It is the first time I’ve watched a Wong Kar-Wai film and 10-minutes into the film, I was already a fan. This probably ranks as one of my favourite films and I shall attempt to marshall my thoughts into a coherent analysis.
The mise-en-scene was enrapturing with a meticulous Technicolour period-fashion and furniture. Its themes are layered with multiple recurring motifs of infidelity, loneliness and displacement. This is Wong Kar-Wai’s most acclaimed masterpiece to date starring Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung as Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, neighbours who move into the same apartment building with their spouses on the same day, chronicling the development of their friendship amidst the social conservatism of 1960s Hong Kong and their mutual frustrations over the alleged infidelities of their spouses whom coincidentally are suggested to be having an affair with each other.
Abject loneliness is a key emotion pronounced throughout the entire film. As much as the characters of the film live and dwell in a tightly-knit and crammed flat with daily socialising over meals and mahjong and as much as there is no problems in communication despite the fact that they speak only in Cantonese and their landlady speaks only in Shanghainese, there is an overwhelming sense of social alienation. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan withdraw from these social activities almost with a passion, although they put up a spirited overture of politeness and neighbourly care inspired by a cultural but in no way insincere sense of community. They spend their days in their own rented rooms with the doors closed. They work late into the night alone in unfulfilling, low-paying, white collar jobs. It is a nightly routine to settle their dinners at a nearby noodle hawker stall alone. There are glimpses of moments in the shower where they cry. Their working shifts prevent them from ever seeing or interacting with their spouses, in fact their spouses are never seen in the film, only heard or mentioned by other characters. All characters seem estranged from biological relatives – the only time where relatives are mentioned are during the birthdays when gifts are sent out serving more like obligatory tributes to their familial ties. Whether the characters are in Hong Kong or in Singapore, in their offices or at eateries, it is the same unifying sense of seclusion. The accompanying music throughout the film is a recurring leitmotif that evokes an intense sense of listless loneliness. We never know the first names of the characters, only their surnames. If there was one word to sum up the atmosphere, it would be ennui.
Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are terribly lonely people, painfully aware of the infidelity of their spouses, painfully unwilling to recognise that reality and painfully stuck in a stifling existence. The only means by which they can momentarily escape from the suffering is the moments when they are together (although Mr. Chow being a heavy smoker appears to achieve moments of catharsis in his doses of nicotine high). Their friendship, punctuated by moments of painful, unreciprocated romance is not an affair founded on love and lust but mutual pity. Their affair rather than an antithesis to their marriage serves as a substitute for their empty marriage with their conversations ironically all centred on their spouses. At the same time, they are all wary of their friendship degenerating into the same sort of lustful affair of their spouses. Wong Kar-Wai depicts their rendezvouses in the night, in hotel rooms, in muted breath, with the audiences viewing Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan through mirrors, shadows and through grilles. This evokes an undeniable sense of fugitiveness, all the more reinforcing this very fear of a degeneration of their relations into a debased affair. It is ironic that red is such colour prominently featured in the film where instead of the intimacy and passion that it evokes, the characters are instead drowning in muted emotions and veiled suffering.
Through Wong Kar-Wai’s lenses, it is clear that the institution of marriage is under attack. The spouses hardly see each other and despite being married couples, they have not any children – symbols of a marriage in bloom. Every character in the film is a witness to infidelity, as well as a perpetrator and victim of it. Mr. Ho (Mrs. Chan’s boss) is hinted to be juggling two disparate existences between his wife and his mistress (Mrs. Chan facilitates this emotionlessly as his personal secretary) but yet he hypocritically shakes his head in disgust when he is witness to Mrs. Chan’s close intimacy with Mr. Chow. The landlady reprimands Mrs. Chan for not spending enough time with her husband when she herself is always seen without her husband and kids. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan themselves are hypocrites in dismaying over the infidelity of their spouses but yet eventually partaking in an affair themselves, albeit being a purely platonic one. It is painfully ironic that it is Ah Ping, Mr. Chow’s friend, a lecherous man that participates overtly in vice and debauchery who is most true to himself and his own moral standards (or lack thereof). Ultimately we see the emptiness of the institution of marriage merely as an allegory to the general emptiness of social relations. The only genuine social relation we perceive is that of a clandestine friendship between Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan.
This erosion of the institution of marriage occurs in the setting of social change. With burgeoning economic growth, technological advancement, encroaching Western culture (music, fashion and consumer goods) and the threat of an expansionist Communist China, the days and years pass swiftly in the storyline – the Koo family moves out, the landlady migrates to the US, Mr. Chow leaves for Singapore. And with this fast-paced changes, mahjong is no longer played, the new tenants of the flat are no longer as tightly-knit and even with a child, Mrs. Chan’s marriage has become further estranged.
Angkor Wat abruptly appears in the final moments of the film. Mr. Chow is seen talking to a hole in crumbling pillar and stuffing it with mud – an allusion to old tale of how people would store away their secrets. But more than just an allegory to the secretive and alienating nature of his life, it hints at how his psyche and his existence is fated to one of decay, forever entrapped in ennui and loneliness, embodied by the rotting ruins of Angkor Wat. A young monk watches him with fascination from afar – as an ascetic he is foreign to this social dynamic. Perhaps it is Wong Kar-Wai’s way of saying how transient and inconsequential the emotions and the sufferings were.