Wong Kar-wai combines his cinema in conditional mode: what could have been and was not


Hope is never lost to relive that moment that gave us so much happiness. A fleeting moment that clings to memory as we remember it, not as a chronological milestone. A flash of light that is not forgotten and that does not stop looking, despite knowing that we will never find it again.

We live waiting for what has already happened to happen and will not happen again, except in our imagination. It is in this evocative imaginary world, in which the present is a starting point towards the past and the future, that the helpless characters who give life to the stories that he captures in his films move. Wong Karwai. A lyrical film director born in Shanghai who has spent most of his life in Hong Kong, the muse of his filmography.


It is the city where he arrived at the age of five in 1963 with his mother and in which he incubates a strong feeling of loss, writes the historian and film critic Carlos F. Heredero, author of the book Wong Kar-wai, published by Cátedra . Loss that has to do with the absence of his father and with the loss of identity suffered by Hong Kongers and Hong Kong.

We are talking about a territory made up of the Kowloon peninsula and several islands that ceased to be part of China in 1842 to become a British colony until 1997 (please see the film The Chinese Box, by Wayne Wang), the year in which , while decolonizing, began reunification with mainland China, whose consummation is scheduled for 2047.

Long before, little Wong Kar-wai and his mother, having no relatives or friends to visit, spent much of their free time going to the movies. In addition to watching local, Taiwanese, Hollywood and European movies, his mother taught him how to play mahjong, pai gow and cards in general, hence players appear in many of his films; Days of being wild, In the mood for love, 2046 and My blueberry nights, the latter shot in the United States and starring non-Asian actors and actresses.

It is the way he has to recover what he himself recognizes as his lost childhood paradise. Because for WKW, Hong Kong is an emotional rather than a geographical place.

Wishing to love Image courtesy of Avalon

An intimate and urban landscape that shows through dark alleys, local and street food stalls, slums, bars, hotel rooms and pensions with walls lined with wallpaper, newspaper offices, textile workshops, airports, labyrinthine shopping centers, walls as a metaphor for loneliness and narrow stairs where the people who go up and down are predestined to freeze the touch of their forearms in their memory.


Although he hides his eyes behind tinted glasses, Wong Karwai He gives us his particular look through his films. Feature films influenced by the world of advertising and music videos, illustrating a universe of grainy images, misty textures and saturated colors, illuminated by neon and tungsten lights, in which there is both chaos and beauty and in which music pop (you have to listen to the Chinese singer Faye Wong’s version of The Cranberries’ Dreams) and the boleros that sound correspond to the moods of some introverted characters who speak through a voice-over rather than through dialogues, and that they are always planning a trip. an escape

Wong Kar-wai says that a movie is like a journey that you never really know where it’s going to take you. A creative and experimental adventure rather than a scheduled shoot that he undertakes surrounded by a team that understands cinema like him: director of photography Christopher Doyle, art director and costume designer William Chang, actor Tony Leung and actress Maggie Cheung. Circle of trust to which, sometimes, he lets them know what rhythm he wants his story to have through photographs and music. Other times, however, he hardly says anything to them before starting to roll.

HappyTogether. Image courtesy of Avalon

Wong Karwai he is not a conventional narrator. More than the content, he is interested in the way of telling the storiessomething that comes from his admiration for the literature of Manuel Puig, author, among other books, of The Rita Hayworth Tradition, Painted Mouths and The Buenos Aires Affair, published by Seix Barral.

That way of narrating of this peculiar Argentine writer in which he cuts the narration to order the parts in a different way made him see that he could insert thoughts, memories, dreams and fantasies of the characters in the development of his unconnected and unfinished stories. He learned that the way of telling a story is the background of what is told. A way of telling his story so personal that one story suggests other stories, some developed in the same film and others in others. In this way, for example, scenes that he recorded for the movie Chungking Express ended up being used for Fallen Angels. Two movies that are three stories that WKW thought could have been one movie.

The order that most film directors follow when making a film, writing, shooting and editing, does not help him to make his own. Break the rules to explore new cinematic possibilities that allow you to convey an emotion. WKW directs as if it had access to the delete key, something that is not so easy to do in the cinema. What happens is that, instead of erasing, what he does is re-record again and again and again and again, because the script only exists in his head and it mutates.

