Magoosh GRE

Popular East Asian Cinema

| November 21, 2012


Wong Kar-Wai breakthroughs the boundaries of genre film, the narrative style and the efficiency requirements of the market. Wong’s movies always based on Wong’s thinking and bring out the signification. Although the movie themes are the popular, but the films are full of vitality and spirited improvisation. I want to have a brief study of Wong Kar-wai’s background and focus on Wong’s theme and style study and analysis from different films such as ‘As Tears Go By’, ‘Chungking Express’, ‘In the Mood For Love’ etc. As ‘In the Mood For Love’ is my favorite movie of Wong Kar-Wai, I want to have a further study of this film and have a deeper understand about the theme, the function of music, Hong Kong people’s living during 60s.


Wong Kar-Wai was born in Shanghai in 1958 and moved to Hong Kong when he was five years old. These five years in Shanghai had influenced Wong Kar Wai’s creativity in his films such as the scenes, lifestyle and so on. The interview by New York-based Bomb Magazine (Stephen Teo, WONG KAR-WAI P.50) described the creative subconscious of Wong ‘His father was an ex-sailor, who later worked as a nightclub manager, and his mother was a housewife. From what can be discerned in Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love, both films that could be described as roughly autobiographical, sense of nightclubs, gossiping housewives playing mahjong and living the life of a sailor drifting from one place to another, are the kinds of experiences of growing up that are etched in Wong’s creative subconscious.’ After the graduation in Hong Kong Polytechnic University, he started working in TVB, Hong Kong’s premier TV station as a production assistant and received the appreciation from Kam Kwok Leong who is a famous cross-media worker of director, actor and screenwriter in Hong Kong, Wong Kar-Wai accessed a large number of creative opportunities to contributed his ideas to a script. He also worked in different kinds of genres such as comedy, cop thrillers etc. In 1987, Alan Tang Kwong-Wing (famous producer, actor and director in Hong Kong) found Wong’s Talent after he wrote the ‘Flaming Brothers’. After that, Alan Tang sponsored Wong’s first movie – ‘As Tears Go By’, it is also the starting point of Wong’s director career. Alan Tang sponsored Wong once again in 1990 for ‘Days of Being Wild’. ‘Day of Being Wild’ had spent forty million but the box office was only nine million. Although the box office was disappointed, Wong won the Best Director in Hong Kong Film Award in 1991.


Hong Kong cinema is very concentrate at entertaining. Scriptwriter will pay more attention to the audiences about their preferences and aesthetic views. Movie’s ornamental is the priority for the success of the commercial movies. Most of the directors are not limited by the country, nationality, history and religion. Therefore, when the directors are choosing the topic, they will mainly focus on the packaging of the movies. Hong Kong cinema can be defined as ‘art with commercial’ or ‘commercial with art’.
After the development year by year, Hong Kong movie formulated a fixed narrative style for catering to the audiences. Stephen Teo (2005, P.15) mentioned about the formula of Hong Kong movies ‘The nature of Hong Kong cinema concerns the way the industry follows commercial trends and makes films according to a formula’. Most of the movies will follow the timeline to tell the story, but Wong broke the rule at that time. ‘Days of Being Wild’ is a very good example. He ignored the narrative law of the plot, so he can not only having a wider freedom for the selection of the forms and materials, but also make the film became more artificial as you can see Wong Kar Wai’s elements in the movie. He also breaks the circulation and causal chain of Hong Kong cinema’s narrative structure. In ‘Days of being wild’ is tended to show people’s daily life with uncompleted storyline and transformation. ‘Days of Being Wild’ received the spirit of the new wave of Hong Kong cinema.

‘A Better Tomorrow’ and ‘As Tears Go By’

