The Rhythm of Dreams: Wong Kar-wai in Five Songs

A journey into Wong’s cinema, as heard through the music that makes his films such indelible experiences.
Leonardo Goi

Andy Lau is on the phone, alone in a crowded bar, shoulders to the camera, palms cupped on the handset. We’re halfway through Wong Kar-wai’s first film, As Tears Go By (1988), and his Wah, a small-time gangster, is trying to reach Ngor (Maggie Cheung), a cousin he once hosted in his flat but has long since lost touch with. There was undeniable attraction between the two, but neither was brave enough to act upon it: Ngor returned to Lantau island to help in the family's restaurant, and Wah resumed his duties in the underworld. She’s not around, a woman tells him on the other end; he hangs up, reaches for a cigarette.

And this is when it happens. The bar goes quiet for a second or two, until a jukebox starts singing a Cantonese rendition of Berlin’s 1986 hit “Take My Breath Away”, which catapults Wah into a bus, Lantau-bound. There’ll be many other indelible musical sequences in Wong’s filmography, but this is the first in which a song functions as an epiphany, unlocking and expanding a character’s subjectivity. In a body of work peopled with all manners of dreamers, of psychically broken drifters fumbling after mirages of happiness and love, music offers Wong’s characters a kind of solace, a refuge in which they can live out their fantasies. In As Tears Go By, “Take My Breath Away is responsible for the film’s most lyrical sequence: a late-night meet-up that sees Ngor and Wah running into a phone booth and kissing desperately, hungrily, until the booth’s lights sear the frame white, and the chorus dies out.


Berlin is one of several English-speaking bands that would sneak their way into Wong’s films, a list that includes voices as disparate as The Mamas & the Papas (Chungking Express, 1994), Laurie Anderson (Fallen Angels, 1995), and Frank Zappa (Happy Together, 1997). But as widespread as Western influences will prove to be, it is Latin America that offers some of Wong’s most illuminating musical references, if anything for the special connections these share with the director’s childhood memories. Wong was only five when he followed his parents from Shanghai to Hong Kong. His father, a sailor, was often away for work, and his mother took it upon herself to give the boy a cinematic education, which consisted of daily pilgrimages to the cinema and lunches at Western restaurants. Latin American music, imported via the Philippines, was all those joints were playing in the 1960s, and Wong has talked at length about how those songs shaped the scores of his period pieces.

Rumbas, congas, and tangos function both as a temporal markers and as Proustian madeleines. No wonder they should feature so prominently in the one film of Wong’s most explicitly interested in unearthing a character’s childhood. In Days of Being Wild (1990), his sophomore, Andy Lau returns as a cop working night shifts in the streets of Hong Kong. But the film is Leslie Cheung’s, here starring as Yuddy, a spoilt twenty-something cad raised by an affluent aunt (Rebecca Pan) who’s sworn to keep his mother’s identity and whereabouts secret, lest the lad should abandon her. Latin America offers the film its soundtrack—graced with tunes by Xavier Cugat and Los Indios Tabajaras—and its loose, free-wheeling architecture. For it was during the shooting that Wong first discovered the writings of Argentine author Manuel Puig, whose 1969 novel “Heartbreak Tango” he’d describe as nothing short of a revelation: a lesson in how stories can be told as jigsaw puzzles, unmoored in time and refracted through different points of view.

Which is essentially how Days behaves. Set in the 1960s, it starts by chronicling Yuddy’s idle routine of dates and chain-smoking before introducing us to a small pantheon of characters orbiting around him. There’s Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), whom Yuddy breaks up with early on, and whom we follow in her lovelorn nighttime meanderings in the company of Andy Lau’s Tide; Zeb (Jacky Cheung, previously seen in As Tears Go By), and Mimi (Carina Lau), another girl Yuddy dates and unceremoniously dumps along the way. But none of them is as haunted by music as Yuddy.

