Are You Looking at the Bigger Picture?

20 Dec
The Hong Kong Imagination in Wong Kar-Wai’s Days of Being Wild and 2046


That Wong Kar-Wai is almost always discussed as an auteur makes me shift uncomfortably in my seat. And as a couch thinker who spends a good deal of his time in that seat weaving through life’s complexities, this isn’t good news. Don’t get me wrong, I adore his films. Wong is one of my favorite directors or ‘visionaries’ if you will. But looking at him and his body of works merely as a personal collection gets me off my seat and desperately trying to get Wong off his ‘auteur’ horse. Really, it does.

Why get so hung up on his ‘auteur’ status? Only because I believe that there is so much more to be gained from his films than reading them under the assumptions and perspectives of auteur theory[i]. To see Wong as an auteur is to run the risk of forgetting the contributions of his production crew – for instance, his brilliant cinematographer Christopher Doyle who has been a constant in most of Wong’s successful films. But more importantly, it (unintentionally) forgets the role of the audience in the production of the filmic narrative – more so for the issue of national cinema. As audience and self-styled critics of films and cinema, we ought to pay a little more attention to our own contributions in the chain of production. If we borrow Christian Metz’s idea that the audiences perform “identification with the camera” (789), we would not be able to ignore the idea that we are a part of the fiction-making process. From the big screen, the narrative is (re)imagined and fixed in the negatives of our mind. This way, it is hard to disagree that we are complicit in the process of make-believe and arguably, a section of the production crew. And this is an important point we ought to remember, not just to pat ourselves on the back or to fantasize about our acceptance speech every time our favorite film bags an award, but particularly so when we think of Wong’s films as a national (re)imagination of Hong Kong.

When we think about nations and the discourses written on the subject, Benedict Anderson’s influential thought always seem to pop in our heads at the first instance (for me at least). Well, according to Anderson, a nation is an “imagined community” sustained by its production of literatures to facilitate such imaginations (124). My aim is to read Wong’s Days of Being Wild (1990) and 2046 (2004) as such literatures. In particular, I see both films as cinematic reflections and (re)imaginations of Hong Kong at their respective time of production – with reference to Hong Kong’s decolonization in 1997. These films and their narratives then, are collective (re)imaginations of the Hong Kong national myth – in which the audiences are invariably involved.

So let’s start with Days of Being Wild and pre-1997 Hong Kong administered under British colonialism. In Days, time functions as the film’s controlling motif. Right from the first sequence when Yuddy (Leslie Chung) tricks Su Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung) into sharing a minute of silence together by staring at his watch, the ticking sound accompanies this shared silence emphasizing temporality. This moment is remembered vividly by Su Li Zhen whose voiceover then tells us that this ‘one minute’ grew to ‘two minutes,’ to ‘an hour’ and to ‘a day.’ On a more symbolic level and with reference to the clock motif, it represents our inability to conquer or control time. Even in our ‘colonization’ of time into seconds, minutes and hours, time remains its own master. Consider Su Li Zhen’s tragic inability to forget that ‘one minute’ that seemed to have lasted forever; we are reminded of Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory and the elasticity of time. Time is not simply mastered by the invention of clocks and rationalization, but rather negotiated with memory as well. More importantly, it destabilizes any universal idea of standardized time (as mechanized by clocks) by placing an emphasis on felt experience and memory.

And it is this destabilizing of a universal narrative of time that Days begins its exploration of the relationship between pre-1997 Hong Kong and time. The negotiation of time between Yuddy and Su Li Zhen represents pre-1997 Hong Kong’s own struggle to negotiate for time. In fact, the motif of the ticking clock in Days is really an allusion to the impending decolonization and what was known as the “1997 syndrome” (Teo, “Hong Kong” 195). Interestingly, decolonization marked a dreaded return to China for a community that no longer sees itself as substantially Chinese due to British influence and development.  Time, embodied in 1997, represents a grim fate already decided between Britain and China – one in which pre-1997 Hong Kong had no control over. Su Li Zhen’s struggle to move on with the burden of memories alludes to pre-1997 Hong Kong’s inability to both forget its Chinese past, and to move ahead into the future marked by an undesired reunion. As such, pre-1997 Hong Kong remains defiantly ‘wild’ (in relation to the title) despite its determined future, refusing to dance to any other tunes other than its own and only to perform within its own space . Perhaps this is also why time is treated almost as a cruelty in Days.


