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Wong Kar-wai

The Secrets of Time


One of Wong Kar-wai’s favourite techniques is step-printing, a means by which to slow down the image and yet a device he uses quite differently from slow-motion. Where filmmakers from Sam Peckinpah to John Woo often use slow-mo to lay out the screen space during action sequences, Wong usually adopts step-printing to suggest the temporal. Sometimes referred to as the Proust of Hong Kong (see Sonia Front’s ‘Labyrinth of Time’), Wong’s films frequently utilise this variation of slow motion not to create a comprehension of space, but instead to allude to manifold temporal possibilities. Describing Wong’s step-printing process, Robert M. Payne says, “Between them, Wong and [cinematographer Chris] Doyle have developed a visual motif that appears in all of their films together: some strategic scenes are shot at a slower film speed (“undercrank” in Hollywood jargon), so the action is speeded up; then, the frames are step-printed at a slower speed onto the finished film, so the action is restored to its real-time duration. The undercrank/step-printing method gives these scenes a haunting sense of simultaneous animation and suspension.” (Jump Cut) What it can give to Wong’s work is the elaboration of time over space, of characters not in a given world that the filmmaker slows down all the better to intensify the spatial experience as we find in Peckinpah and Woo, but to place the characters in a temporal existence that they are slightly removed from, or reflecting upon. Whether it is Mrs Chan going to get noodles in In The Mood for Love, or Cop 223 lost in reverie in Chungking Express, Wong’s images rarely try and generate a hardening of the present but instead a softening of it. Like Proust he loosens time as if searching for some comprehension of being through acknowledging the present is only a dimension of the event, and that the future that has yet to take place is often required to put that past into context. As Proust says in Time Regained, “So often, in the course of my life, reality has disappointed me because at the instant when my senses perceived it my imagination, which was the only organ that I possessed for the enjoyment of beauty, could not apply itself to it, in virtue of that ineluctable law which ordains that we can only imagine what is absent.”

If Wong Kar-wai is a filmmaker of immense significance it rests in this question of how to register the present and a tense beyond the present simultaneously, and this is a formal question that he addresses through for example step-printing, but a question of character also. Of course in Peckinpah’s films the characters are not exclusively in the present, and The Wild Bunch shows Robert Ryan’s character is so reflective he is even given a flashback, while Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid plays on the elegiac nature of Pat and Billy’s friendship in the past. But if Pauline Kael could joke in the late sixties that it was as if Peckinpah was about the only filmmaker who wasn’t getting called Brechtian, nobody is going to throw the Proustian label at him either. He creates characters who often aren’t interested in the tasks assigned to them, but they do live doggedly in the present as they try to complete it. They are not interested in a sort of ‘projective reflection’; they do not muse over the permutations of an event as a state of sensitivity and sensibility. Wong’s characters frequently do so. What we want to explore are the main ways in which Wong generates this exploration in, especially, Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love and its follow-up 2046, and the different mode each film adopts to explore what Proust calls Time.

In Days of Being Wild, the young central character and serial seducer Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) chats up Maggie Cheung’s Su Lizhen with the idea that the minute they have just spent together has uniquely belonged to them while he watches the clock as it goes from one minute to three to three. It is a moment that is uniquely there’s, he insists, and though as Yuddy and Su start seeing each other they have many more minutes and hours, it is this minute that is perhaps the moment that is constantly expanded on in Su’s mind during the relationship and after it is over when Yuddy starts seeing someone else. One evening after they break-up Su is outside and says to Yuddy that she would still like to continue the affair, as the film cuts to the new lover, Fung-Ying (Carina Lau) upstairs hearing the conversation. Yet part of the problem here is that if Su can’t get over the minute that Yuddy filled with so much meaning, he can’t get over the moment in his own early life where he was put up for adoption: sold to the woman who has undeniably been like a mother to him, but he can’t countenance something in the simile. She might have doted on Yuddy and given him everything he wanted, but she was also a poor woman who became comfortable courtesy of the money she received for looking after him. If Su can’t leave alone that minute with Yuddy, which the film plays up in the amount of screen time given over to this sequence and the relatively little screen time given over to the months of their relationship, Yuddy can’t quite get over a moment that he could hardly call his own: the moment when his adoptive mother, whom he calls auntie, and his mother met and agreed that he would be brought up by the former. In the present, he returns to the Philippines hoping to meet his mother on her large estate. He announces in voice-over that his mother didn’t want to see him; with the maid saying she wasn’t there. As he leaves the house he feels a pair of eyes looking at him and he refuses to turn round: why should she have the chance to see his face when he hasn’t been given the chance to see hers? As he speaks in voice-over we see an attractive, made-up older woman looking anxious, as if she might be looking out the window and at the back which refuses to show her a face.