After five years in 1980, there was a new hot wave of ‘Hero Movie’, which started from John Woo’s ‘A Better Tomorrow’. In ‘Hero Movie’, ‘Hero’ means the leader of triad instead of police. The brotherhood in ‘Hero Movie’ replaced the strangeness plot of gangster film. The scene in ‘A Better Tomorrow’ was happened in Hong Kong in 1986; it is all about a man keeps chasing personal loyalty, self-esteem, self-confidence and status. The society background usually is simple in ‘Hero Movie’; it doesn’t emphasis the contradiction between society and people. In ‘A Better Tomorrow’, it is all about the love between father and son, brotherhood, friendship, relationship, injustice and revenge. It created a fairy story of a real ‘Hero’.
Wong’s ‘As Tears Go By’ is the variation of ‘Hero Movie’. The plot of ‘As Tears Go By’ is build-up on the brotherhood of Wah and Fly under the contradiction between police and triad. Merely, Wong moved the spirit of the brotherhood between Mark ‘Gor’ Lee and Sung Tse-Ho to Wah and Fly in ‘As Tears Go By’ who shot by his brother at the end. Wah is not only accomplished the brotherhood but also shows that even ‘Hero’ can’t accomplish great things gloriously. In these two films, ‘A Better Tomorrow’ is full of idealism of justice and ethics. Under the packaging with violence, the world in ‘Hero Movie’ is having a clear definition of good and evil and the desire of justice, such as Mark ‘Gor’ Lee and Sung Tse-Ho are killing the enemies together and died eventually with brotherhood, friendship and relationship. Scriptwriter arranged them died with glory. It turns Mark ‘Gor’ Lee becomes the hero in the legend. Merely, the Hero’ in ‘As Tears Go By’ can’t. The dead of Wah and Fly not only breaks the rule of ‘Hero Movie’ and reached the dim of the persist of life but also shows sentiment of anti-heroism.
The position of the female role in ‘A Better Tomorrow’ and ‘As Tears Go By’ are having an obvious different. In ‘Hero Movie’, the function of the female is to set off the masculinity and brotherhood. However, the female in ‘As Tears Go By’ doesn’t help a lot to the destiny of the male, but they acted an important role between the developments of the relationships. If ‘Hero Movie’ praised the brotherhood, ‘As Tears Go By’ shows Wong’s persistent of love theme. When the male died, he just laid on the street without glory. Surprisingly, the last thing he was thinking was the kiss scene with his love on the street. It shows a rare but typical romantic scene in ‘Hero Movie’. Under the treatment of romantic style, it is sensitive and imaginative. From ‘As Tears Go By’, we can see Wong’s combined genre and the ambition of the theme vision.


‘Chungking Express’

Chungking Express’ is the third movie of Wong Kar Wai. The conservative atmosphere surrounded the movie market in Hong Kong at that time, but Wong dared to restructure the genre of gangster movie and romantic movie. Generally in gangster films, police are always upright and gangsters are always bad. The dramatic elements are from the justice and interest between police and gangsters.
The first part in ‘Chungking Express’ breaks the narrative rule about police chasing the gangster. It is about the relationship of the strangers, Cop 223 and the unnamed female drug dealer; their relationship seems getting start but also will be end soon. In part 2, Wong even cut the part of gangster and make it as a complete romantic story between Cop 633 and Faye. Wong had his own rationale for the emotional relationships in the film (Stephen Teo, Wong Kar-Wai 2005, P.20) ‘It’s very difficult to describe why a man likes a woman, and the deep feelings between two brothers, and so on. They are all very subtle. But I wanted to put forward the proposition that time is the biggest factor. ‘Chungking Express’ proved that Wong is not only live in his own narcissistic, but also the creativity in the movie that Hong Kong people can feel and understand about. It is valuable that Wong’s being loyal to his personal feeling about Hong Kong and the people who are living in Hong Kong. The modernity in ‘Chungking Express’ is very strong, it makes people believe that Wong can catch the thought of the adult and teenagers more than other directors. Wong Kar Wai expressed the loneliness and the unstable status of the relationships about the people who live in this city. Wong Kar-Wai said (David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment, 2000, p.283) ‘the two stories are quiet independent. What puts them together is that they are both love stories. I think a lot of city people have a lot of emotions but sometimes they can’t find the people to express them to’. It is the main reason of the success of ‘Chungking Express’.

‘Happy Together’

In 1994, Peter Chan who is a famous director and producer in Hong Kong and Tsui Hark filmed ‘He’s a woman, She’s a man’ and ‘The Lovers’. It started to involve the gay elements in a film, but they didn’t have an in-depth description of homosexual relationship. Following Peter Chan and Tsui Hark, other directors started filming the similar theme. Homosexual movie became a semi-major movie theme in 90s.
Comparing with Wong’s ‘Happy Together’, he breakthroughs the bias and negative render in the common homosexual film in Hong Kong. ‘Happy Together’ is about two Hong Kong people living in Argentina and describe their romantic and emotional expression. There are many daily life dialogues and plot design. ‘Happy Together’ ignored the consideration of social dimension by using the location (Argentina) to point out the axis of the relationship between the characters.