Early into the film, and seconds before he dances, alone in his flat, to Xavier Cugat’s “Maria Elena,” his voiceover tells us about the legend of a legless bird, doomed to fly through day and night, and to only land when ready to die. Wong has an eye for scenes that throb with implacable loneliness, and Yuddy’s dance is one of them. The mambo is rambunctious, yes, but the lad’s cryptic tale taint it with a certain tragic restlessness, which will follow him all the way to the Philippines. It’s here that Yuddy’s mother lives, but once he shows up at her doorstep, she refuses to see him. Drunk and disheveled all through the film’s coda, he gets to play one last Cugat hit, “Siboney,” swaying to the mambo in a semi-deserted restaurant somewhere in Manila, before a shootout sends him and Tide on a final train ride into the jungle, destination unknown. The tragedy in Days isn’t that Yuddy may turn into a legless bird of his own, but that he never had a place to return to in the first place.

“Hong Kong is a big refugee camp,” Allen Fong once told fellow New Wave director Ann Hui, and perhaps this is true of Wong’s cinema too, a universe whose loners resort to music as an escapist machine, a vehicle to dream up ties to places they’ve abandoned, and others they miss without having ever visited. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Chungking Express (1994), and in Faye Wong’s relationship with the song that traverses it as her personal anthem: The Mamas & the Papas’ 1965 classic “California Dreamin’.”As we first meet her, the movie has abandoned the romance to which it dedicates its first half (between Takeshi Kaneshiro’s heartbroken policeman and Brigitte Lin’s femme fatale), and embraced another. Faye has just started working at her cousin’s fast food shop, and it is here she bumps into a regular, officer 663 (Tony Leung). She’s blasting “California Dreamin’” from her cousin’s stereo, so loud the two can barely hear each other. “The louder the better,” she shouts at him: “loud music helps me not to think.”

“California Dreamin’” appeared in another 1994 film, Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump, which laid bare its cultural specificities: a paean to the West Coast counterculture and an anti-Vietnam war cry. Those references are lost in Chungking Express: here, the emphasis is placed on the song’s lyrics and their literal meanings, underscoring Faye’s desire to visit California (a dream that will come true, eventually). Ricocheting first inside the restaurant and then into officer 663’s flat, which she makes a habit of visiting while he’s away, the tune allows Faye to create her own dreamscape. She pirouettes in and out of his rooms, playing with a miniature plane while The Mamas & the Papas croon “I’d be safe and warm / if I was in L.A.” Scenes like this have led some to accuse Wong of having “MTV aesthetics,” the charge being that his musical segments disrupt the narrative flow, and retard the action.

Nothing could be further from the truth. These moments do not exist as compartmentalized units, but are integral to the film’s plot, here conveying and articulating Faye’s desires as eloquently as a monologue would. And in Chungking Express’s oneiric meanderings, “California Dreamin’” ends up forging a kind of telepathic conduit between cop and girl. When he finally catches Faye sneaking into his flat, officer 663 invites her in, and of all the songs they could listen to while lying on the couch, he picks “California Dreamin’,” prompting her to wonder if the trance the melody puts her into might be contagious. It is. By the time she comes back to the restaurant, in the film’s coda, officer 663 has quit his job and bought her cousin’s shop. She catches him in the midst of renovations, “California Dreamin’” echoing from a stereo (just as loudly as she played it when they first met, ironically). It’s been a year since Faye stood him up on a date and left for California. She’d left him a hand-drawn boarding pass whose destination he couldn’t quite decipher, and now sketches another. “Where do you want to go?” she asks. “Wherever you want to take me.” Her desire for change, crystallized and prompted by The Mamas & The Papas’ music, has become his. 

That songs can serve as invisible vessels between people is what makes Wong’s musical sequences so cardinal to his cinema—and in the context of Happy Together, so lacerating. Loosely inspired by Manuel Puig’s 1973 novel The Buenos Aires Affair, the film follows two Hong Kong lovers stranded in Argentina’s capital city, Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung) and Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung). It’s a road trip gone awry, originally intended to ship the couple all the way to the Iguaçu Falls. But then money ran out, and frictions between the two grew unbearable. Back in Buenos Aires, they part ways: Lai drums up some cash through all kinds of low-level gigs, while Ho turns into a midnight cowboy of sorts, only to return to Lai’s one-room flat penniless and horribly beaten up. And so the film unspools as a self-destructive pas de deux, breathing to Astor Piazzolla’s nostalgic tangos, which surface intermittently through the proceedings.

