I like to walk around in cities, to get lost in them. Each face that passes permeates a unique kind of flavor. Walking around and around like this, you feel yourself become blank and anonymous, transparent, almost, as though you could absorb each of these walking histories into your own. Who are these people — that one there laughing, that one hunched over her phone, that one smoothing his hair? Once in a while, there are moments of connection. Brief moments where you meet strangers, have conversations with them and some flint strikes against the steel surface of life to make sparks.
The cities of film director Wong Kar-wai are such cities. I should say “city,” rather, because there is primarily one city, Hong Kong, though it goes through many iterations and is even, in the case of Happy Together, relocated in Buenos Aires. In an interview on two related films from the 90s, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, Wong has said that his main characters “are not Faye Wong or Takeshi Kaneshiro, but the city itself, the night and day of Hong Kong.”
Alienation is the main mood of this night and day. Neon lights blur with wet pavements, and cigarette smoke drifts through the empty spaces. Trains pass and clock hands tick, relating isolation and displacement to modernity and industrialization. Through framing, the viewer is often held at an arm’s length from characters. The characters themselves stand side-by-side, glancing at one another without talking, unable to express their love. Two people can be business partners but rarely meet. Intimacy and connection find expression through objects: cans of pineapple, coins, someone else’s trash.
Respite from loneliness often arrives in the form of chance meetings. In Fallen Angels, Wong Chi-ming (Leon Lai) goes to an empty McDonald’s late at night, where a woman, Blondie (Karen Mok), sits next to him and strikes up a conversation, and the two become lovers for a short time. In the same film, Ho Chi-mo (Takeshi Kaneshiro) keeps running into Charlie (Charlie Yeung). After she uses him as a shoulder to cry on (literally) for her ex-boyfriend woes and they spend time together going to soccer matches and taking rides on his motorcycle, he falls in love with her. Though neither of these relationships work out, the chance encounter between Ho and Wong’s former agent that ends the film reaffirms the hope of such moments and offers the possibility for connection in an otherwise bleak, friendless and transient world. It’s the first time we see daylight breaking through the screen.
In a voiceover, Ho says, “We rub shoulders with many people every day. Some may become close friends or confidants. That’s why I’m always optimistic.” Cop 223 of Chungking Express expresses an almost identical sentiment: “Every day we brush past so many other people. People we may never meet or people who may become close friends.”
The permeability of the boundary between self and other that Wong’s films reveal is a profoundly hopeful one. Caught in routines that stifle them, characters break out only when made aware of this permeability. It comes at them with the force of Rilke’s torso of Apollo: “You must change your life.” The rootedness of time and place becomes illusory. Despite the elegiac tone of these films, I feel in the hours after watching them that I have become broader, somehow, more open. The surface of life turns liquid.
These days, I find myself nostalgic for that world again. I would like to sit down next to a stranger, even if for a brief moment, and be unbounded. “From now on,” says Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) to Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) in Days of Being Wild, “we’re friends for one minute.” Well, I might have lost the ability to make these one-minute friends, but for the time being, I can at least find consolation in the fictional friends of one hour.
Ramya Yandava is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Mondays this semester. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.