For the uninitiated, Wong’s films seem pointless and confusing, which is reinforced by the director’s trademark cinematic indulgences, laggard pacing and minimalist plotting. However, upon closer inspection, it is easy to become intrigued by the rampant symbolism, the metaphor-laden dialogue, and the philosophical and psychological underpinnings of his films. Maybe its a problem of “if you have hammer, everthing looks like a nail”, but I cant help his fims remind me on C.G. Jung: Failed indivuation, shadows, persona and archetypes manifest in the here and now. But are there common elements that tie his entire body of work together? Is there some underlying structure or theme by which one can gain a better comprehension of his sometimes cryptic images and symbols?
The classic archetypes in Wong Kar Wai Films
One way of approaching the cure for the modern malaise in his films may come from the book King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine, by Jungian psychologist Robert Moore and mythologist Douglas Gillette. Moore argues that masculinity is made up of four archetypal male energies which serve different purposes: King, Warrior, Magician, Lover. Like much of the literature in the mythopoeic realm, KWML is grounded in the psychology of Carl Jung, particularly in his idea of psychological archetypes. While Jung suggested a number of universal archetypes (Mother, Hero), the four personal ones are: the Self, the Shadow, the Animus and Anima, and the Persona. They play a role too, as they are parts of the personal unconscious. I like to investigate, here some archetypes and their shadow representation ( and symbols which are archetypes in the here and now). Each of the four consists according to Moore of three parts: the full and highest expression of the archetype and two bi-polar dysfunctional shadows of the archetype. To better understand this, Moore portrays each archetype as a triangle full (to weak, to strong, and an bi-polar shadow split. These shadows are the result of the archetype not being integrated in a healthy and coherent way. The two shadows of the Lover archetype are the Addicted Lover and the Impotent Lover. A man possessed by the Addicted Lover is, as Moore puts it, “eternally restless.”Men dogged by the Impotent Lover archetype feel depressed, flat, and dead inside. Nothing brings them joy anymore. They’ve lost their passion for life and become cynical. Relationships, whether romantic or platonic, struggle and falter.
Ashes of Time is best candidate applying this framework, as it is almost a greek tragedy. You find the cynical magician, the weak king (note the absence of the positive king), the full warrior who becomes a hero and the addicted lover who cannot love. The women are brilliant too, there is the virgin, the animus, the unfaithful and loyal wife and there is Maggie Cheu.
Wong’s films, at their most basic level, are an exploration of the double-edged sword known as memory, which may be seen as consciousness. This strong thematic undercurrent is expressed through subtext in the dialogue, characterizations, and the often-minimalist plotting. Pain of loss and the tenacity of remembrance are both destructive forces, yet essential for survival. All the characters in his films are products of this loss, and their actions in the present stem from their reactions to that loss. Unfortunately, the results are often tragic. In ashes of time the girl with the donkey begs the agent for assassins ( in my view a cynical materialistic magician type):
Please help me. I beg of you.
It’s no use. I’m just an agent. You must solve your own problem.
“Ashes of Time”
Ouyang Feng’s lost love ( Cheung’s character in Ashes of Time) ultimately married his brother because she tired of waiting for her real love return to her. Wai’s camera stares intently at her while she gazes beyond time and relieves the past full of regret to his “friend. She dies as there is no reason to live. Besides being one of the strongest impression of melodrama, it is also the most puzzling. I noted two times the look in the mirror, visually and verbal in the film. It almost seems tis relates to the pain to learn about ourselves.
Do you know what the most important thing is in my life?
I thought so too. But as he grows up, I know he’ll be leaving me one day. Nothing’s important to me now. I thought the words ‘I love you’ really mattered. I thought they meant a lifetime commitment. But looking back, nothing matters… because everything changes. I thought I was the winner, until one day I looked into the mirror and saw the face of a loser. I failed to have the person I loved most to be with me in my best years. How wonderful it would be if we could forget the past…
“Ashes of Time”
The post-modern archetypes in Wong Kar Wai Films
His other films are mostly a study of relationships in the post-modern world, in which the exchange of goods and services serves as the basis of all relationships, instead of emotional connection– a representation of cosmopolitan life in modern Hong Kong – and elsewhere. Very few of the relationships found in Wong’s films are based on emotional connection, and the struggle that his characters face is to cultivate deeper forms of association. Unfortunately, many of his characters do not form these emotional connections, out of fear of rejection, and find it much easier to have transaction-based encounters. After thinking this through, and stereotypes not being archetypes, it appears to me that his central archetypes of loneliness are (negative) lover and warrior.