Writing on its genesis, Jorge Luis Borges claimed the tango was born as a male-only dance around Buenos Aires’s brothels, a scandalous display of virility that showed that fights could morph into dances, and vice versa. And that’s a good fit for the harrowing push-and-pull dynamic that undergirds Lai and Ho’s romance, all arguments and brawls. But its music is also the only medium through which those conflicts can be suppressed. Halfway through the film, a still recovering Ho teaches Lai how to dance, and the notes of Piazzolla’s “Tango Apasionado” turn a communal kitchen into a stage. It’s a lacerating scene, in a film full of them. All the resentments, the insults, the bilious anger the two have thrown at each other are suddenly smoothed out, if only for an excruciatingly short-lived moment. They will never be this close again.

In his chronicles of the tango, Borges suggested that music can unearth personal histories we ignored, and move us to cry over misfortunes we didn’t suffer. Wong, for his part, has said that he’d like people hearing “his” songs in everyday life to be teleported back to the moments they appear in the films—to connect, in other words, your own reveries to the characters’. It is difficult for me to imagine a world in which Piazzolla’s bandoneon in “Tango Apasionado” won’t be bring me back to that dance between Lai and Ho, and, later on, to a heart-shaking sequence where Lai visits the Iguaçu Falls, alone, and tells us that “there should be two of us standing here,” before Wong cuts to a helicopter shot capturing the body of water in all its belittling immensity.

It is especially difficult because, here as in its successor, In the Mood for Love (2000), songs are so woven into the film’s fabric they end up dictating its shape and rhythms. In interviews, Wong has often claimed he selects his soundtracks during pre-production, and the tunes become references for the films’ overall mood. But with In the Mood for Love, he went a step further, reportedly playing Shigeru Umebayashi’s “Yumeji Theme” during the shooting too, so that cast and crew could bathe in the waltz’s atmosphere, and the music could inform Christopher Doyle and Mark Li Ping-bing’s own camerawork. 

And the result is a film where sounds and visuals coexist in spell-binding symbiosis. Every pan, every tracking shot, every camera movement is synched to Umebayashi’s strings to such an extent that the visuals seem to grow out of the film’s anthem. The theme is not diegetic; it’s repeated eight times, and the film swoons to it long before next-door neighbors Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) realize their respective spouses are seeing each other. Following the epiphany, it’ll score the pantomime the cheated husband and wife will stage as they’ll role-play as their spouses, and imagine how the affair began—only to recoil when the game becomes too real. And whose theme is it, exactly? It is neither Mr. Chow’s nor Mrs. Chan’s—not in the way “California Dreamin’” was Faye’s, anyway—but something that envelops them both, a sublimation of their romance.

In the Mood for Love doesn’t grant them the privilege of a dance like Happy Together did with Lai and Ho. But it feels and moves like one, with the couple’s steps and gestures timed to the waltz’s elegiac sound waves. It’s a ravishing film, a joy for the senses. But this isn’t beauty for beauty’s sake; all the spasmodic attention to detail, the precision with which each action is captured, repeated, rehearsed, belies the desperation of someone striving to exhume and relive the memory of a long-lost love. There’s no reprieve from the melancholia. This is Wong at his most nostalgic, and the film is an act of recollection. It ends with a sentence that sums up Mr. Chow’s predicament, but could just as well apply to all of Wong’s wanderers: “the past is something he can see, but not touch.” The magic of Wong’s cinema is that, through music, they can resurrect it, too.

The retrospective World of Wong Kar Wai opened at Film at Lincoln Center's virtual cinemas on November 25, 2020 and will be followed by a national rollout to additional virtual cinemas starting December 11, 2020.

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