Yuddy’s need to return to the past concerns a ‘deep’ moment of his origins; Su’s a shallow moment in the relative presence as she gets taken in by a man who cannot commit to feelings that always seem less important than the abandonment at his birth. How can he care especially for Su’s loss as a functioning adult next to his as a helpless baby? However, Wong doesn’t offer the film up as a psychological portrait of a man who can’t commit with a few emotional issues, but as a temporal examination of loss, each of which has its own depth and texture. The film regards Su’s loss as the equal of Yuddy’s, maybe even a greater one because of the emotional integrity that goes into her loss as acceptance, where Yuddy’s manifests itself as denial and destruction of self and other. Su manages to keep time to herself; Yuddy constantly takes his problem with time out on those around him, whether it his cruelty towards Su or Fung-Ying, or the recklessness of his behaviour that means other lives are endangered as well as his own as we see near the end of the film. He is properly speaking a time bomb: someone who cannot live within the contoured complexity of time and instead tries to turn the temporal into the spatial. As he says that he used to think there was some kind of bird that flew and flew and never landed he realizes as he is dying that the bird never actually flew anywhere because it was dead from the start. Yuddy generates movement constantly, but only out of a deeper inertia that he can never overcome. When he adds, again reflecting back to an earlier moment, that he would never know who he loved the most until he died, we might wonder who that person might be: Su, Fung-Ying, his mother or his aunt? The answer might be, in a personality so given to self-destruction, the person who generates the wound if there is no one he can find to heal it.

Days of Being Wild is a little like a gangster film that welds together Scorsese and Proust: imagine if Joe Pesci in Good Fellas wasn’t offering credence seeking bouts of brutality, but delicately concerned with the nature of his moods given the contingencies of his upbringing; imagine if his affairs with women in Casino were shaped around a nagging need to make sense of his wounds. Generally in gangster movies feelings harden and the events quicken, with the characters caught in a life of brutal cause and effect. They might often have wounds that are as figurative as they are literal, but the film will usually rely on the wound or flaw as grounding the character in psychosis rather than exploring the nature of the psyche, evident of course in both versions of Scarface, as the films can pick up pace and purpose. Scorsese’s own Mean Streets might have allowed for more nuanced feeling than usual, but it would still be a stretch to call it at all Proustian. Days of Being Wild is interested in how time splits off, how it possesses both the situation and the permutation: the event and its manifestations. This can best be explained by seeing the event as either one of cause and consequence or the event as personally refractive. If the story shows the characters holding up a bank as in Bonnie and Clyde, then there are a series of inevitable consequences that come out of such an action. There is the immediate get-away and the immediate chase, but there is also after they’ve escaped the broader problem of trying to remain invisible from the law. Cause and consequence are tightly linked partly because of the magnitude of the action that leads to a series of categorical consequences. This is consequentiality, but not at all manifestation and permutation. Days of Being Wild is a gangster film interested in the emotional permutations of events, as much if not more than the cause and consequence of events.

Now in contrast to the moment in Bonnie and Clyde that typifies the gangster film, let us think by way of contrast to a moment in Proust. There is a passage in Proust’s La Captive where the narrator is talking to Mme Bontemps, the auntie of Albertine with whom the narrator is obsessed, and the auntie says “Albertine is always ready to go to the country. Three years ago, for instance, she simply had to go every day to the Buttes-Chaumont” The narrator feels a stab to the heart as he realizes that Albertine must have lied, saying to the narrator that she had never been to the park. But this doesn’t lead to immediate consequence, with the narrator proving to Albertine that she is a liar, but to the musing over permutations. Albertine might not have been lying to him, but to the auntie, and the narrator then tells a small lie of his own to get still more information, which leads to more speculation as the narrator reassess events in the past.

