It all happens so fast. Black leather dress, fishnet stockings, black choker, black heels. She arrives at the apartment for what appears to be a night out, but instead, dons a pair of black rubber gloves and a white mask and gets to cleaning. She scrubs the floor, fluffs the sheets. She tinkers, resets the fax machine, making minor adjustments throughout the small apartment. A sequence of zoomed-in, sharp-angled shots with quick cuts interspersed give the scene a hurried energy—she’s operating on a timeline. Aglow in the dark, she’s flanked by hazy light—from the street, a television, a clock, fluorescent bulbs in the fridge, and the light fixture overhead. This is business as usual, part of the routine: readying the apartment for her partner’s work; ridding the place of traces; leaving before he gets there.
In 1998, when I first saw Fallen Angels (1995) at Film Forum in New York I simply didn’t know you could do what this movie did; that time could be made as such, stitched together in light, a camera tracing the curves of a jukebox, an escalator, the innards of a clock. I didn’t know someone could walk so fine a tightrope between tales just barely grazing against each other without a sense of their needing to be resolved. Narrative emerged horizontally, across unfulfilled shards, stories that shared not a common thread, but an echo of each other in their tone and their only occasionally overlapping locations. Plenty of jagged, non-linear films came before this, but Fallen Angels operates under a different set of assumptions, a logic that suggests our personal and cultural lives are composed of a series of “almosts.”
The result is a kind of nostalgia for stories that can never be told, ones that might have come to pass but can’t. In the Mood for Love (2000) opens with the burning proximity of two would-be lovers who are destined only to brush elbows and nothing more. The film casts its subjects’ heart-wrenching loneliness within intermediate zones: doorways, hallways, window frames, dark passageways where Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk) and Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) pass each other in silence heading in opposite directions. Their encounters, when they do have them, are spent uncovering their cheating spouses’ escapades, rehearsing lines the paramours might have said to one another. But In the Mood for Love keeps us confined to nooks, largely denying us entry into the main spaces offscreen. Intimate, yes, but we’re never fully let in. Even in room 2046 in the new modern building, we are brought in as intimate voyeurs, confidants who watch through thin red curtains or vis à vis reflections in the room’s mirrors. And it’s always here that we remain. Someone, something always exiled—from home, from self.
Adrift, characters collect time they never had: expired food cans that share the same date (Chungking Express ) or trash with clues as to someone’s whereabouts (Fallen Angels). They hoard unhealthy amounts of soft-serve ice cream (Fallen Angels) or months worth of cigarettes so the lover they’ve already lost to someone else won’t have to go out to buy them in the night (Happy Together ). They keep handwritten plane tickets on napkins where rain has washed away the ink with crucial information for an assignation long passed (Chungking Express). They embed coded messages in tape recorders for no one but the wind to listen to (Happy Together); they forge into their memory an exact minute in time they met, April 16th, 1960, 2:59 p.m. (Days of Being Wild ). While stylistically of a slightly different ilk than Wong’s work from the mid-1990s, the film 2046 (2004) follows this interest in dates and the unattainable to its logical end with a futuristic world that features a single room containing people’s lost memories. “We’d had too many chances to rub elbows,” says Ho Chi-Mo/He Zhiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) at the end of Fallen Angels. “I knew very well we’d never be friends or confidants.” Bundling these moments into a gloriously designed edition, the Criterion Collection’s new “World of Wong Kar Wai” assembles seven of the director’s pivotal works into a box set replete with 4K digital restorations, alternate takes, extended versions, interviews, and more.
One would be remiss not to notice the subtle murmurs of empire, of global shifts vibrating beneath the main plotlines of most of Wong’s films. 2046 opens with a speculative vision of a planet covered by a global network of railways. The end of Happy Together coincides with the end of the British Imperial occupation of Hong Kong. The main character in the first half of Chungking Express is embroiled in an underground deal with a group of South Asian men acting as drug mules. The presence of signage for major American companies such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola can’t be overlooked, hinting at economic forces and flows at work in the background that are effectively charting a course for Wong’s characters to play out narratives belonging to someone else, only reinforcing the need to accumulate pieces of a bygone past.
Love is never free of geopolitical economies and commerce: the flow of American goods, scarcity of wealth, unstable jobs portending our gig economy (even the killer in Fallen Angels has to moonlight as a debt collector), colonization, not to mention the ends of eras all factor into characters’ desire and motivations. History has left them out of sync. And perhaps this is why so many people in Wong Kar Wai’s films spend so much time packing up, cleaning, rearranging, redoing themselves and physical places in an effort to “start again” Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), the male couple in Happy Together, seem to be devoted to this the whole film. Co-dependent, needy, gloriously in love with the idea of being in love, they leave home behind and go to Argentina to reboot. But, en route, they get stranded, blocked by outstanding debts, with neither car nor money, caught in limbo. Fai gets trapped in a gig as a doorman at a tango bar, perpetually entertaining tourists (while also himself being a tourist). Ho prostitutes himself (or so it’s implied), drifting from one boy to the next, filling Fai’s void.
In Chungking Express, Faye (Faye Wong) enters Cop 663’s (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) apartment while he’s at work. She dusts, replaces worn out dish towels, buys a fresh bar of soap, even switches out an old enormous stuffed animal with a new Garfield. Without his knowing it, she’s wiping away bits of a past lover, residues of other stories. She plants whispers of herself by leaving behind a CD as well as a tiny photo tucked into a mirror’s edge. While watching her work is incredibly pleasurable, at this point in the film we know better than to think her efforts will end in a perfect reunion.
Maybe in the constant rearranging there’s hope of becoming someone else, hope of releasing oneself from inherited histories and stories. Or maybe the constant reordering holds the promise not of becoming another person, but of falling out of sync with someone else’s story, some other nation’s history and into a lover’s story. Part of what makes Wong’s best films so brilliant is what they deny us—that it’s always too late, that we can’t go back, and are instead left with something far more honest, fractured, and dizzying.