“Some things don’t need to be said.” In a medium teeming with saccharine dialogue and almost comically exaggerated gestures of passion, the filmography of Wong Kar-Wai serves as a breath of fresh air. As intimated in the above-mentioned quote from In the Mood for Love, in which Maggie Cheung’s Su Li-zhen enlightens Tony Leung’s Chow Mo-wan on the futility of verbosity, Wong Kar-Wai’s films disregard gushing Hollywood dialogues and their happy endings, instead favouring emotionally acute examinations of love, loss and regret.

An auteur who appreciates the understated, his filmmaking has been labelled as visual poetry, capturing romance in its sensuous imagery rather than through cliché discourse. Whilst his works fluctuate in tone, varying from quirky to sentimental, they ultimately all share a common theme: the sorrow and alienation of love. There exists a prevalent sense of grief, invariably caused by loss, isolation or longing, which permeates each of his films, ultimately imbuing them with a unique concoction of bittersweet romantic melancholy.

Wong Kar-Wai’s fables of missed opportunities, unfulfilled chances and suppressed desires saturate his works with a sense of romantic fatalism. Set in 1960s Hong Kong, the critically acclaimed and emotionally devastating In the Mood for Love chronicles the impossibility of love between two neighbours who, upon discovering that their spouses are maintaining an adulterous affair with each other, grow close, yet refuse to replicate the passionate immorality of their other halves. A movie suffused with ravishing beauty and an infinite sadness, the story ends with an enigmatic coda, in which the couple fail to reunite due to botched communication and timing. Leung’s character, riddled with unspoken feelings of guilt, grief and passion, whispers his secret anguish into a hole in Cambodia’s Angkor Wat rather than confessing to another being. Here, the isolation of love is palpable: the only source of emotional release is located in an inanimate object.

“Through his two-part, multi-dimensional tragedy, the viewer understands that, with Wong Kar-Wai, the only true certainty is heartbreak.”

This sense of loneliness is further intensified upon viewing 2046, a loose sequel to In the Mood for Love in which Chow, now reimagined as a sleazy womaniser, attempts to fill the void of his lost love with numerous vacuous flings. The characters, backgrounds and settings have all been vastly altered in the futuristic, sci-fi world of 2046, but the overarching message of the original tale remains unchanged. Through his two-part, multi-dimensional tragedy, the viewer understands that, with Wong Kar-Wai, the only true certainty is heartbreak.

While Wong Kar-Wai is devoted in his depiction of Hong Kong, the director recognises the universal experience of urban alienation, captured perfectly by long-time collaborator Christopher Doyle, whose cinematography of blurred and frantic crowds juxtaposed by solitary shots perfectly captures the paradoxical notion of loneliness in a crowded city.

In Chungking Express, the romance is more offbeat and light-hearted, yet still engulfed by this concept of solitude in company. Here, the characters struggle for a chance to escape isolation through finding real connection. Faye (Faye Wong), a spirited shop worker, attempts to woo Cop 663 (Tony Leung) while he pines for a previous lover, oblivious to the possibility of newfound passion. Wong’s use of voice-overs solidifies this ambience of solitude, as introspection manifests itself in monologues due to the characters’ lack of social interactions. Although eventually Faye and Cop 663 unite, it is after the anguish of unrequited love and plentiful occurrences of miscommunication, thus tainting their alleged happy reunion with remnants of past sorrow.

“Culminating in heartbreak on all sides in multiple geographical settings, Wong Kar-Wai establishes the resounding universality of pain borne via love.”

Even when relationships are attained, they are tinged with an unmistakable sense of sadness. Such is the case of the unfortunate protagonists of Happy Together, played by Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai. A rich, lovelorn odyssey shot both in colour and black-and-white, the film depicts the turbulent romance between Lai (Tony Leung) and his boyfriend, Ho (Leslie Cheung), two Chinese immigrants adrift in Buenos Aires, where they seek a better life both financially and romantically. Throughout the duration of their relationship, they undergo numerous break-ups and reconciliations, resulting in an almost abusive toxicity between the pair. Ultimately separated on the basis of promiscuity and distrust, both Lai and Ho find themselves estranged from home and each other. Although the film is labelled a romantic one, its content is arguably more a tragedy than anything else. Culminating in heartbreak on all sides in multiple geographical settings, here Wong Kar-Wai establishes the resounding universality of pain borne via love.

Wong Kar-Wai’s films, though at times unbearably distressing, employ the entire lexicon of cinema more effectively than those of any other filmmaker. The camera assumes a human-like quality, lurking and hiding in various corners, to the point of almost spying on Chow and Su Li-zhen in In the Mood for Love. The auteur also utilises sound excellently, with each musical choice perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of the era as well as the spirit of each character. A notable example of this melodic mastery is in Chungking Express, in which The Mamas and Papas’ California Dreamin’ serves to reflect the wanderlust experienced by Faye, while simultaneously acknowledging the prominence of Western culture in Hong Kong.

“Viewing a Wong Kar-Wai film means entering a different realm, one daubed in heightened emotions, evocative sound and dreamlike visuals.”

More of a pioneer than a mere director, his ability to mould every element of his film into perfection has helped him to create his own cinematic language for romance. Viewing a Wong Kar-Wai film means entering a different realm, one daubed with heightened emotions, evocative sound and dreamlike visuals which recount unforgettable tales of ill-fated romance. As a director, skilled in filmic seduction, he is able to beguile his audience just as mesmerizingly.

A profound sadness sweeps through these films as individuals are left unmoored by romantic grief, loss and betrayal. However, this traditionally burdening emotion is transformed into something beautiful in each of these films. Even when heartbroken, each character possesses a bittersweet quality, with their suffering intensifying their feelings, heightening the cinematic atmosphere for the audience. Through Wong Kar-Wai’s beguiling visual language, the viewer is reminded that there is a strange sense of beauty even in romantic despair. Never before has heartbreak looked so enchanting as it does through the eyes of Wong Kar-Wai.


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