It is this sense of an event disintegrating into permutations rather than categoricals which is explored especially strongly in In the Mood for Love. As Wong concentrates not on the affair that is taking place between Mr Chan and Mrs Chow, but instead on the delicate friendship that develops between Mrs Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr Chow (Tony Leung) after they find out about their spouses’ adultery, so the film concentrates not on the consequences of action, but the permutations of feeling. We can never say for sure if and when Mrs Chan and Mr Chow make love but we can muse over the nature of their relationship more freely as the sexual gets sublimated into the subtlest of emotional interplay. Wong has said that he wanted to show both relationships, “the adulterous affair and the repressed friendship – in the one couple. It’s a technique I learned from Julio Cortazar, who always had this kind of structure. It’s like a circle, the head and the tail meeting.” (Sight and Sound) Yet while formally Cortazar might be the model, it is the Proustian sensibility that interests us. By refusing the certitude of representation, Wong opens up the possibility for speculation. The categorical in this instance becomes the elusive, with Wong making clear an affair is taking place between Mr Chan and Mrs Chow, but refusing to show any more than the back of the adulterous couple and briefly allowing us to hear their voices. Mrs Chan and Mr Chow, however, are heard and seen constantly, but the sexual deed remains hidden.

Wong offers explicit actions within representationally hidden characters, and hidden actions within representationally explicit characters, and then offers a great scene where the two come together when Mrs Chan and Mr Chow offer a mock rehearsal with Mrs Chan confronting her husband. At first we see the back of what we might assume to be her spouse, only for the camera to reveal she is speaking to Mr Chow as they hypothesize a scenario whereby Mrs Chan will confront her husband. It is a moment that initially fools the audience, but shows the characters potentially fooling themselves also. As Mr Chow plays at being Mrs Chan’s husband, isn’t he beginning to play the role anyway as the pair of them spend far more time in each other’s company than they  seem to be spending with their respective partners? What we see is of course only what the diegesis focuses upon (the film’s purpose is to explore their time together; not the rest of the time they will be spending with their respective spouses), but isn’t the diegesis also the most pertinent moments in a person’s life within a given period and that is why the film captures it? Even if the couple are spending far more time in the company of their partners, it is the period of time Mr Chow and Mrs Chan spend with each other that is presented as the most meaningful. Mr Chow might be playing Mrs Chan’s husband in this mock scene, but he is sliding into the role emotionally as well.

But how does this square with our comparison with Proust? It lies partly in the film’s generation of the possible over the actual, this notion of the permutation over the consequential. When Albertine is seen to lie, this isn’t an opportunity for immediate action, but instead for further speculation, a point the narrator picks up on in the final volume of In Search of Lost Time, Time Regained. “It is for us later to decide, according to the plane upon which we are living, whether an infidelity through which some woman has made us suffer is of little or great account besides the truths which it has revealed to us and which the woman who exulted in our suffering would hardly have been able to understand.” What matters is not the simple truth that can be found out, concerning a lie or an infidelity, but the space created by virtue of its existence. It is the capacity for reflection and understanding that counts for more than revelation and action. Thus the affair between Mrs Chow and Mr Chan is shown as of no great consequence narratively, and the degree of sexual attachment between Mr Chow and Mrs Chan is kept obscure. The film’s purpose isn’t to use time to generate kinetic narrative, but instead to reveal the workings of subjective time, what Henri Bergson would have called duration as opposed to clock time: time that belongs less to the outside world than one’s own perceptual organization. If in Days of Being Wild Su Lizhen allows that one minute to become expanded far beyond its clock time importance, then in In the Mood for Love the escape from the categorical manifests itself as an ambiguity that remains a secret and which must remain, for us, in the arena of speculation. Yet it may also exist in the arena of speculation for the characters also. There is no moment in the film where we can say with any certainty that an affair has taken place, but equally there is no moment in the film that suggests in their body language the couple are now lovers. They could well be but are withholding the gestures of love because of a fear from neighbourly nosiness, an unwillingness to reveal completely their feelings to the other person, or because they feel that though their partners are betraying them, they don’t want fully to mimic the affection of a settled couple when they are still in a marriage with someone else. Whatever the reasons, the film insists on an ongoing arena of the speculative rather than succumbing to the certitude of action.

