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In order to promote an understanding of the centrality of space and the intimate relationship
between space and identity in Wong Kar-wais films, this dissertation examines the directors
construction of cinematic space and the characters sense of who they are in relation to Hong
Kong in his six films Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, 2046, As Tears Go by,
Chungking Express, and Fallen Angels. The investigation of Wongs use of cinematic space
involves the analysis of his selection of location and strategic employment of the mise-en-scne,
camera angles, lenses, lighting, and music, which constitute his fictional world. It is my
assertion that Wongs construction of Hong Kong in these films responds to the formation and
transformation of identity and showcases the impact of colonialism, modernization,
decolonization, globalization, and postmodern culture upon the lives of Hong Kong inhabitants.


Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, Cinematic space, Identity



B.A., Fu Zhou University, China, 2000
M.A., Truman State University, 2004

A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of The University of Georgia in Partial

Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree



Haihong Li
All Rights Reserved




Electronic Version Approved:

Maureen Grasso
Dean of the Graduate School
The University of Georgia
May 2012

Major Professor:

Hyangsoon Yi


Richard Neupert
Ronald Bogue
Masaki Mori
Karim Traore

I wish to extend my sincere gratitude to my supervisor, Hyangsoon Yi, who helped me
develop research skills and understanding of the subject during the completion of the project.
This dissertation would not have been possible without her diligent work and encouragement. I
would also like to express my thanks to Professor Richard Neupert for his most insightful and
valuable comments, Professor Ronald Bogue for his warm support, and Professor Masaki Mori
and Professor Karim Traore for their patience and kindness.
A special acknowledgment of mine goes to my family for their undivided support. I want
to thank my dearest Anna for her love and my parents for all of the sacrifices that they have
made for me. My husband Joe was so patient with my late nights, and I want to thank him for
believing in me from the beginning.
Lastly, I offer my regards and blessings to my editors, Jon Falsarella Dawson and Jessica
Taylor, for their best work.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS........................................................................................................... iv

INTRODUCTION .........................................................................................................1

THE LIMINAL SPACEDAYS OF BEING WILD ...................................................45


FOR LOVE...................................................................................................................67

THE DACADENT CITY2046 ................................................................................86

MAPPING MONGKOKAS TEARS GO BY ..........................................................108

THE GLOBAL CITYCHUNGKING EXPRESS ...................................................132

THE POSTMODERN CITYFALLEN ANGELS ...................................................155



This study examines Wongs films as cinematic responses to cultural crises and social
transformation that result from colonization, decolonization, and globalization of Hong Kong
through the analysis of the urban space in Wongs six films, As Tears Go by (1988), The Days of
Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express (1994), Fallen Angels (1995), In the Mood for Love
(2000), and 2046 (2004). This project presents fresh insights into the production of colonial and
postcolonial subjectivity and the formation of Hong Kong identity. Wongs six films provide
various historical and cultural accounts that present a cinematic Hong Kong, which grows from
the colonial past into its current status as a global city. His films invoke multiple spatialitites and
temporalities while imagining the past, pondering the present, and anxiously anticipating the
unknown future. An investigation into the cinematic space and the characters relationships with
their surroundings in Wong Kar-wais films reveals how cinematic space embodies social
concerns and issues and how the filmmaker exploits the imagery. This analysis focuses on the
filmmakers construction of space, investigating how these films manifest transformations of
social reality that is essential to the building of local identity but hidden in an otherwise illegible
urban setting that is too complex to understand.
Cinematic space in Wongs films requires close and sustained study because the
construction of urban Hong Kong is closely related to the development of local identity. In
Wongs films, space has a critical role in shaping individual identity, determining who and what
the characters are and what their relations are. Accentuating the importance of space, Wong

Kar-wai asserts, I believe geographical accessibility is a deciding factor for human

relationships (Wong Kar-wai 88). Human geography is one of the directors major concerns.
He exploits urban space as well as human relationships with their physical environment. His
stories are not only about where the characters are but also about how an urban setting shapes
characters and make them who they are. While space is essential in Wongs films, reinventing
the urban landscape has always been Wongs priority in filmmaking. When asked to evaluate
himself as a film director, Wong says: I am an architect who doesnt work on a blueprint
(Chia). Urban space and the way human beings are embedded in their surroundings fascinate
Space is so important to the director that it comes before everything else in his
filmmaking. In his mind, characters social relationships and social practices are always
associated with, or even determined by, the kind of space they are in, and space is inscribed with
historical memory, societal transformation, and cultural difference. Wong reveals that he must
have a location before he can make up a story and decide what type of characters should be
involved in such a setting. Wong says:
the most important thing about the script is to know the place it takes place in. Because if
you know that, then you can decide what the characters do in this space. The space even
tells you who the characters are, why theyre there, and so on. Everything else just
comes bit by bit if you have a place in your mind. So I have to scout locations before I
even start writing. (Tirard 197)
For Wong, space produces characters and stories while also predetermining how the characters
react to the space and their spatial practice.

