Thursday, July 12, 2012

Wong Kar Wai's 1960s Trilogy

Way back in April, I saw Wong Kar Wai's loose trilogy as a triple feature at the Castro Theater.  I didn't forget about the films.  I was just unsure what to write as my opinion of the three films varies greatly.

Days of Being Wild starring Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Andy Lau & Carina Lau; cameo by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai; Cantonese with subtitles; (1990) - Official Website
In the Mood for Love starring Tony Leung Chiu-Wai & Maggie Cheung; Cantonese with subtitles; (2000) - Official Website
2046 starring Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Zhang Ziyi, Faye Wong, Carina Lau, Gong Li & Takuya Kimura; Cantonese and some Japanese with subtitles; (2004) - Official Website

All three films were directed by Wong Kar Wai.  Christopher Doyle was the cinematographer on all three films as well.


The films showed a career arc.  Days of Being Wild, Wong's second film as director, was interesting but hinted at Wong's potential.  In the Mood for Love was a masterpiece.  2046 was self-indulgent.

Days of Being Wild did not focus Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) as the other two films did.  Leung makes a cameo at the end of the film but the main character is Yuddy played by the late Leslie Cheung.  Yuddy is a "love 'em and leave 'em" type in 1960s Hong Kong.  At the beginning of the film, he romancing Su Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung, looking different somehow), a cashier in a concession stand.  Their's is an intense, lusty relationship which Yuddy breaks off.  That leave Li Zhen emotionally crushed although she eventually forms a friendship with Tide, a cop (Andy Lau). 

Yuddy's next conquest is Mimi (Carina Lau), a glamorous cabaret singer who suffers the same fate as Li Zhen.  Yuddy's friend Zeb (Jacky Cheung) is secretly in love with Mimi.  When Yuddy decides to go to the Philippines to search for his birth mother, Zeb gets his chance with Mimi.

In the Philippines, the wealthy Yuddy is living in a flophouse in the Chinatown section where he encounters Tide who has quit his police job.  At this point, the plot becomes a little fuzzy.  I'm not sure if it was my memory or Wong's unstructured style.  Yuddy does reunite with his Filipino mother with unsatisfactory results.  While taking a train with Tide, Yuddy is shot.  I can't the reason or if it was a random incident.  Although he survives for quite some time, the film ends with Yuddy dying as a result of his wounds.

There were a number of themes in Days of Being Wild that I caught.  One is the timing of romance.  Tide and Li Zhen may have been a couple if they had met before Li Zhen painful breakup with Yuddy.  Mimi & Zeb may turn out to be a couple because they had encountered Yuddy in the recent past.  So much of life is not quite fate but sequential for lack of a better word. 

Unrequited love is a major theme.  Much of Yuddy's behavior stems from his strained relationship with his aunt/foster mother (Rebecca Pan), a former prostitute.  They both want the love of the other but circumstances keep them emotionally separated.  What is more unrequited than a mother giving her son a prostitute no less!

Combined with Doyle's cinematography and the 1960s music, Days of Being Wild is a contemplative film which evokes a mood and specific time and place.


The trilogy was screened in chronological order.  After seeing Days of Being Wild, I was greatly anticipating In the Mood for Love, a critically acclaimed film I had long wanted to see.

A major character in In the Mood for Love is Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung).  I didn't realize until late in the film that Mrs. Chan is the same character as Su Li Zhen in Days of Being Wild.  Mrs. Chan is so different than the lovelorn Li Zhen of Days of Being Wild that it didn't register with me.  After the screening, while looking at the credits, I realized that Rebecca Pan was in both films (looking unrecognizable between the two films).  I don't believe Pan is playing the same character but it wouldn't surprise me. 

In the Mood for Love has a more structured plot than the other films in the trilogy.  Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and his wife (who is never seen on screen) rent a room in a boardinghouse run by Mrs. Suen (Pan).  One of their neighbors is Mrs. Chan and her husband (who is never seen on screen).  Mr. Chow is a journalist while Mrs. Chan is a secretary.  I don't recall their spouses' jobs but the spouses are absent for long stretches of time.

Mr. Chow & Mrs. Chan begin to suspect their spouses are having an affair with each other.  Taking solace in each other's company, the two form a platonic friendship.  Chow wants to wrote a kung fu serial for his newspaper which Chan is a fan of.  They collaboration raised the suspicions of their neighbors as Mrs. Suen subtly warns Mrs. Chow.  In fact, the warning was not about having an affair but allowing neighbors to think you are having an affair.

