Swarthmore professor dissects Hong Kong filmmaker’s method

Following Thursday’s screenings of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love and Fallen Angels, Chinese Professor Haili Kong of Swarthmore gave a talk titled “Time, Space & Being – Wong Kar-Wai’s Cinematic Illustrations of Hong Kong Identity.”

Fallen Angels
The films of Wong Kar-Wai’s have come to symbolize Hong Kong.

The talk was presented in association with the Cloud Gate 2 performance on Feb. 15. Although the audience was small, it consisted of devoted fans and Asian culture enthusiasts.

For the uninitiated, Fallen Angels is a neo-noir film that follows a disillusioned killer struggling to overcome his partner’s affection for him, a strange drifter looking for her ex-boyfriend and a mute attempting to seize the world’s attention by any means possible – including by breaking into shops and creating a ruckus until the owners pay him to leave. This motley assortment of unusual characters is set against a sordid and surreal urban nightscape.

The other piece, In the Mood for Love, is an expressionistic film analyzing the platonic extramarital affair between a man and a woman set in Hong Kong in the 1960s. The film focuses on the atmosphere and the importance of feelings.

A British colony for 40 years, Hong Kong was returned to mainland China in 1997; since then, it has felt a void in its sense of identity. Born among the “floating” generation, Wong is representative of the Hong Kong Second Wave Movement, experimenting and searching to discover how, as an auteur, he may portray contemporary Hong Kong.

Kong, a specialist in Asian comparative literature and cinema, devoted most of his time to interpreting Wong’s enigmatic and deeply symbolic work. His lecture shed light on Wong’s pieces and provided an alternative perspective by asking the question, “How is Hong Kong’s broken identity portrayed, and what does it mean to the Hong Kongese themselves?” By evaluating the different elements and themes of the film, such as time, space and character types, one comes to a closer understanding of the director’s original intentions and, more importantly, arrives at one’s own interpretations.

Kong began by introducing the concept of time, which had distinct manifestations in Wong’s films. In Days of Being Wild, another Wong film, the clock ticking away in the background and the mention of a “one-minute friend” hint at the inevitability of chance and fate. In the Mood for Love, on the other hand, has dissolved any sense of time in the context of the enlarged and overwhelming inundation of feelings the protagonists have for each other.

Kong subsequently discussed the expression of space. Especially in the extremely crowded public spaces of Hong Kong, the emotionally isolated characters often exhibit a separate internal space, which is juxtaposed with the public spaces of crammed commercial boards, motorcycles and hurried passers-by. The killer’s internal emptiness and loneliness in Fallen Angels could not be more prominent among obnoxiously loud crowds; and the abundant narrow hallways of In the Mood for Love enhance both the imminent suppression and suffocation experienced by the man and woman and extend their introversion. The contained self-character and distance maintained for reservation is typical of Chinese film. “Here is a clear exhibition of a connection to traditional Chinese culture where self-containment is recognized as a virtue,” Kong said.

As Yumeji’s violin theme from In the Mood for Love began to play, the lone woman comes up a narrow stairway and crosses path with the lone man, their shadows dancing on the stone tiles with the rhythmic plucking of strings. Kong introduced the role, or lack thereof, that words play in Wong’s film. Wong believes that an excess of words is a sin. For this filmmaker, a stolen glance, the sway of hips and spiraling cigarette smoke express all. Music also fills up the meaninglessness of words, as “Because I’m Cool” plays in the background and prepares the assassin to kill. “Wong emphasizes the hypocritical side of language and uses the most taciturn characters,” Kong said.

During the Q-and-A session after the talk, the audience raised interesting points, some concerning Wong’s intricate displays of Campbell’s soup and pineapple cans to show the significant influence of American culture on Hong Kong culture. This influence has significantly altered Hong Kong’s path in search of self-identity. Associate Professor of Chinese Christopher Nugent mentioned the crucial role that the cinematographer Christopher Doyle played in Wong’s films, contributing to symbolic meaning through extraordinary uses of highly saturated colors and alternating motions. A dissatisfying point in Kong’s talk was his failure to acknowledge how indispensible Doyle was to Wong’s depiction of time, space and being.

Overall, the event was rewarding, as it brought a serious cultural exchange to the College in the form of cinematic experience that is both alien in its settings and identifiable in its human context.