Comparing with the conservative atmosphere in Hong Kong cinema, Wong Kar Wai keeping his experimental development to the popular Hong Kong movie genre and the vision of the theme. The genre of movies he had breakthrough are ‘Hero Movie’, gangster movie and semi-popular and controversial movie such as homosexual theme. In fact, Wong infused his personal theme – ‘the communication between people and people’ into different movie genres, which are having market value and gimmick. Genre movie is a commercial package, which included the theme, artistic pursuit, modern culture and western culture. Under the commercial package, Wong put his persistent theme of human motion and created his own theme and style in Hong Kong Movie.


The Names of Wong Kar-Wai’s movies

Every Wong’s movies have a clear name to the audiences even his first film (‘As Tears Go By’) doesn’t have a very strong style of Wong compare with the others. Merely, the hidden meaning behind the movie names are hard to understand, it is like we already lost our way when we first look at the movie name.
Wong is well known, as he doesn’t prepare a script until the day of shooting. Therefore, it becomes very hard to capture his movies. For example, ‘Chungking Express’ (literal: Chungking Forrest) but you can’t find the trace of forest. ‘2046’ is an enigmatic figure. Wong is not only like start shooting films without complete script but also he has more different style.
Wong always creates the name for the movie first, but he doesn’t base on the name to consider the plot. The name of ‘Chungking Express’ is come from the famous building ‘Chungking Mansions’ in Hong Kong. It is because Wong was told by his parent when he was young about Chungking Mansions is a horrible building, people and everything are very complicated. Chungking Mansions become a mysterious symbol in Wong’s heart. ‘Happy Together’ is from the traditional Chinese translation of a novel ‘The Buenos Aires’ Affair’, which is written by Wong’s favorite Argentine writer Manuel Puig. The first appear of ‘2046’ is when Chau Mo-Wan is closing the door, and the number badge on the door is ‘2046’ in  ‘In the Mood of Love’. In 1997, the transfer of sovereignty from United Kingdom to the PRC occurred. Hong Kong under ‘one country, two systems’ will be ended after 50years. The year after 50 years is 2046. Wong had given 2046 different significations. In the movie ‘2046’, it represents a fantasy world.


Wong has a strong and sensitive artistic sense. He is also very good at choosing different genre of music and applying them perfectly to the movie. The background music is just right into the film and staying at audience’s mind.
In ‘Days of Being Wild’ and ‘In the Mood of Love’, Wong selected the music with the style of the 60s and 70s such as the song called ‘In the Mood for Love’ from Zhou Xuan was played by the phonograph player machine, the Jazz music ‘Quizas Quizas Quizas’. For matching the theme of martial arts in ‘Ashes of Time’, the music is majestic. Start from the prelude ‘A lonely heart’, it shows the dignified atmosphere and revealed the feeling from the heart of the agent and the other. ‘Chungking Express’, Faye keeps playing the song ‘California Dreaming’ to insinuate her love of California. Wong used ‘California Dreaming’ to tell the desire and the dream of Faye. The theme song ‘Yumeji’s Theme’ is a classic song in ‘In the Mood of Love’. No matter where the melody started, it can spur audience’s emotions. This song appeared seven times by following the slight changes between Chau Mo-Wan and Su Li-zhen.


For a film, the most instant feeling that audience will receive is from the scene. Wong understand that and keeping up trying different kind of scenes. Wong Kar-Wai has a special preference of the small house in Hong Kong which is a special feature of this city. People are staying in a narrow space in most of Wong’s movie; it is the portrait of the crowded community in Hong Kong and the reflection of the world in Hong Kong people’s heart. The characters appeared in Wong’s film, they all had a closed heart such as Chau Mo-wan in ‘In The Mood of Love’, Yuddy in ‘Days of Being Wild’, Ouyang Feng in ‘Ashes of Time’, Lai Yiu-Fai in ‘Happy Together’ and Chau Mo-wan in ‘In the Mood of Love’.
Wong Kar-Wai needs to write the script during the daytime, therefore most of the movie scenes occurs at the nighttime. There were also many rain scenes appeared in Wong’s movies.  In ‘Days of Being Wild’, when Lulu knows that Yuddy going to Philippine alone, she walks under the heavy rain. In ‘Chungking Express’, when cop663 is waiting for Faye inside the pub, the rain was pouring. In ‘In the Mood of Love’, Chau Mo-wan and Su-Li-zhen were waiting together when it was raining.