Wong offers this speculation not for the purposes of playing with the audience’s perceptual faculties alone, but to go further into the investigation of time as duration, and as an examination of what Blanchot would call the void, and the secret that links to it. But before saying more about In the Mood for Love, and to some degree its loose follow-up 2046, and the elaboration of what this secret means, better to sidestep the issue for a moment and say a little bit about the sense of time explored in Chungking Express, because it is as though the earlier films created the space to explore more complexly time in In the Mood for Love. In Chungking Express subjective time is present, with characters creating space for reflection rather than action in their relations with others. At the beginning of the film Cop 223 has split up with his girlfriend, and he determines to eat thirty tins of pineapple that will expire on the first of May. It is in homage to his girlfriend, whose name is May, and to his birthday, which is on the first of the month. It is the solipsistic gesture attached to temporal limits subjectively applied. Each day he buys a tin of pineapple that will soon be going out of date, and links the pineapples’ obsoleteness with the relationship. Yet he also wishes to get back with May: the gesture is simultaneously an act of potential loss but also with the possibility of superstitious gain; he hopes that during the thirty days of buying each day a tin of nearly out of date pineapples she will come back to him. If she doesn’t then the relationship will be over and he’ll consume the tinned fruit. As midnight arrives and the first of May begins, Wong cuts to one the many clocks we see in his films, but as so often it is a clock more interested in reflecting the time in someone’s head rather than the time that everyone abides by.

If both Su Lizhen in Days of Being Wild and Cop 223 in Chungking Express make time their own in reference to the clock, whether it happens to be a minute or a month, the girl at the takeaway counter here, Faye (Faye Wong), loses time by forgetting all about it. Often it is by listening to ‘California Dreamin’ loudly as she works; on other occasions hanging out in someone’s apartment after she falls in love with him. 663’s (Tony Leung) air hostess girlfriend leaves the flat key at the takeaway for him to pick up, and Faye takes the chance to nosy around the flat in his absence. Time contracts as the Cranberries play and Faye does likewise, losing any sense of where she is or exactly what she is doing. It is no surprise when she obliviously floods 663’s apartment. However whether a character has no sense of time, like Faye, or a very specific sense of it, as Cop 223 and Su Lizhen do, the point and purpose is the same: to show that time belongs more to the self than to the society, more to the personal than the social. Cop 223’s deadline is precise, but while it utilises a ticking-clock scenario, it does so for the most solipsistic of purposes. This has nothing to do with its usual function in a thriller, where a bomb will soon go off as the camera looks at the time passing on the clock. Everybody else will look at the time as another day passes; Cop 223 will see that his world has ended: a one man Armageddon.

This allows us to return to In the Mood for Love and the idea that the highly individual and the very general needn’t only be a moment of light humour as one man sees his world ending as the clock ticks, but also where the personal meets the infinite. While from one angle the film is a subtle account of a relationship that may or may not have turned sexual, from another it is what happens when a feeling is abstracted from its core and exists in a spiritual realm. If Mr Chow and Mrs Chan’s partners have a prosaic affair that Chow and Chan feel they must escape, then how far away from the actual might that take them? By the end of the film when Mr Chow goes to Angkor Wat and whispers a secret into the stones, would the secret really be no more than whether or not he has slept with Mrs Chan?

