Film Studies: Hong Kong Cinema
Common themes in Hong Kong films include those that relate to human beings’ dreams, their journey, and their identity. Characters in some of the films we covered have certain dreams, often unattainable, and their stories revolve around their journey towards these dreams. Identity is also a prevalent theme in Hong Kong cinema, in terms of desired changes, lack of changes, or the transition of characters’ lives that influence or shape their identity. The succeeding discussion focuses on three Hong Kong films that explore characters’ dreams, journey, and identities particularly within the context of common themes such as love.
In In the Mood for Love, the protagonists Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) find what they need in each other despite being married to their respective partners. After becoming neighbors in a small apartment-type residence, Mo-wan and Li-zhen increasingly encounter each other in the hallway and in the city. Mo-wan and Li-zhen eventually become friends and share their suspicions about their respective partners’ infidelity. Both believe that their respective partners are having an affair with one another. Throughout the film, Mo-wan and Li-zhen fall in love out of their shared experiences – loneliness, isolation, and doubt particularly about their respective marriages.
A slight conflict ensues when Mo-wan intends to leave for a work opportunity in Singapore. Mo-wan asks Li-zhen to come with him as they have previously realized and established that they have fallen in love with each other. On the day of Mo-wan’s departure, he waits for Li-zhen at a hotel. After sometime, Mo-wan assumes that Li-zhen chose to stay and then leaves. Moments later, the audience learns that Li-zhen intended to go with Mo-wan to Singapore but she arrived at the hotel shortly after Mo-wan left. After sometime, Li-zhen visits Mo-wan in Singapore and Mo-wan returns to his old apartment in Hong Kong but the two never meet. Perhaps the most significant scene in the film occurs in the end when Mo-wan visits the temples in Siem Reap. Mo-wan stands by the wall of the hermitage and whispers something into a void.
In the Mood for Love explores the way that the characters cherish old relationships as well as the meaning of true love. Both Mo-wan and Li-zhen were married to their respective partners. Nonetheless, both partners were unhappy with one another. While their partners had an affair, Mo-wan and Li-zhen endured feelings of unhappiness, loneliness, and isolation. In a way, the film asserts that marriage does not always guarantee that couples would share genuine love for one another. The way that Mo-wan and Li-zhen cherish their short-lived relationship despite time and distance proves that two people can love one another truly. Even after being apart for some time, Mo-wan and Li-zhen still cherish each other. Li-zhen thought that Mo-wan left him but she still visited him in Singapore months after. Mo-wan, on the other hand, believed that Li-zhen refused to leave her husband and old life to come with him to Singapore but he still dreams of seeing her. Mo-wan visited the old apartment thinking that he would see Li-zhen again not knowing that Li-zhen is living with her son in the old apartment.
Mo-wan and Li-zhen both cherish one another even if they were apart because of their fond feelings for one another. Both characters’ propensity to relive old memories, return to old places where they spent time together, and feel longing to see one another shows the depth of their relationship and feelings for one another. Towards the end of the film, Mo-wan’s actions show that he deeply loved Li-zhen as there were so many things he wanted to tell her. Nonetheless, since he believes he will not see her again, he whispers everything into the void.
Similar themes are inherent in Chungking Express. Since Wong Kar-wai both wrote and directed Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love, two films that share similar themes about love, these shows the distinct quality and style of the esteemed director. Most of Wong Kar-wai’s characters such as those in both films yearn for love at a particularly difficult or complex time prior to major changes or transitions in their lives. Chungking Express also explores themes about love. The film has two parts featuring different stories that intertwine somehow. Each of the main characters in both stories are dealing with issues concerning love and relationships. He Qiwu, a police officer, still longs for his former girlfriend, May. May ended the relationship on April Fool’s Day. Qiwu still hopes he would reconcile with May so he resolves to wait for one month before accepting the end of their relationship. In the second story, the main protagonist Cop 663 is also dealing with the end of his relationship with a flight attendant.
The end of both Qiwu and Cop 663’s relationship marks the changes or transition in their lives at the same moment that they meet the mysterious and enigmatic Faye. In the first story, Qiwu realizes that it is time to accept that his relationship with May ended. Qiwu acknowledges this and tries to meet other women. Qiwu meets a woman in a wig not knowing that the latter is involved in drug trade. Qiwu and the woman spend time together in a room but nothing happens since the woman falls asleep. While the woman was sleeping, Qiwu spends time watching television seemingly at ease, and therefore, showing a sense of resignation on his part as he comes to terms with the end of his relationship with May. The morning after signals a new day for Qiwu as the audience sees him jogging while contemplating his birth and life. At this point, something memorable happens that makes Qiwu cherish his short-lived and uneventful relationship with the mysterious woman in a blonde wig. Right at the moment when Qiwu thinks no one would remember his birthday, the mysterious woman leaves her a birthday greeting on his pager. This event was monumental because the woman made Qiwu feel special, thus, causing him to cherish, treasure, or appreciate the woman because of how she made him feel.