‘In the Mood for Love’

The beginning of ‘In the Mood for Love’, Chau Mo-Wan couple and Su Li-Zhen couple live very closed to each other, they will visit landlord sometimes. Inside the narrow space, people suppose to be closer, such as Mrs Chau and Mr Chan became more intimate (betrayal). However, Chau Mo-Wan and Ms Su started having the alienation to their partners. At the same time, the alienation makes Chau and Ms Su become closer. Wong Kar-Wai deliberately put two families together and then use the feelings between people to people to re-organize and arrange their relationships.


Su Li-Zhen is a typical Chinese woman. She doesn’t have any target in her life that she wants to achieve. Living and her husband are everything. When her husband cheated on her, she didn’t know what she should do. After, she started to put her mind to another man Chau Mo-Wan who also attracted by this enchanting woman. Ms Su in the movie is always wearing colorful Cheongsam, which is not only a traditional Chinese characteristic, but also the performance of Asian women’s body beauty. Cheongsam is a specific dress for woman who loves beautyin Hong Kong and China. However, there are other clothing options in 60s, but William Chang and Wong Kar-wai did not choose other costumes for her. Ms Su with Cheongsam is the woman that Chau Mo-Wan loves to see – a high class and unique woman. This is the natural development of the movie, which shows that Ms Su is a tradition of oriental, and tempting deviant woman. Cheongsam also leading the path of the film. When we look at Ms Su’s move, we can see the rhythm of the film. We are not only can hear Nat King Cole’s singing but also we can ‘listen’ Ms Su’s steps. Her pace is a proper way of jazz which is created by her high heels, omega hair style and knee-length cheongsam. We cant see the rhythm if she is wearing a shirt and a throuser. Cheongsam is a representative dress in 60s and Nat King Cole is the popular Jazz singer at that time as well and gather all scenes, props and music, we know this film is exactly about 60s. Moreover, ‘Wonton’ (a traditional dishes in Hong Kong and Shanghai) and Cheongsam are the most representative icons of Shanghai. The sewing in Shanghai is the best all over China. In 60s, most of the trailors are from Shanghai. It is a small build of Shanghai in this Hong Kong movie when Ms Su is wearing a cheongsam and buying some Wonton for her dinner. When we look at Ms Su’s cheongsam, we realised that time is changing: working, buying food,hanging out etc. The timeline in the movie is not by order. These are the fragments of her life, we realised that there is something building up between Chau Mo-Wan and Ms Su.


The structure of the soundtrack is starts from Chau Mo-Wan’s dialogue and ended by Ms Su’s dialogue which are exactly the same script. Secondly, following by Shigeru Umebayashi’s ‘Yumeji’s Theme’ and the music at the middle of the movie plays by order and prefectly match the film. When you listening the soundtrack, it is like you are watching the movie as well. Mentioned earlier of the ‘Yumeji’s Theme’ which is the spirit of the whole film. It played everytime when the main characters appear, over and over throughout the film. The scene of Chau Mo-Wan was having dinner with Ms Su; the restaurant was playing Nat King Cole’s song. When Ms So told the secret which Chau Mo-Wan already known, the shot moves from right to back sliently and directed to Chau’s face. At the same time, it plays the song ‘Te Quiero Dijiste’. The fast rhythm of the beginning of the song is like telling the Chau’s psychological reaction. Afterward, Nat King Cole’s music played again and the scene changed to the cigarette on Chau’s hand. There are many detail plot like that in the film including when two main characters were ordering the food in the restaurant. When the camera pan quickly between Chau and Ms So, Nat King Cole’s song still played slowly and brought out the ambiguous between two main characters. Nat King Cole is Wong’s mother’s favourate Jazz singer. Those three songs which used in the movie were the most popular songs at that time. Additionally, ‘In the Mood for Love’ also contained a lot of traditional opera such as Cantonese opera, Shaoxing opera. They are historic and precious. In 50s, there is a statement called ‘Radio Play’. It is not diffcult to see the effection of ‘Radio Play’ in the movie. The sounds were from the past and played through the radio to present. It makes the song become more attractive and effective. Galasso Michale, the music director in ‘Chungking Express’ also involved to the production of the soundtrack. He created two songs for ‘In the Mood For Love’ and there are 3 or 4 versions of each song. Matching with Nat King Cole’s Jazz, it achieves an excellent affection.