For Days, the future is never seen as something desirable. Take Yuddy for instance, the playboy and perpetual charmer is never willing to settle down and prefers to live in the moment with unbridled passion. It is no surprise when his relationships with women in the movie end at the instance a shared future is hinted. The best sequence in Days that illustrates the future as something of unspeakable horror is the café scene between Zeb (Jacky Cheung) and Lulu (Carina Lau). When Zeb passes Lulu a wad of cash as a token of his unrequited love, he leaves right after the mention of a possible future with Lulu: should she fail to find Yuddy who has then left for the Philippines, she can always return and look for him. Zeb leaves the frame but the camera “remains for a disconcertingly long time on his empty chair” (Brunette 25). This hesitant moment of the camera becomes a deliberate framing of an absence that alludes back to the envisioned ‘empty’ future for pre-1997 Hong Kong. There seems to be a postmodern “disbelief in the narrative of progress” since the future is imagined as undesirable and one in which even the camera is hesitant to ‘imagine’ and frame (Heise 16). Going back to Metz’s idea, the audiences with their “identification with the camera” imagine themselves lost at the mention of the future, crippled by a postmodern moment of realization of the failures of grand narratives[ii]. It evokes a sense that the aggrandized narrative of a progressive history for Hong Kong is no longer imaginable – even in the ‘imaginary’ settings of the cinema.

Time as a narrative is a continued preoccupation in Days. Particularly, time as a linear narrative is destabilized in the film’s (re)imagination of pre-1997 Hong Kong. The failure of time as a progressive linear account is marked by the collapse of the imaginable future for pre-1997 Hong Kong. As a concluding remark, Days introduces cyclicity in its last sequence by having another charmer (Tony Leung) enter into the narrative to replace Yuddy who died. The resemblance between Yuddy and this unnamed character is recognizable not only in their attire, but also in their debonair disposition.


As astute audience quick to pick up on their similarities, we have necessarily becomes co-dreamers[iii] complicit in the (re)imagination of reality for pre-1997 Hong Kong’s future as anything but a straightforward narrative of progress. Any representation of time and chronology in the film as a linear construction must be challenged in order to reflect the anxieties of pre-1997 Hong Kong. That conventional wisdom assumes that the narrative of colonialism and decolonization is a teleological one fails to account for the Hong Kong story. After all, the future of decolonization is a return to the past (that is China) and it is one which places Hong Kong is a helpless and uncomfortable seat – much like me and Wong’s auteur fame/over-determinism.

It is also with cyclicity that we enter the discourse of Wong’s 2046. If Wong’s earlier film displayed disenchantment with grand narratives (particularly, that of time’s linear progression), 2046 presents a shift in post-1997 Hong Kong reminding us that Hong Kong has indeed gone through certain socio-cultural changes with its decolonization. That said, cyclicity and repetition remain key issues in 2046, and rightly so when we think about the predicament of post-1997 Hong Kong.

As noted even in earlier articles such as Ian Johnston’s “Unhappy Together[iv],” the title alludes to the last year 2046 that the Chinese government has promised to leave Hong Kong untouched for 50 years. In fact, decolonization in 1997 did not necessarily cause Hong Kong to change substantially in its reunification with China. However, what impact 1997 has on Hong Kong seems to be a sense that whatever changes to be made have been deferred (50 years). If we were to engage critically with post-1997 Hong Kong, we would see its future still remains grim but that the comforts of the present is stretched – again, going back to the discussion of the experience of time as elastic in Days. Also, when we consider the deferment of Hong Kong’s complete return to Chinese sovereignty, it then becomes clear why 2046 constantly touches on delayed reactions.