To understand the nature of this secret we can think of others  in film, evident in Anatomy of a Murder and Lost in Translation. In both instances information is withheld. In the former film we don’t know whether Ben Gazzara’s character is guilty; we only know that given the due process of the law, he has been acquitted. There would have been a miscarriage of justice if he’d been sentenced, and the film’s purpose is to show simply how justice has been done. Only Gazzara knows whether he is innocent or guilty, and the film has chosen to remain outside his point of view. At the end of Lost in Translation, Bill Murray whispers something into Scarlett Johansson’s ear, and we’re left to wonder what he says. In each instance knowledge is withheld from the viewer, but the undivulged remains containable. In the first case it might be as significant as a murder and in the latter as emotionally revelatory as Murray admitting that he loves Johannsson, but whatever the truth is it doesn’t open up onto the void, into Blanchot’s idea of the image in The Gaze of Orpheus. “But what is the image? When there is nothing, that is where the image finds its condition, but disappears into it. The image requires the neutrality and the effacement of the world, it wants everything to return to the indifferent depth where nothing is affirmed, it inclines towards the intimacy of what still continues to exist in the void: its truth lies there.” (‘Two Images of the imaginary’) The secrets Anatomy of a Murder and Lost in Translation withhold do not suggest the void but are contained by the everyday, however strong the action or the feeling. The  image of the secret does not suggest a chasm, but a relatively small hole. In the Mood for Love opens itself up towards a much greater whole, as though the relationship between Mrs Chan and Mr Chow isn’t about the nuances of a couple unwilling to commit to their feelings, but two people who understand a dimension of the image each has of the other that generates a spiritual space vastly greater than any actualization could allow. As Blanchot says, “…doesn’t the reflection always seem more spiritual than the object reflected? Isn’t it the ideal expression of that object, its presence freed of existence, its form without matter? And artists who exile themselves in the illusion of images, isn’t their task to idealize beings, to elevate them to their disembodied resemblance?” What secret could Mr Chow offer the ancient site of Angkor Wat, but one that acknowledged the immensity of being and not his small concerns within it? Have Mrs Chan and Mr Chow managed to reach the spiritual as Blanchot defines it; have they managed to become form without matter?

If Cop 223 and Faye in Chungking Express, and Su Lizhen in Days of Being Wild yearn for the absent, Mrs Chan and especially Mr Chow (whose story will be picked up again in 2046), takes this absence not only as personally amplifying, but as an amplification far beyond their own existence. By the end of In the Mood for Love, Mr Chow doesn’t possess a secret that he will take to the grave, but a secret that resembles one. As he chooses Angkor Wat as the place to which he’ll deposit the secret, it is as though the personal meets the universal: the notion of the living and dead dissolve into the depths of time, or what Proust would call Time. As he ends In Search of Lost Time: “So, if I were given long enough to accomplish my work, I should not fail, even if the effect were to make them resemble monsters, to describe men as occupying so considerable a place, compared with the restricted place which is reserved for them in space, a place on the contrary prolonged past measure, for simultaneously, like giants plunged into the years, they touch the distant epochs through which they have lived, between which so many days have come to range themselves – in Time.” (Time Regained)

2046 opens with a version of the secret, but instead of going into the past, the film alludes to the future. A character in voice-over mentions that before people would offer their secrets to a hollowed out tree, in the future they do so to a shell-like object six feet high and six feet wide.  People will disappear into this future and deposit secrets, and the film uses the story as a framing device that is also Mr Chow’s sci-fi writing given narrative form. The secret offered at Angkor Wat becomes the secret offered into the future as Mr Woo is still haunted by lost time, and envisages not the past but the future in which to contain it. The affairs he has are less new encounters than palimpsests, attempts to cover over the emotional history, but all the while the meaning lies in his earlier love for Mrs Chan, with Maggie Cheung given a brief cameo. When he takes up with Miss Bai (Zhang Yiyi) the initial transactive nature of the affair would seem to suit her more than it suits him: she charges him for her services, little knowing that what she is offering is the very inverse of the type of encounter he has had in the past with Mrs Chan. When she later wants to change the nature of their relationship, she realises it suited Chow even more. At one moment he shows his contempt in the money he offers, using her earlier disdain and greed to show his distaste for the situation.  Miss Bai definitely falls in love, but he has nowhere to fall in return; he is already in an emotional abyss that he peeks out of when he sleeps with other women.

