From As Tears Go By to My Blueberry Nights, Wong Kar Wai has dedicated his body of work to offering his unique insight on the meaning of love – our most fundamental of emotions, yet arguably our most impenetrable. Employing an insular band of cast and crew members and the frenetic gaze of his camera, Wong frequently paints a deeply romantic and sentimental Hong Kong backdrop in most of his films to tell individual tales of people in love that are anything but sentimental. If I learned anything from watching each of Wong’s films in chronological order, it’s that the director finds more worth exploring in the tumultuous process of making a connection with another human being and trying in vain to maintain that connection than there is in that quixotic and indefinite period where love is ostensibly working in our favor.
With that said, perhaps it’s somewhat limiting to refer to Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love and 2046 collectively as Wong Kar Wai’s “Informal Trilogy.” Yes, these three films recycle some characters and continually allude to events from their respective predecessors (or even, especially in the case of Wild’s quizzical final scene, to their successors). Despite their diegetic similarities, what really distinguishes these films as a single – and truly singular – narrative is not the complex inter-textual relationship between characters and plotlines, but their surprisingly linear emotional chronicle of romance’s tragic ramifications.
Understanding how insufferably lofty a phrase like “linear emotional chronicle” sounds, I’ll try to elaborate. Even though Wong centers on numerous love stories in his trilogy – stories seldom involving the same two individuals – they almost serve as vignettes depicting crucial stages in the relationship process so many of us seem to follow. I’ll now analyze each of the three films in this trilogy, and will attempt to explain what each installment has to say about these processes.
In the case of Days of Being Wild, this trilogy’s first installment and Wong’s second feature, the title really seems to say it all. We spend most of the film with the young and emotionally distant York (Leslie Cheung), who demonstrates tremendous facility in romancing women and subsequently casting them aside once his interest in them is expended. We meet two of York’s flames – Su Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung) and Mimi (Carina Lau) – as they grapple with frustration and heartbreak following their respective breakups. Both women, it should be pointed out, make appearances in this trilogy’s future installments. Running concurrently with York’s romantic entanglements is his relationship with his adoptive mother Rebecca, herself a former prostitute (Rebecca Pan). York pressures Rebecca to reveal the identity of his birth parents, the revelation to which she resists giving quite fervently.
I hesitate to call York’s relationship with Rebecca a side-plot, as it ultimately leads Wild to its closing chapter in the Philippines. The way Wong juxtaposes that relationship against York’s sexual relationship with Li Zhen and Mimi, however, is terribly clear. What we see in each of these central plotlines are the results of a headstrong York attempting to make sense of his own identity. His eagerness to know his biological origins, one can construe, has damning effects on his ability to maintain a relationship once it transcends biological impulses of sexuality and enters the murky territory of emotional involvement. Similar conclusions can feasibly be made about York’s emotional relationship with Rebecca; as his need for that particular maternal figure is outgrown and as he looks to find another family, he unwittingly rejects her in search of a new identity he believes better suits him. If you have seen the film, you know things don’t turn out well for York in this respect.
It would be really easy to dismiss this all as cheap Freudian psychodrama, but Wong makes the important choice of expanding the film’s perspective beyond York’s; we are given individual glimpses of Li Zhen and Mimi as each of them attempt to move beyond the romances that jilt them so terribly, and push their stories to rather bittersweet ends. As a result, the movie gives us not punishing psychoanalysis on the havoc sexuality is capable of wreaking, but instead a more complicated portrait of characters dealing with the pain attached to trying to find one’s own identity. It’s a painful process for many, and making enduring connections with others is inextricably tied to that process. Some people are able to find happiness in the connections they make, but it requires a lot of hard work for tremendously little payoff. Framed within his trilogy, Wong’s first installment serves as something of a prelude to this difficult process of making a connection. But even as the titular days of being wild pass by, new challenges present themselves.
What happens in the “ever after?” A whole lot of people live there – and quite happily, I am to understand. But the stories we were told as children (and even as adults) scarcely reveal any details beyond that point. Are we really to believe that those who live happily ever after remain incessantly happy? Could even the most fortuitous relationships be flecked with malaise, loneliness or occasional transgressions? I believe that’s probably the case, but it doesn’t exactly fit very neatly into an easily digestible romantic narrative, does it?
Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) are committed to this easily digestible narrative in In the Mood for Love. Even though their respective spouses reject that narrative via a series of off-screen trysts, and even as their own personal feelings for each other become increasingly obvious, the jilted lovers at the center of this trilogy’s second installment remain stalwartly dedicated. They commit not necessarily out of loyalty to their marriages, nor do they commit out of any particular affection for said narrative. They commit because of what would be at stake for them should they indeed choose to emulate their partners’ decision to break their marital vows. “What would others think?” they ask. “We will not be like them,” they conclude. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan continue to meet each other, first in an attempt to explain their spouses’ infidelity and then to embark on an affaire du Coeur of their own: they write a martial arts novel together. Even though their relationship remains platonic, their discretion is for naught. The neighbors still talk, and it (among other things) compromises their friendship.
