“The past and the future are the two great bournes of human emotion, the two great homes of the human days, the two eternities. They are both conclusive, final. Their beauty is the beauty of the goal, finished, perfected. Finished beauty and measured symmetry belong to the stable unchanging eternities.
But in free verve we look for the insurgent naked throb of the instant moment. To break free the lovely form of metrical verse, and to dish up the fragments as a new substance, called verse libre, this is what most of the free versifiers accomplish. They do not know that free verse has its own nature, that it is neither star nor pearl but instantaneous like plasm. It has no goal in either eternity. It has no finish. It has no satisfying stability, satisfying to those who like the immutable. None of this. It is the instant; the quick; the very jetting source of all will-be and has-been. the utterance is like a spasm, naked contact with all influences at once. It does not want to get anywhere. It just takes place.”
- D.H. Lawrence
So I wasn’t planning on writing about this film but then I read John’s review below and worried that this kind of misconception about Wong’s film might spread. This isn’t really a defense of the film or of Wong’s work as much as an attempt to examine what the film really does, and doesn’t do and what we can learn from that.
The film invites us into the lives of several characters: Yuddy, a young man who seduces Su Lizhen and Mimi, two other characters, and Tide and Zeb who fall for each of the women respectively. Looking too closely at the plot may lead to some mistaken ideas about the film. Yes Yuddy is sometimes violent like Stanley Kowalski, yes, Lizhen is apparently sad before Yuddy meets her. Of course we know that Lizhen will return after she leaves Yuddy in the beginning. It’s not in the plot or in silly surprises that Wong invests his meaning, it’s in the melodrama. Melodrama has become a dirty word in a film culture that is always looking for realism but it shouldn’t have. The accusations of excess against Wong betray a misunderstanding of the profundity of true melodrama, which allows it’s characters to create reality as opposed to the reality creating the characters. This is one of many crucial differences that make Wong’s film infinitely superior to tripe like Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
John references the famous shot in Goodfellas as a way of showing Wong’s inferiority as a filmmaker but he gets it all wrong:
“Martin Scorsese’s long takes in Goodfellas include a moment where Mr. & Mrs. Henry Hill descend into a restaurant. It’s the real deal because it promotes the view of their world unfolding around them. Karen Hill is the witness of Henry Hill’s flamboyant & respected lifestyle; like a naïve boy who takes their first trip to Disneyland. That is artistry. This is an attempt.”
Scorsese allows the “reality” of the flamboyant and seductive lifestyle of Mafia royalty to influence the direction of his scene. He presents this, as so many lesser filmmakers usually do, as an attempt to supposedly show us the way the character sees their surroundings, subjectively. Behind this attempt is an unfortunate objective perspective that believes that one perspective tells a story. Like Kubrick in the House in Eyes Wide Shut or Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet, Scorsese’s is a cinema of different, opposed perspectives in conflict. Wong’s work, despite sharing a use of voiceover with Goodfellas, presents multiple perspectives at once. He keeps his distance in order to make the viewer more aware that even when the characters want to believe they are alone with their thoughts, dreams, desires, they are still dependent upon or restricted by a world of relationships and the thoughts, dreams and desires of others. Implicit but unstated in John’s misreading of Wong is the fact that the only perspective in his film is Wong’s and it is a joyously ambivalent one.
How then can I say that the characters create their own reality? It’s in what isn’t stated. If we pay attention we can see that Tide’s feelings for Lizhen are as superficial as Lizhen’s for Yuddy and Yuddy’s for anyone. We are in a world we recognize where each person’s desire is based less on the other person than on hidden longings they may not really be in touch with themselves. Even Yuddy’s missing mother dilemma is not presented as some excuse for his behavior, it just is. There is no need for POV shots here. Those kinds of shots tell us the simple-minded “truth” that we see what we want to see and miss the “reality” underneath because we are greedy or petty and want the things a Mafia king can buy us. Wong doesn’t tell, but rather shows us that there is no reality underneath our shifting, changing desires. We aren’t missing anything because there is no objective reality to miss. As paraphrased from the quote in the beginning of Wong’s Ashes of Time: The flag is still, the wind is calm, it is men’s hearts that are in motion.
Another big difference between Wong’s film and Scorsese’s is that Wong has a stronger sense of wonderment over the positive and negative aspects of desire, which are always intertwined. Scorsese’s film, by not really offering an alternative, basically supports it’s main character’s notion that the fast moving Mafia life is better than the boring life of one of us drones watching the film. Henry Hill wants to be a gangster at the beginning of the film and he still basically feels the same way at the end. One could fool oneself into thinking that the brutality on display is Scorsese’s admonition of his character’s longing, but with no alternative presented accept for a wife who loves the lifestyle as well, you have to realize that this is a wholly positive perspective on ambition, later retread by the hack Tarantino at the end of Pulp Fiction. Wong presents a more complex, adult picture of desire. In Wong’s view, our desires will cause us pain, when in conflict with both our other desires and the desires of others. However, they are positive in the sense that despite the pain caused we continue to desire different things or people or places. We keep on moving on despite the pain this movement causes.
As for the pain the characters experience , Wong doesn’t wallow in it. He shows us that this pain is simply a reminder that we are alive. Yuddy’s gunshot wound toward the end may be fatal but it only seems to awaken ne desires in him that he won’t be able to pursue. Yuddy’s mother may seem like a tragic figure because she buys sex from young gigolo’s but she is presented as being perhaps the most in touch with her desires. She knows what she wants and she knows what she is missing but she persists. Wong gives her a moment of sadness as Yuddy leaves and one of the gigolos fondles her. She sees some of the sadness of her situation but then, she swoons with a desire that will at least partially be fulfilled for that night.