Chunking Express. Image courtesy of Avalon

WKW starts from a vague idea of ​​some characters and then develops the story based on what he imagines they would do. The characters and their emotions are more important than the action, than the story. A story that is influenced by the place. The director says about it that he cannot write without knowing the space, that he needs to know where the plot will take place, how it will take place and between whom.

Carlos F. Heredero points out in his already mentioned book that WKW’s concept of creation is open to what a location, a light, a set, an environment can provide. The film is created in the process of making it, then it is played at every moment of the shoot. Not to mention the patience that their producers have to have.


To tell through images those stories of his that arise from an emotion, he uses a series of technical and artistic resources that have made his cinema recognizable. Aside from the fact that many of his non-continuous stories begin in a room with someone sitting and smoking making wisps and/or curls of smoke, his cinema is characterized by the mix of frames.

He seems to like to half hide his characters behind columns, doors and walls, placing them at one or the other end of the frame. It is also very common for a large part of the plane to be occupied by the reflection projected by a mirror or glass. The selective blurring, the extreme angles, the alternation of the nervous mobility of the camera with a tense stillness, the saturated colors, the overexposure of certain images and slowed down and blurred movements that almost freeze the action.

Regarding the use of idling, Carlos F. Heredero writes that it is a resource for the characters and the spectators to enjoy a look, a noise or a light. For WKW, the use of slow motion allows him to contain a delicate moment that corresponds to what he would like to see. Audiovisual documentary filmmaker Timur Tagalev explains all this on his Instagram profile, analyzing a scene from In the mood for love. A film in which, among other elements, we must highlight the qipaos that you wear and give personality to the character played by a very elegant Maggie Cheung, and the musical theme Yumeji’s Theme by Shigeru Umebayashi.

His experimental way of shooting prolongs filming for much longer than is recommended. The definitive version is never the last, WKW always believes that there are new narrative possibilities to explore. 2046 presented it at the Cannes Film Festival without having seen it previously edited. He saw it finished for the first time at the same time as the rest of the spectators in the room.


2046, in addition to being a movie, is the year in which a promise is fulfilled: the one that China made to Hong Kong not to absorb it until 2047. This means that its inhabitants in Hong Kong live a traumatic countdown that anguishes them, worries and make them wonder about the future.

This, the relationship between China and Hong Kong, is one of the usual themes in the WKW filmography. Despite being two territories that form part of the same country and the same culture, Hong Kong developed its own commercial, political and social traditions and values ​​when it became a British colony in 1842. The Asian city is a muse and another character in the WKW cinema, witness that nothing is immutable.

Time is another of the themes of the Hong Kong director of Chinese origin. That time that he leaves never to return, whose passage in his films is shown through historical references and precise data, as well as dates, clocks and mirrors. In the movie Chungking Express, a character through voiceover says, “I didn’t know anything about her. Six hours later, she fell in love with another man ».

All these chronological resources reflect a passage of time backwards and forwards, like that train in the movie 2046 that travels towards that same year, a destination where passengers hope to recover lost memory.

Chunking Express. Image courtesy of Avalon

The characters of WKW live anchored in a present in which they only have to lament an unconsummated love; and, if he has done it, it has been in his imagination. His other recurring theme is heartbreak, frustrated relationships between lovers who love each other at the wrong time. Unrequited lovers and, at the same time, allergic to commitment, who are desperately looking for something, what happens is that something has already happened. That is why they are flooded with nostalgia, guilt and pain that absence implies, the loss of something that only exists in their imagination.

They chase the unattainable ghost of an impossible love, hence the title of one of their films is more a wish than a reality: Happy together, shot in Buenos Aires, almost the antipodes of Hong Kong, but at the same time so present in this story stars two men who are neither happy when they are together nor when they are apart.

The themes of the passage of time and love relationships frustrated by love at the wrong time are worked on both in his urban romantic films and in his feature films about the Hong Kong mafia and martial arts: As tears go by, Ashes of time and The Grandmaster. The last two have little to do with those of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chang. He is a genre agitator, as if a DJ were putting a club to dance with music sessions with suites and Bach sonatas as bases.

WKW cinema moves in the realm of memories, real or imagined. WKW’s engine of imagination is to imagine the life that has not been lived. Tony Leung’s character in In the mood for love says that love requires the right moment. It is not good to know the person before or after.

Wong Kar-wai is a filmmaker who works with the conditional verb, he makes films based on what could have been and was not.