Being defined by a sordid sexual affair devoid of both sordidness and actual sex, despair and loneliness charge each interaction between Chow and Chan in In the Mood for Love. The despair is there because of the betrayal Chow and Chan experience at the expense of those who claim to love them; the loneliness because societal pressure forbids them from doing anything about their despair. We feel these emotions because Wong charges each expertly composed shot with them. The uncharacteristic restraint he uses here suits his subjects perfectly; the plethora of emotion rumbling beneath the surface affords Chow and Chan our sense of empathy. Like them, the lack of untapped emotion brings us on the verge of bursting. We patiently await the two would-be lovers to appease their hearts’ desires, but that catharsis never actually comes.
If Days of Being Wild explores the frustration to be experienced in making a meaningful and lasting connection, then surely In the Mood for Love speaks to our collective and militant belief that the tribulations that led us to our life partners – our “happily ever afters” – weren’t for naught. Society speaks ill of those whose own personal stories fail to fit this narrative, Wong suggests, because it risks mitigating the perceived truth that our own troubles in the realm of romance dissipate upon finding a life partner. The real truth, Wong further suggests, just might be a bit more complicated and painful than that.
When we meet Mr. Chow again in 2046, it is years after his non-affair with Mrs. Chan – or Su Li Zhen, as she is named here. We are frequently reminded throughout this trilogy capper of In the Mood for Love’s ambiguous finale at the Angkor Wat:
In the old days, when people had secrets they didn’t want to share…they’d climb a mountain, find a tree, carve a hole in it, whisper the secret into the hole and cover it up with mud. That way, nobody else would ever learn the secret…
In the Mood for Love ends with Chow doing just that. What possibly could that secret have been? Did he speak of his relationship with that neighbor he fell in love with? Was an entirely unrelated secret shared? Or was that moment perhaps less about the secret being revealed than it was about the the moral facility it gives Mr. Chow to leave his marriage and move on to the next chapter in his life?
Regardless of what that secret meant, Chow indeed moves on, and 2046 is that next chapter. A writer no longer of martial arts epics, but of science fiction erotica, he lives in a Hotel adjacent to the very same room he and Mrs. Chan shared during their collaborations (that room being numbered, of course, “2046”). Chow is in many ways back to square one: single, eligible, and presumably eager to make a connection. But do the previous experiences of this now-older man bear any relevance anymore? Does he allow life’s lessons to imbue his actions with wisdom?
Making connections beyond the physical hardly seems to be one of Chow’s priorities during his time living adjacent to Room 2046. He meets numerous women and sleeps with some of them. Wong enters these relationships, however, with a steadfast resistance to dwelling on past experiences. Perhaps it’s because the memory of Li Zhen still haunts him. Perhaps he left his past to die in the Angkor Wat. Whatever the explanation, that resistance effectively undercuts Chow’s chances for a much deeper relationship with others, especially his neighbor and occasional confidant Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi).
But all Chow’s orations about rejecting the past feel disingenuous, as he is ultimately contradicted by his own actions. The most revealing connection he makes is his friendship with his landlord’s daughter Wang Jing Wen (Faye Wong), who moves in to Room 2046 when Bai Ling leaves. In a partnership not dissimilar to events from In the Mood for Love, Jing Wen assists Chow with his writing, and Chow admits to how happy this time with this new girl makes him. What’s most frustrating is that Chow continues this relationship knowing fully well that this girl remains hopelessly in love with a Japanese man (of whom her father greatly disapproves). Yet Chow milks these hopeless interactions, not for what value they’re worth, but for the fond memories they elicit.
What truly damaged Chow, we learn, was not the experience with Li Zhen that spurned him so badly, but his foolhardy belief that he has moved beyond it. It is this refusal to re-appropriate his pain into hindsight wisdom that fuels his Rosebud-like obsession with Room 2046, and it is ultimately what prevents him from being able to forge new connections. The coldness and loneliness of 2046’s final moments are heart-breaking. Given the journey its protagonist takes – and given what it says about the repercussions of a doomed love into which we’ve invested a great deal – no other emotions would better suit this trilogy’s conclusion.
Traces of Tears
While writing this, I caught myself alluding rather frequently to characters attempting to “make connections” throughout Wong Kar Wai’s Informal Trilogy. That choice of words was not intentional, but in retrospect it seems appropriate. Almost every film Wong has made so far explores the meaning behind those emotional connections we all make – romantic, sexual or otherwise. If Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love and 2046 distinguish themselves in any way, it is that they present Wong’s vision at his most ambitious, his most disciplined and his most introspective. This trilogy projects an elliptical and inter-textual, yet strangely fluid and fiercely cinematic vision of the hard work required to bring value to those connections we make, and how truly fragile they can be.
For a director whose work wallows in so much pain, heartbreak and unaddressed discord, it might be easy to write Wong off as a pessimist – a man whose propensity to deconstruct romance is marked by an unrelentingly cynical vision. To make such a dismissal would be, I believe, to miss the point of his work entirely. To be truly cynical, I feel there needs to be a certain amount of distance and contempt between the subject(s) and the apparent cynic. Nothing about Wong’s approach, even at its most restrained, suggests disaffection for the people whose stories he tells. Each of his tales is imbued with searing intimacy, wishing for the best in all of his characters while nonetheless understanding that an undercurrent of heartbreak and dissonance is still capable of shadowing and complementing the joy and beauty life bestows upon us and our loved ones.
Perhaps, if Wong Kar Wai’s work – particularly within his Informal Trilogy – can be boiled down to a single conceit, it is that he believes in that cohabitation of beauty and dissonance. In a way, that very conceit probably hints at an entirely unique idiosyncrasy of life that few other filmmakers would ever dare to explore.