When I am about to leave, I ask him to take me home. I haven’t ridden on a motorbike for a long time. Actually, I haven’t been so close with a man for a while. The road isn’t that long, and I know that I’ll be getting off soon, but I’m feeling such warmth this very moment.
The most important aspect of Wong’s thematic focus is the transience of relationships. Even if the characters manage to find an emotional connection with one another, they learn to accept the fact that all relationships must end, and those who survive at the end of the film have learned to embrace the moment. This theme was best represented by #223’s (Takeshi Kaneshiro) ‘expiry date’ speech in “Chungking Express”, and the final soliloquy given by the nameless agent (Michelle Reis) while riding into the Hong Kong night on the back of a motorcycle. Not surprisingly, this can also be seen in Wong’s fascination with images of smoke and drifting clouds– like these transient phenomena, relationships form like a puff of smoke, only to quickly lose their cohesion and dissipate into the night. To embody these themes within his films, Wong populates his films with a number of archetypal characters: the ‘impotent lover’, the ‘carefree lover’, and sometimes, ‘the indecisive warrior’.
The impotent lover
The impotent lover has been seen in many forms, but their origins and current condition are always the same: the small time gangster Wah Ha-tau (Andy Lau) from “As Tears Go By”, both Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) and the soda counter girl Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung) in “Days of Being Wild”, the Blind Swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) in “Ashes of Time”, and Police Officer #663 (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) in “Chungking Express”.
This the time of year to change into a summer uniform. I don’t know if it is the weather, but I feel that things are changing.
The impotent lover is in a constant state of emotional paralysis, arising from his or her inability to forget the pain of a broken relationship. Blinded by the haze of nostalgia and desperately attempting to hang on their halcyon days, they miss the opportunities of the present and are completely unaware of the incessant progression of time.
Go ahead. I just want you to hate me. That way, at least you won’t forget me.
“Days of Being Wild”
#663 of “Chungking Express” is another good example of the impotent lover. Always waiting for his stewardess ex-girlfriend (Zhou Jialing) to return, he is completely oblivious to the fact that Fay (Faye Wong), the counter girl at a local fast food place, has been breaking into his apartment and rearranging his belongings. He does not notice that his canned food tastes different, or that the number of goldfish in his aquarium is increasing.
To capture the impotent lover’s introspective point-of-view visually, Wong employs a number of cinematic techniques. His use of the Godard-ian jump cut seamlessly blends temporally-exclusive scenes together, making the passage of time unnoticeable. Other Godard-ian touches include the many shots of clocks, which remind the viewer that despite the blind mourner’s fixation on the past, time continues to move on and that moments in the present are fleeting. Another interesting technique, seen in “Chungking Express”, clearly represents the lover’s detachment from reality– the film is sped up, but the actors move very slowly. The resulting visual effect then conveys that while the rest of the world blurs by like the flapping of a hummingbird’s wings, the impotent lover is in a stagnant state of existence, lost within their own nostalgic thoughts.
The addicted lover
I’ve heard that there’s a kind of bird without legs that can only fly and fly, and sleep in the wind when it is tired. The bird only lands once in its life… that’s when it dies.
“Days of Being Wild”
In contrast to the impotents lover is the other staple characterization of Wong’s films, the ‘addicted lover’. Characters that fall into this classification include the hotheaded Fly (Jackie Cheung) from “As Tears Go By”, the lonely beat cop (Andy Lau) from “Days of Being Wild” an mostely the amnesic Huang Yoshi (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) from “Ashes of Time”, and the fickle Ho Wo Ping (Leslie Cheung) of “Happy Together”.
I never think about the next time when doing anything.
“As Tears Go By”
The carefree addicted lover is a character oblivious to history with no appreciation for the lessons of the past. As a result, their actions usually end up destroying the lives of those they come across. In “As Tears Go By”, it is clear that Fly is the carefree wanderer, since it is his reckless actions that end up destroying three lives, despite the escalating consequences of his previous misdeeds and the volatile situations he manages to entangle himself in.