More importantly, cyclicity and repetition are expressed in 2046 as problematic imaginations with regards to the past and future of post-1997 Hong Kong. Both ‘past’ and ‘future’ are the same in that both involve China and this seems to render the differentiation between them useless. Therefore, it is of no surprise that the protagonist in 2046 Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) frequently confuses between his past and the future he thought he was writing about. In the film, Chow is writing a futuristic novel but finds characters from his past bleeding into the pages reserved for the future’s narrative. Furthermore, as fans of Wong Kar-Wai’s films, we may be quick to notice that characters from his earlier films (Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love[v]) make their appearance once more in 2046. Lulu (Carina Lau) is a figure present in Days and 2046 and Su Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung) similarly marks her presence in both films. Even Chow Mo-wan himself resembles the unnamed character in the last sequence of Days.

But while Days expresses a postmodern disenchantment due to the absurdity of what we understand as ‘past’ and the ‘future’ (now that both seem like a repetition of each other), 2046 questions some of these earlier assumptions of Hong Kong’s postmodernism in Days. By having actors and actresses play characters with the same names as those in the earlier film, the films hint at the possibility of characters being recycled and narratives being continued. But, we ought to be discerning and notice that Wong’s films do no provide any explicitly-mentioned links between them. Therefore, it seems like Wong’s films take issues with any easy assumptions of such connections and continuities – almost as if to mock them as insufficient imaginations that needed to be rescued in the cinema/fiction. Indeed, this is mirrored in 2046 having two concurrent narratives in the film itself and Chow’s own novel “2046” (hmmm… I smell metafiction! Do you? To be discussed later), but also by virtue of having two ‘Su Li Zhen’s in 2046 – played by Maggie Cheung and Gong Li. Two characters with absolutely no connections with one another are linked by Chow’s memories and by the “coincidence of sharing a name” (Teo, “Wong” 137). Wong seems to be making a statement here regarding the continuities between Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love and 2046: while there are certainly imaginable continuities[vi] between them, to forcibly conceive them as the same characters is to similarly and reductively equate Hong Kong’s past to Hong Kong’s future by the “coincidence” of China’s presence. Therefore, it seems that it is in 2046 that our earlier imaginations and assumptions in Days’ pre-1997 Hong Kong are being teased into re-imaginations of 2046’s post-1997 Hong Kong. Yes, there seems to be cyclicity and continuity between the two films. But to emphasize their similarities is to remain indifferent towards their (possible) differences – and to be like Chow Mo-wan trapped in his own confusion and constructed entropy.

Interestingly, 2046’s motif of cyclicity and/or repetitions does not make its appearance only through a literary reading. Consider the shot of the rooftop of the Oriental Hotel which constantly repeats itself through the film. While the mise-en-scene repeats itself, there is an acknowledgement of differences too, evident in the different character(s) framed in each shot. In this striking use of visual motifs, the film makes a bold statement about such repetitions with their differences within.


If you are puzzled over what have all these repetitions with differences to do with the national imagination of Hong Kong, think along the lines of colonialism and the Asian region itself. Hong Kong at the brink of decolonization in 1997 finds itself in a peculiar position. While the rest of Asia has been decolonized by the end of the 70s (if not the 60s), Hong Kong had to wait a good quarter of a century for its turn. Decolonized nations, such as Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, all seem to follow the same narrative of decolonization followed by modern industrialization. It was almost as if they were repeating the narrative of old Europe at the Enlightenment followed by modernization. But by the time Hong Kong found itself decolonized, it was easily one of the most modernized nations within the region and did not have to heavily industrialize itself. So to think of these decolonized nations as repetitions of old European nations and similar in their predicament with one another is to marginalize their differences. In their repetitions and similarities are distinguishable differences. A case in point: consider the trajectories of these nations. By the time Hong Kong is decolonized in 1997, what was commonly termed as ‘tiger economies’ in Asia mainly belonged to Hong Kong and Singapore while the rest of the decolonized nations in Asia were busy chasing the former duo. After all, it is no coincidence that the repeated shots are framed with the ‘Oriental Hotel’ signboard. To think that all decolonized nations in Asia are the same narratives of one another is just as reductive as trying to essentialize these nations and committing Orientalism. 2046 in its (re)imagination of a post-1997 postcolonial Hong Kong rescues the nation from being viewed through reductive and Oriental lenses.