Chow rents a (garishly painted) room far from the Suen boardinghouse for the two to work together away from wagging tongues.  Their relationship intensifies during this period as both are deeply dissatisfied by their lives.  It still remain platonic as their circumstances dictate.  Not only are they married to other people but after condemning their respective spouses, they would be hypocritical to engage in the same behavior.

As the serial nears completion, Chow announces that he is leaving Hong Kong for a new job in Singapore.  He asks Chan to go with him (what about his wife?).  After initial hesitancy and delay, Chang decides to take his offer but after rushing to the room, she finds Chow has already left.

A year later, Chan (what about her husband?) goes to Singapore and calls him on the phone but remains silent.  She even talks the landlady into letting her into his apartment but again doesn't wait for him. 

Several years later, Chan (apparently divorced or separated) returns to the Suen boardinghouse.  Mrs. Suen is about to move to the US.  Chan agrees to rent her apartment.  At yete a future point, Chow returns to the boardinghouse and asks the new owner about Mrs. Suen and is informed she has moved and that a woman and her son live in the unit.  Chow leaves, not knowing the woman in Suen's apartment is Chow.  The film ends with Chow in Angkor Wat with Chow whispering into a tree hole and covering the hole with mud which is a old custom Chow had recounted earlier about how secrets could be shared.

In the Mood for Love was riveting.  First of all, it was beautiful to look at.  Maggie Cheung wore a stunning and endless array of cheongsam.  My words can't do justice to the colors and designs of these dresses nor the flaterring effect they had on Maggie Cheung's form.  She must have worn at least 30 cheongsam in the film; each more attractive then the last.

Wong & Doyle, also made use of slow motion and the claustrophic HK neighborhoods.  Chan & Chow repeatedly go up and down these stairs leading to a noodle joint with steam rising up.  They miss each other by moments even though they dine at the same place.

Finally, the soundtrack featured Nat King Cole's "Quizás, Quizás, Quizás" as a leitmotif to great effect.

In the Mood for Love is a tremendous film - a great love story about a love that never was.  Poignant, elegiac and immensely engaging, I wanted the pair to find love with each other but Wong teasingly denied me that satisfaction.


As I settled in for 2046, I wasn't sure what to expect.  I noticed that Chow rented room 2046 in In the Mood for Love

2046 has multiple stories within it which make it hard to discern the common threads.  One story involves Chow's novel set in 2046 and a man who falls in love with an android on his train.  To give this story arc resonance, actors Tak Kimura (the man) and Faye Wong (the android) play a Japanese businessman and the landlord's daughter in the hotel where Chow lives.  In fact, all the character in the fictitious future world are played by actors who have other roles in the film.

To cope with his unconsummated relationship with Chan, Chow has transformed himself into a ladies man (like Yuddy in Days of Being Wild).  He even encounters Mimi/Lulu (Carina Lau) who lives in room 2046.  When Chow returns to the hotel a few days later, he inquires about renting 2046.  The landlord tells him it is not available because Mimi was stabbed in the room by a jealous boyfriend (Jacky Cheung as presumably Zeb). 

From this room, Chow observes the sequential residents of 2046.  First is a  Wang Jing Wen (Faye Wong) who forbidden relationship with a Japanese man causes a nervous breakdown.  Next is Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), the woman a nightclub owner and upscale prostitute who dresses like Mrs. Chan but is more overt and liberated in her sexuality.  I could go on but there are more threads in this film than Egyptian cotton.

Chow encounters another woman named Su Li Zhen (Gong Li) in Singapore.  These these women as well as Wang Jing Wen's younger sister provide a contrast in feminine sensuality for Chow to react to.  The effect of so many characters was overwhelming. 

Wong put his themes into overdrive in 2046 to the point that I couldn't really follow the film.  Worse, with so many characters, I couldn't empathize with any of them.  Chow as the playboy was much less compelling as Chow the forlorn lover.

So I wasn't so impressed with 2046 but I'd like to watch it again.  In fact, I'd like to see the entire trilogy again.  There are so many interconnected characters that I'm certain I missed many of the connections.  However, if I had to choose just one film of the three, I'd choose In the Mood for Love.

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