The more wine you drink, the warmer you’ll get. Water will only make you feel cold.
“Ashes of Time”
The most literal interpretation of the carefree addicted lover was seen in “Ashes of Time“. Huang Yoshi has his memory of the past erased after drinking a magical wine called ‘A Happy Go Lucky Life’ which erases memory. While the wine has eased the pain of the past for Huang Yoshi , it has also made him forget his emotional connections with others. As a result, his ‘carefree’ existence ends up destroying the lives of the other characters, including the split-personality Murong Yin/Yang (Bridget Lin) and the Blind Swordsman wife but mostly Ouyang Feng’s love and his “friend” Ouyang Feng .
Similarly, Ho Wo Ping in “Happy Together” has a shiftless existence living for only the moment. His inability to recognize his history with Lai Yiu Fai (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) ends up relegating him to a lonely permanence of his own doing.
I used to think there was a kind of bird that, once born, would keep flying until death. The fact is that the bird hasn’t gone anywhere. It was dead from the beginning.
“Days of Being Wild”
Through this stock character, Wong illustrates the other extreme to the impotent lover. While the addicted lover is not subject to the anguish of remembrance, they too are caught in a stagnant existence. Instead of missing the opportunities of the present due to an obsessive fixation on some past trauma, they never learn from their mistakes, nor do they ever form stable relationships with those around them. However, the result is the same– a lonely existence in isolation.
Do you remember at 3pm on April the sixteenth last year, what you were doing?
Why this question?
Well, I have a friend who challenges my memory. She asked me what I did on that day. I wouldn’t remember. Do you?
She told you?
I thought you would have forgotten.
What’s to be remembered, I would always remember. So you knew each other?
For a period of time. I left for the sea, and we lost contact. How about you?
Me? It’s off. What else did she tell you?
Not much. We’ve actually only known each other for a short period of time.
Did you love her?
Not exactly… just friends.
If you see her again in the future, tell her I’ve forgotten her. That’ll be better for everyone.
I’m not sure I’ll see her again. Maybe, she would have forgotten about me too.
“Days of Being Wild”
The indecisive warrior
The best thing about my profession is that there’s no need to make any decision. Who’s to die… when… where… it’s all been planned by others. I’m a lazy person. I like people to arrange things for me. That’s why I need a partner.
This last archetype is a more recent innovation in Wong’s films, first seen in “Fallen Angels”. To me it seams, it is a parody of a warrior. The male leads, hitman Wong Zhiming (Leon Lai) and mute 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), are both in search of a sense of belonging, but end up in pathological situations where they lose their identity. Zhiming muses that the best thing about his ‘job’ is that he never has to make any decisions of his own, since everything he does has been arranged for him by his partner, the unnamed agent. When he finally does realize that he must take a more active role in the job, he is too late– ironically he is gunned down in an ambush set up by his lovelorn agent.
They say that love can change a man. I start to find myself looking better and more charming, and suddenly I discover that I’m turning blonde.
223 has a similar problem. Creating a state of moral contradiction, 223 breaks into other people’s businesses at night such that he can ‘be his own boss’. However, in actuality, he has merely taken decisions that have been made by others and uses them, instead of making his own. He also hooks up with brokenhearted woman (Charlie Yeung) who is obsessed with getting revenge on a woman named Blondie. Together, they traverse the Hong Kong nightscape in search of Blondie, and in the process, blonde hairs begin to sprout from 223’s head, a metaphor for his adoption of his newfound partner’s system of values.
Like the impotent lover and the carefree lover, the life of the indecisive warrior is a lonely one. However, unlike the tragic note that Zhiming’s story ends one, 223’s outcome is certainly more upbeat. He ends up being rejected by the jilted woman and learns to make decisions for himself in the process (visually conveyed by his blonde hairs disappearing), the first of which is to give Zhiming’s former agent a ride home on his motorcycle.
So instead of being confusing jumbles of abstract dialogue and quirky characterizations, the films of Wong Kar Wai have a consistency in structure and theme. The archetypal characters of Wong Kar Wai’s angst-ridden narratives are classical different perspectives on man and women. While some of these characters do meet tragic ends resulting from their inability to change, the director does provide a glimmer of hope in the characters that do survive the melancholic plot.