The secret he retains gives him a sexual empowering missing from In the Mood for Love. Where in the earlier film he was the dutiful husband and hard-working journalist, in the follow-up he is closer to an Asian Henry Miller: a man getting laid and writing copy, but with a nonchalance that says life is a surface game. However, this is not because he believes life is superficial, more that the depths it contains cannot easily be grasped, and was his encounter with Mrs Chan not the epitome of that? Mr Chow is the living dead as mocking playboy, but still with the occasional capacity to feel yearning. When he befriends the daughter of the owner of the hotel in which he stays, he can see in her love for the Japanese boyfriend her father doesn’t want her to marry, a hint of his love for Mrs Chan. Of all the affairs and meetings with women in the film, it is Jingwen (Faye Wong) who seems the most capable of drawing upon his tenderness and longing. At one moment near the end the father announces she will get married, and the father is oblivious to the subtle pain this seems to cause Mr Chow. Has Chow allowed some of his feelings from the past to seep into his friendship with Jingwen, and is it not also a reminder of how much emotion is never expressed? The father babbles on breathlessly as Chow listens painfully. The most intense of feelings often possess their own secret; they are tragedies that need never make the newspapers or demand the presence of the police: they are wounds people walk around with, but for which there is no Accident and Emergency.

If we’ve suggested that step-printing was one way in which Wong managed to find a form to reflect his fascination with time, then how does he find images equal to the containment of a secret? Blanchot insists, while talking of literature, that “it is therefore really true that in man, as contemporary philosophies have it, comprehension and knowledge are connected to what we call finitude, but where is the end in this finitude?” He believes we can experience in the image what is “behind things, the soul of each thing obeys the spell now possessed by the ecstatic man, who has abandoned himself to the “universe””. (‘Two Versions of the Imaginary’) Blanchot is talking about magic, but also about the image in art that asks not for the sort of disinterest that “is asserted by the esthetic version of the image and the serene ideal of classical art”, but an engagement with the unfathomable. Wong’s films aren’t only about secrets in the subjective sense, nor even in the sense that there are secrets the universe never quite reveals to us, but also formal explorations of the unfathomable as well. According to Tony Rayns (Sight and Sound Jan. 2005), Wong would constantly ask his cinematographer Chris Doyle: “is that the best you can give me, Chris?” Rayns offers the anecdote during a speculative account of why they were no longer working together in the mid-2000s.  But it perhaps also suggests that Wong wanted not only great images, but images that were both physical and also metaphysical, images closer to Blanchot’s notion than a merely cinematographic shot. It was as though in In The Mood for Love and 2046, Wong no longer wanted to capture subjective energy, but wished to contain the characters within a temporal sphere greater than the objective and the subjective, and towards the broadest possible perspective on time. This would be an angle dwarfing the characters temporally, rather than expanding them through the utilisation of time. When Su Lizhen or Cop 223 use time melancholically to reflect their own loss, they are shrinking time as the clocks reflect their own feelings: they are making time their own, however painful its effects may be. But In The Mood for Love indicates the chasmic, with Mrs Chan and Mr Chow falling into time so that the individual perspective gets lost to a state of semi-indifferentiation. There is no longer the voice-over here, but instead silent subtitles at the beginning and the end. “It is a restless moment,” the film offers at the start, “she has kept her head lowered to give him the chance to come closer. But he could not, for lack of courage.” At the end of the film another series of subtitles come up: “He remembers those vanished years as though looking through a dusty window pane. The past is something he could see but not touch, and everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.”