The scenes

There is an excellent and significant scene. The scene is about Chau-Mo Wan is pretending he is leaving Ms Su, and Ms Su cried because she is not willing to lost Chau. The scene appeared a set of straight lines, which are the bars, because the camera is reflected through the bars to Chau and Ms Su and it is like they are trapped in a cage, and lost their freedom. It is exactly the same with them situation – a married man and a married woman. Under the conservative society in 60s, they are living with invisible shackles. They lost the freedom to love publicly and they can only live under the pain. On the other hand, Wong used mirrors several times to express the relationship between entity and virtual body. This relationship reflected the other sides of Chau and Ms Su perfectly. When Chau and Ms So were writing the martial art novel in the hotel, the mirror reflected the virtual body of Chau and Ms So. They were have a short-term good time with self-indulgence. However in 60s, people cant be who they want to be or do what they want. Chau and Ms Su can only suppress their emotions.


Wong Kar-Wai made a great contribution to the Hong Kong movie industry. He changed the traditional narrative approach of Hong Kong movies, adding more personal elements and more in-depth to the local culture and life circumstances. The breakthrough of the ‘Hero Movie’ genre is an important starting point in Wong’s career. He also added the elements of female into the movies. Brotherhood in Wong’s approach, ‘Hero’ can die without glory, but they also have the feeling of love such as the last scene in ‘As Tears Go By’. Afterward, Wong had tried different kind of genre, such as ‘Chungking Express’ and ‘Happy Together’. His work is consistently about a theme: between people and communication.
Wong is very well at using the music to express the emotions of the main characters. The music in the movies is not only the background music; it is also an important tool for bringing audiences into the movie and affecting their emotions.  ‘California Dreaming’ in ‘Chungking Express’, the song ‘In the Mood for Love’ which is sing by Zhou Xuan was played by the phonograph player machine and the jazz music ‘Quizas Quizas Quizas’ in ‘In the Mood for Love’ etc.
‘In the Mood for Love’ is the most representative film of Wong Kar-Wai. It presented different areas in 60s including living conditions, thoughts, fashion and daily lifestyle. Cause by the living space in Hong Kong is narrow; it increased the intimacy between the neighbors. They will play mahjong, having dinner together and helping each other. It is a very good reflection of the special living style in Hong Kong. For the fashion, Cheoungsam is fully expressed the beauty of Oriental women and also the best representation of traditional Chinese culture. Under the conservative ideology in 60s, people can’t love the one they want to love; they can only enjoy the time secretly like the scene when Chau Mo-Wan and Su-Li Zhen were writing the martial art novel together.
Today, many Hong Kong’s independent art films and you can see Wong’s style even in some commercial movies, but most of them are the simple copy, which are lack of creativities. Wong Kar-Wai’s film may not represent the whole film industry but he did point out the future of the Hong Kong cinema.




Stephen Teo, (2005) WONG KAR-WAI. United Kingdom: The Cromwell Press.

Stephen Teo, (1997) Hong Kong cinema : the extra dimensions. London: BFI Publishing.

Peter Brunette, (2005) CONTEMPORARY FILM DIRECTORS: WONG KAR WAI. United State of America: Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data.

Cheuk, P.T. (2009) Hong Kong New Wave Cinema: 1978 – 2000. Bristol: Intellect.

Stokes, Lisa Odham; Hoover, Michael (1999) City on fire: Hong Kong cinema. London: Verso.

Poshek Fu, David Desser, (2000) Cinema of Hong Kong: History, Arts, Identity. Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press.

Laikwan Pang, Day Wong, (2005) Masculinities and Hong Kong cinema. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Wimal Dissanayake, Dorothy Wong, (2003) Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of time. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Web page:

Esolution. ‘In the Mood for Love’ Available at: (Accessed: 14 April 2011)

Robert M. Payne. (2001) Jump Cut Website. Available at: (Accessed: 14 April 2011)

‘Michael Galasso Music’ Available at: (Accessed: 14 April 2011)

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