kong Film Awards ceremony. He said that, “if Hong Kong cinema is influential, it will go beyond the‘Northing Imagination’.” (“假如香港電影管用的話,何止北傳”) When people are anxious about Hong Kong cinema’s recession and dilemma of “Northing Imagination”, Wong Kar Wai proposes that Hong Kong people should unfold their vision to the whole world, and make Hong Kong the real Master in the world.

From nobody to master, from focusing on people’s trivial emotion to reshaping Hong Kong’s vision, this is the best way to answer Hong Kong people’s continuous anxiety of the issue of cultural identity.

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