It is true in his earlier work that Wong alluded to the immensity and not only the contraction of time; whether it happens to be the Philippines jungle near the end of Days of Being Wild, or the Iguaca Falls in Argentina in Happy Together. In each instance the camera caresses the ancient (natural or man-made), giving the image not the ‘narrow’ Proustian notion the writer proposes in Time Regained, as we’ll see, but closer to the broad image invoked by Blanchot. Proust for example writes that “an image presented to us by life brings with it, in a single moment, sensations which are in fact multiple and heterogeneous. The sight, for instance, of the binding of a book once read may weave into the characters of its title the moonlight of a distant summer night.” After all, “an hour is not merely an hour, it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates, and what we call reality a certain connection between these immediate sensations and the memories which envelop us simultaneously with them – a connexion that is suppressed in a simple cinematographic vision which just because it professes to confine itself to the truth in fact departs widely from it – a unique connexion which the writer has to rediscover in order to link for ever in his phrase the two sets of phenomena which reality joins together.” In Wong’s work the conjoining gives credence to a moment in the present that carries with it a deeper impact from the past. The eating of various tins of pineapple possess in themselves little flavour but they contain within them the memory of recent pain. When Faye wanders around Cop 663’s apartment in Chungking Express she is lost in the moment, but this requires the idea of Cop 663 who is absent from the scene. The clocks in Days of Being Wild that remind Su Lizhen of Yuddy are not simply clocks, but memory devices, an opportunity to return to the past trauma. Yet this is still narrow memory, as the past and the present co-exist, but don’t generate a crack in time that opens up to the chasm, alluded to in other passages from Proust but perhaps never more strongly elucidated by a writer than in the work of Blanchot.

In such an instance, time doesn’t only contain what is present and what is absently present, what is in the moment and a memory of the moment, as Cop 223 accesses the past and the present as he eats the pineapple and thinks of his ex, but that goes beyond the moment and the reminiscence. It turns inside out our relationship with memory, so time doesn’t sit inside us but we sit inside it. It is this that Proust finally explores when he talks of giants at the end of Time Regained and the passage about touching “…distant epochs through which they have lived, between which so many days have come to range themselves – in Time.” It is to this image of time that Blanchot talks of accessing in different modes of the imaginary. “Here, what speaks in the name of the image “sometimes” still speaks of the world, “sometimes” introduces us to into the indeterminate region of fascination, “sometimes” gives us the power to use things in their absence and through fiction, this keeping up with a horizon rich in meaning, “sometimes” makes us slip into the place where things are perhaps present…here meaning does not escape into another meaning, but into the other of all meaning and, because of the ambiguity, nothing has meaning but everything seems to have infinitely much meaning.” (‘Two Versions of the Imaginary’) Wong kar-wai does not only extract time from memory as characters adopt a solipsistic emotional universe, but also alludes to a universe far beyond the solipsistic. When asked by Slant magazine about his recent film The Grandmaster and its relationship with memory, Wong replied, “It’s not really about memories; it’s about curiosities.” It is as though Wong wants to escape from the idea that he is a filmmaker dealing with memories that cling to individuals, and say instead that we can access a much broader memory through curiosity, through accepting that while of course we possess memories we can generally call our own, how many memories are there in the universe that do not remotely belong to us but where instead we belong to them?

To conclude let us think of Mr Chow’s visit to Angkor Wat. Much of the scene leaves Mr Chow behind as the camera tracks through the ancient site and the music captures not so much the specifics of feeling as a surfeit of it. The sequence appears to be searching for the maximum sense of time and being as it shows us a long shot of a monk sitting amongst the pillars, and then a little later a shot from behind the monk’s head as he seems to be watching Chow whispering into the pillar’s crack. The music also ceases moments before the image disappears at the end of the sequence and before the film’s credits come up as we hear the tranquillity of birds quietly chirping. It is one of the great sequences in film that manages to incorporate a sense of time vastly greater than the characters within the film, while also incorporating them into the folds of time and space. We might think of the museum scene in Voyage to Italy, early scenes in the Saharan desert in The Passenger, Big Bend National Park in Paris Texas, the scenes at Mont Saint-Michel in To the Wonder, the monolith in 2001: all moments that ask of Time that it incorporates us within a world much bigger than personal narrative. Wong might have a reputation as a filmmaker often filming from the narrowest of personal perspectives, but he also has the capacity to open his filmic world up the wonders of the universe. In film there would be many more wonders than are officially classified in life, but Wong’s sequence at the end of In the Mood for Love is certainly among their number; and, indeed, can the rest if his work be found there?


©Tony McKibbin