We are not in a silly universe where we are supposed to judge right and wrong. This is the adult world where everyone has reasons even if they can’t or wont articulate them. Even Yuddy’s dismissal of Lizhen is not judged harshly by Wong. Viewers who pay attention will see that Yuddy is very up front with her about the way he is. It’s only the fact that Maggie Cheung is so incredibly appealing that will have some inattentive viewers believing that she has been wronged in some way. Drama that wants us to choose who’s right and wrong is bad drama. The first bit of wisdom any good artist imparts is the fact that the universe doesn’t judge people, or even actions. Wong, in a similar way to other great filmmakers, does this firstly through his editing which constantly avoids or changes perspective. To be fair, Scorsese changes narrators in Goodfelles but since the characters all have the same motivations and desires it isn’t very interesting. Wong challenges his characters and viewers with a wisdom born of differences of desire and similarities of longing.
How does Wong impart his wisdom? Through style, of course. Where some filmmaker’s give us long lingering looks at there characters so we can go deeply into their already obvious and simplistic motivations (think De Niro staring at the camera thinking about murder in Goodfellas or Alex staring at the camera thinking about murder in A Clockwork Orange), Wong’s camera, or rather Christopher Doyle’s, keeps moving, cuts away at dramatic moments, stays behind a character leaving us to wonder at their expression. In Yuddy’s last scene, as he’s revealing a vulnerability missing from the rest of the film, we stay on Tide’s face. In Wong, one doesn’t get a complete final moment to explain oneself to the camera. He also compares and contrasts characters. Tide and Zeb are very different in demeanor but they share a longing to have women they can’t have and perhaps an unstated, on Tide’s part, desire to be more like Yuddy, even while somewhat despising his methods.
John, and probably other viewers, sees Yuddy as a manipulator and he is to some extent. He is no more a manipulator than the other characters, however. In his opening pick-up line to Lizhen he makes her aware that they are spending a memorable minute together. One he has her she then puts stock in how much longer they are spending together. She also tries to persuade him to make their relationship more permanent, after a pretty short courtship, and puts on a show of leaving when he rebuffs her. This too is a form of manipulation, it’s just that Yuddy isn’t having it. Mimi tries a different tactic. She believes that if she is a willing slave to Yuddy’s desires, with a sprinkling of dramatic moments of anger, she will keep him excite enough to stay with her. When he leaves, her actions, especially her visit to his adopted mother’s place to see what he had previously hidden from her, reveal that her desire had more to do with controlling him that loving him. Zeb attempts to manipulate Mimi by emulating the surface aspects of Yuddy and Tide believes that by caring for Lizhen, without really ever getting to know her, he can make her his. When Tide runs into Yuddy later in the philippines he gets involved with Yuddy’s problems but Yuddy never invites him to do so. Yuddy is one of Wong’s and the cinema’s greatest creations. He wlll not bend to any verse except his own free poetry. His tragic flaw is that his wildness never takes consequences or the pain of others into account but that is also his greatest attribute as a character.
Mimi is another great creation. Introduced to us and Yuddy when she tries to steal some earings that belong to his mother, she seems obsessed with having something, be it earings, slippers or the secret life of Yuddy, that does not belong to her. Her flaws are revealed through her confrontations with Lizhen, who has no desire for confrontation or competition and through Zeb’s attempts to take her from Yuddy. Where will she go from there? She may learn from this or she may continue her patterns, Wong’s is not the cinema of the future.
Wong’s is the cinema of the present. Scorsese’s is the cinema of the future. Scorsese is concerned with showing us how things come to be, and come to get out of control. He believes that we can pinpoint when things “went wrong” for us if only we had him to make a film of our lives like Henry Hill did. Wong is only concerned with the moment. Despite the ending, Yuddy’s fate isn’t meant to be fateful. It’s just something that happens without much build-up or foreshadowing in one man’s life. John gets it wrong again:
“the editing is superficial & ideas are constantly drifting in a cyclical pattern. It needs constraint. It needs overall supervision not singular focus. Elaborate on an idea then move on. Keep on the road, not the sidewalk.”
In fact, the editing is designed to keep us in the moment and not get bogged down in childish “ideas.” Wong isn’t tying to tell us “insightful” things about what makes a playboy like Yuddy tick. He’s going for something far more difficult to create and for the average viewer to keep up with. Everything is happening right now and the camera doesn’t help us make sense of it all. This is planned messiness, mirroring the unplanned messiness of our ordinary lives. Hopefully, Wong will never fall victim to the audiences childish need for “constraint” and instead keep on being wild.
Addendum: I forgot to address the ending, ending of the film. The short coda with Tony Leung. We see a man getting ready to go out somewhere. He is well dressed. He goes out. The end. What does this tell us. John sees it as a shortcoming because it doesn’t address the rest of the film in a meaningful way. What I see is that we have moved on. The characters from the previous hour and a half are continuing, or not continuing their lives and here is another guy, whose story and motivations we don’t know, about to get on with his life. Do we know him any more or less than we knew the others? Perhaps not. What is interesting is the way he seems so self-assured but he is cramped in his space and hunched over for most of the scene. Wong isn’t giving any answers here. Just showing us that there is always more to come, good or bad. Remember, this is not a cinema of knowledge, but of experience.