Cop 663’s life also changes after meeting Faye. Faye become obsessed with Cop 663 shown through the way that Faye tries to get to know him by staying in his apartment when Cop 663 is not around. Over time, Cop 663 realizes that Faye’s actions and behavior show that she likes him. At this point, Cop 663 resolves to stop dwelling on his previous relationship with the flight attendant and try to pursue Faye. Cop 663 invites Faye for lunch at the California diner. Faye, however, leaves for California in the United States instead of meeting Cop 663 but leaves boarding passes to California for him. After some time, Faye returns home. Faye is now a flight attendant. She visits Cop 663 and she sees that he bought the small food stall from her cousin. Faye and Cop 663 reconnect. Faye leaves another boarding pass and when asked where he wants to go, Cop 663 tells Faye that it was up to her. At the end, the audience would have to make their own assumptions about the film’s conclusion. Cop 663 and Faye’s relationship also shows both characters’ strong feelings for one another. Cop 663 and Faye may not be together and neither exert effort to initiate a relationship but both understand what they mean to one another. Both characters cherish one another in the sense that Cop 663 made Faye realize that she needed to pursue her dream of seeing the world, and Faye made Cop 663 realize that he needs to focus on other people and not dwell on this previous relationship. Both characters serve as catalysts that lead to changes and transitions in their lives, which is why Cop 663 and Faye cherish and have fond memories and feelings for one another.
Comrades: Almost a Love Story also explores the theme of love, particularly the way that two people cherish one another because of their shared experiences. Li Xiao-Jun and Li Qiao migrate from mainland China to Hong Kong to look for career opportunities. Both of the characters share feelings of two people living in a completely different environment. Xiao-Jun and Qiao fall in love due to their shared experiences. Nonetheless, they have different goals in life. Back home, Xiao-Jun is engaged to another woman while Qiao wants to become financially successful. With conflicting dreams and goals in life, Xiao-Jun and Qiao understand that their relationship is unlikely to endure. Eventually, both are able to accomplish their dreams. Xiao-Jun marries his girlfriend and Qiao becomes wealthy in part because of her relationship with Pao. Nonetheless, both of them still have feelings for one another. Xiao-Jun comes clean with his wife and leaves Hong Kong to work in America. Qiao also leaves for the US when Pao had to escape Hong Kong for his crimes. Pao dies in a robbery in the US. After sometime, Xiao-Jun and Qiao meet again. During this fateful meeting, the audience sees the depth of their emotions and longing for one another. Comrades: Almost a Love Story illustrates how shared experiences help two people form bonds and memories with one another.
Overall, shared themes in the three films – In the Mood for Love, Chunking Express, and Comrades: Almost a Love Story – relate to love and relationships. In relation to the chosen topics, however, the three films show how dreams and chance encounters change the characters’ journey and how they cherish the people who they genuinely fall in love with. In the film, chance encounters with new people serve as catalysts that change the characters’ journey. Moreover, love plays an important role in their identity such that the one they truly love leave a mark in their memories causing them to cherish one another regardless of their difficult situation or complex circumstances.
Reflection of Films Covered in the Class
I personally enjoyed watching Wong Kar-wai’s films, which is why I talked about two of his films in the former discussion. As formerly noted, love is a common theme in the films that Wong Kar-wai wrote and directed. Each of the characters are going through a difficult time but then they meet new people and experience new encounters with others that change them inevitably. Often, the characters in Wong Kar-wai’s films get into difficult relationships that eventually create distance between two characters. Despite the distance, however, the characters would often remember the people they truly loved. Perhaps a common message in Wong Kar-wai’s films is that true or genuine love lingers even if the relationship has ended or even if there is a distance between two people.
Wong Kar-wai’s films appeal to me more than the other films we saw, particularly the films under the action genre, because the directors’ films say so much about the human condition. I do believe in his message that love is one of the major factors that influence our journey and affect our identities. In Chungking Express, for instance, Qiwu found confidence in himself again after the mysterious woman’s birthday greeting. Both protagonists in In the Mood for Love left their unhappy marriages because they found genuine love in another. For these reasons, Wong Kar-wai’s films are highly relatable. Furthermore, Wong Kar-wai captures the mood and atmosphere in Hong Kong during particular periods, which provides the audience an authentic and interesting experience while viewing. The emotions, state of mind, and struggles of characters in the film reflect the culture and way of life in Hong Kong, and also represent how other people could have been feeling during a difficult period or time in the country. Overall, Wong Kar-wai’s films are revealing of the human emotion and individual motivations that drive people’s dreams and identities.
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Chungking Express. Dir. Wong Kar-wai. Perf. Brigitte Lin, Tony Chiu Wai Leung, Faye Wong, and Takeshi Kaneshiro. Jet Tone Production, 1994. Film.
Comrades: Almost a Love Story. Dir. Peter Chan. Perf. Maggie Cheung, Leon Lai, eric Tsang, and Len Berdick. Golden Harvest Company, 1996. Film.
In the Mood for Love. Dir. Wong Kar-wai. Perf. Maggie Cheung, Tony Chiu Wai Leung, Ping Lam Siu, and Rebecca Pan. Jet Tone Films, 2000. Film.
Lee, Vivian. 2013. Decolonial moments in Hong Kong cinema. <http://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/decolonial-moments-in-hong-kong-cinema/>.
Leung, B. K. P. 1996. Perspectives on Hong Kong society. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.