A brief introduction to Wong and his critical reception is necessary before delving into a
broader discussion of space in his films. Wong is a controversial Hong Kong film director,
whose works are often found puzzling by some yet whole-heartedly celebrated by others. As one
of the filmmakers from the Second New Wave of Hong Kong cinema, Wong rose to
international fame through Happy Together (1997), a film regarding a homosexual couples
adventures in Buenos Aires, which won him the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival
in 1997. As a result, he has been invited to make a number of commercials for multinational
enterprises, such as BMW, Christian Dior, Lancme, Lacoste, and Motorola, and he also made a
music video for American musician DJ Shadows Six Days. In 2006, he was the first Chinese
director named president of the jury panel for the Cannes Film Festival, and his first American
movie, My Blueberry Nights (2007), starring Norah Jones, Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, and Natalie
Portman, made its debut the following year.
Critics have praised Wong for his stunning visual style, expressive lighting and colors,
cryptic shot composition, and skillful incorporation of elements from MTV and popular art. In
Wong Kar-wai, Stephen Teo points out the essential MTV elements in Wongs films because of
the hyped colours and baroque sets as well as the incessant and repetitive movement (158).
Ken Dancyger notices Wongs often fragmented and sometimes illogical narrative structures, his
subversion of traditional genres, and the inspiring incorporation of music in order to create
desired mood among the audience.
However, Wong is notorious for shooting films without finished scripts, his endless
improvisation, and obsession with exhausting every narrative possibility, all of which often result
in an exceedingly lengthy filmmaking process that risks falling far behind schedule. Whats

more, although Wongs works are usually considered art-house films and widely applauded,
most of them have been box office failures.
Critics have taken various approaches to Wongs works. For instance, David Bordwell
focuses on the directors creative choices in composing stories, which challenge and destabilize
conventional genres. Elizabeth Wright praises Wong for his stunning visual style, often credited
to Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle and Hong Kong art director William Chang.
Scholars such as Y Wong also look into the films postmodern features, such as parody and an
omnipresent sense of rootlessness in addition to his preoccupation with dates and numbers.
Some see Wong as a formalist in that he focuses more on film form than content, which might
imply that his narratives lack depth of meaning and complexity.
However, some applaud his film form by seeing it as a creative way to express feelings.
Peter Brunette remarks, His depth, and thus the real source of his power, can be found on the
surface (xvi). Ackbar Abbas in his most influential book, Hong Kong: Culture and Politics of
Disappearance, an observation of Hong Kong in the moment of transfer from the British
colonial rule to its postcolonial era, argues that Wong Kar-wai as a Hong Kong filmmaker, far
from being apolitical and superficial, conveys the experience of disappearance by depicting
social changes and calling into question the visual (mis)representation of the Hong Kong. While
other scholars are drawn by the directors fascinating blend of Chinese culture and Western
techniques, Stephen Teo, who writes extensively about Hong Kong cinema, seeks out Wongs
local influences as well as his literary debts to writers from various nations.
Many previous analyses of Wongs films have focused on the filmmakers obsession with
temporal experience through recurring close-ups of ticking clocks and wristwatches in addition
to expiration dates, deadlines, and specific dates from the past. Because of the filmmakers

preoccupation with time, Tony Rayns describes Wong as a poet of time (Sight and Sound 12),
while Ewa Mazierska and Laura Rascaroli call him a psychologist of time. This obsession
with time is interpreted by many as a response to political, social, and cultural transformations in
Hong Kong. Stephen Teo says that the ticking clock is an obvious allusion to the 1997
syndrome (Hong Kong Cinema 195). Similarly, Peter Brunette explains, the ticking clock, in
Wongs films and the films of other directors, became a natural metaphor for all the fear and
anxiety attached to this change (22).
However, other scholars oppose these readings. Bordwell, for instance, argues, To treat
these lovelorn films as abstract allegories of Hong Kongs historical situation risks losing sight
of Wong Kar-wais naked appeal to our feelings about young romance, its characteristic
dilemmas, moods, and moves (280). To him, Wongs fundamental interests lie in love, loss,
and memory rather than serious political issues.
Despite this plethora of commentary, critics do not pay sufficient attention to Wongs
vision of Hong Kong and his cinematic space. Ackbar Abbas is one of the few critics who
examine urban space in Hong Kong and its representation in film. He argues that the experience
of the period in Wongs films is the experience of the negative. In his article the Erotics of
Disappointment, Abbas points out,
More than any other Hong Kong director, Wong conveys in his films a particularly
intense experience of the period as an experience of the negative; an experience of some
elusive and ambivalent cultural space that lies always just beyond our grasp, or just
beneath our articulations. (41)
For Abbas, Hong Kong in Wongs films is space of desire (48) and the secret of that city is
not power, but impotence (48). Abbass discussion of Wongs films set in the 1980s and