Metafiction, according to Patricia Waugh, refers to “fictional writing which self-consciously … draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality” (40). In 2046, Chow Mo-wan creates a piece of fiction he names “2046.” The film “draws attention” to its own fictionality, seemingly at the expense of cannibalizing its ‘realism.’ Here, I’d suggest that the film’s self-reflexivity aims at a higher purpose of trying to draw attention to the national myth. Nations are realized and felt when laws are drawn up by the states, and in that moment the imagined nations become reality. Imagined communities become nations. The line between fiction and reality is never as comfortably clear and absolute as we may like it to be. Like the writer Chow Mo-wan, post-1997 Hong Kong holds the pen for its own myth and identity-construction.

As cinematic allegories of the ‘Hong Kong’ nation, both Days and 2046 seem to push us in a deeper reflection and (re)imagination of Hong Kong by challenging our preconceived notions of time, history, fiction and reality. It is in the cinema – the house of mirrors and unbridled imaginations – that Wong’s films rescue our inadequate imaginations. As a cheesy fan-boy, I can only say: “With Wong, you can’t really go wrong!” Brilliant! More for me please.


[i] For those unacquainted with Auteur Theory, it is basically the privileging of the director (mostly) as the ‘auteur’ or authorial figure. His or her body of works would be treated as a powerful and unified expression. This takes into account the assumption that there will be recurring motifs and themes attributed to his or her personal preoccupation.  Wikipedia provides a good summary of the theory’s development.

[ii] For more information of Postmodernism and the demise of grand narratives, refer to Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979)

[iii] Here, I won’t touch on psychoanalysis and film. But I would like to refer to Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) to add that the line between reality and fiction/dream is constantly blurred and challenged in films. Particularly in Wong’s films, we are positioned as the audience having a collective dream that allows for us to (re)imagine the ‘Hong Kong’ national myth.

[iv] Bright Lights Film Journal 47.

[v] I’d like to qualify why In the Mood for Love isn’t chosen for discussion. As I was more interested in looking at Wong’s films as cinematic allegories of Hong Kong at the crucial junction of 1997 decolonization, I wanted to disengage from any discussions that may lead to the common assumption of the trilogy. Also, the fact that 2046 was produced at a later date simply seemed a better choice to explore any discussion of post-1997 Hong Kong.

[vi] This seems to be the main reason why many critics tend to see these three films as a trilogy in Wong’s oeuvre.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict.   “Imagined Communities.” The Postcolonial Studies Reader. Ed. Bill

Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin.   New York: Routledge, 2005. 123-125.

Brunette, Peter. Wong Kar-Wai. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005.

Heise, Ursula K.   Chronoschisms: Time, Narrative, and Postmodernism. New York:

Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Metz, Christian.   “The Imaginary Signifier.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory

Readings. Ed. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen.   New York: Oxford University

Press, 1985. 782-802.

Teo, Stephen.   Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions. London: British Film Institute,


—-.    Wong Kar-Wai: Auteur of Time. London: British Film Institute, 2005.

Waugh, Patricia.   “What is Metafiction and why are they saying such awful things about it?”

Metafiction. Ed. Mark Currie.   New York: Longman, 1995. 39-44.


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