onward remains a part of his larger project on Hong Kong culture. He shows that Wongs three
films set in and after 1988 present a city that is marked by shared postmodern and postcolonial
While Abbas provides insights into Wongs depiction of Hong Kong, Wongs films show
the audience multiple urban spaces whose complexity clearly deserves a more thorough
investigation. More importantly, Abbas does not include Wongs 1960s films in his discussion
of space and cultural identity of Hong Kong. This practice of leaving out the colonial past and
only concentrating on the present displays a lack of a strong sense of local history in previous
research on Hong Kong, which is problematic in any serious study of Hong Kong culture and
local identity.
Wongs 1960s nostalgia films are essential to the study of Hong Kong identity. The word
nostalgia, according to Fred Davis, means remembrance of things past (6). However, nostalgia
deals with not just the past but, most importantly, the present and even the future. It is indeed a
process of rewriting the past in contemporary culture by projecting the social consciousness onto
the representation. According to Davis, nostalgia is one of the meansor, better, one of the
more readily accessible psychological lenseswe employ in the never ending work of
constructing, maintaining, and reconstructing our identities (31). In the case of Hong Kong, as
the 1997 handover was approaching, Hong Kong residents faced the possibility of discontinuity
in their sense of who they were. The expression and experience of nostalgia helped them
reaffirm their sense of history by looking back and finding comforts in the bygone days among a
more familiar environment. Janelle Wilson suggests that the experience of nostalgia functions to
restore meaning and identity in life: Nostalgia, in its ability to facilitate continuity of identity,
can help to provide a sanctuary of meaninga place where one feels she knows herself; where

identity has safe harbor (10). Nostalgia restores the sense of identity by allowing us to escape
to the familiar and seek sanctuary from the past.
It is my argument that looking at Wongs 1960s and 1990s films as two critical stages of
the formation of local identity because one cannot fully understand his construction of 1990s
Hong Kong without knowing his 1960s Hong Kong. In the book Hong Kong: the Anthropology
of a Chinese Metropolis, Grant Evans and Maria Tam point out the importance of the 1960s:
Hong Kong before the 1960s was a transit lounge for good as well as of people, not the
ultimate place to settle in or to be identified with (58). Many social transformations took place
in Hong Kong during the 1960s. These changes separated Hong Kong from the rest of China
because, due to the economic development of Hong Kong, the local people no longer depended
on China for any guidance. Seeing the 1960s as the watershed in the history of postwar Hong
Kong, Wong Kar-wai says in an interview: I am very fond of this period of Hong Kong. This is
a very special period. We started in 1962 and ended in 1972. It is ten years. The reason we
want to end in 1972 is because in the 1970s Hong Kong looked totally different. People, their
behavior, how they dress, how they look, how they eat, and how they live is extremely different
from 1962 (On Film). Concerning the formation of local identity, Tam continues, For those
who could afford to among the first generation of local born, their search for a modern identity
thus took off in the 1970s (58). The 1990s is the decade when Hong Kong residents
confronted identity crisis at the dawn of retuning to mainland China. Facing the fast
disappearing colonial past, Hong Kong in the 1990s was characterized by a strong sense of
nostalgia, anxiety, and even fear.
With all these discussions in mind, one can see that more questions remain to be
answered. My analysis of Wongs cinematic construction of Hong Kong is an attempt to answer

some of the following questions: How does the directors cinematic city problematize the
unsettling reality of contemporary Hong Kong? How do these films reflect the anxieties and fear
that result from the cultural and social situations besetting Hong Kong from the 1960s
onwardsthe 1967 riots, the 1970s social reforms, the emergence of local identity, the ending of
colonial history, the1997 handover, and the adjustment of social relationships to the fast pace of
economic development? How do they investigate the disappearing cultural identity of Hong

Space and Wongs films

In Space, Place, and Spectacle: the Crisis Cinema of John Woo, Tony Williams argues
that John Woos films made after 1986 constitute a crisis-ridden apocalyptic cinema influenced
by geopolitical concerns, mainly the 1997 handover. Williams shows that the cinematic space in
Woos films exhibits an unprecedented sense of identity crisis. Tony Mitchell explores the
themes of diaspora and dislocation with emphasis on Hong Kong as a space of transit in
Autumn Moon (1996), a film directed by Clara Law, who was born in Macau but grew up in
Australia. Wong Kin Yuen investigates how Hong Kong inspires the futuristic cityscape in films
such as Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, and argues that the future cities in these films share
the ambivalence, elusiveness, fragmentation, and decadence of Hong Kong, a colonial city that
heralds the future for contemporary capitalist cities in its predominant racial and cultural
In Abbass conceptualization of the new Hong Kong cinema, space plays a vital role.
Filmmakers such as Wong Kar-wai, Ann Hui, Stanely Kwan, Tsui Hark, and John Woo, he
asserts, all belong to the new Hong Kong cinema, which emerged amid the new political and

cultural dilemmas stemming from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatchers visit to China in
1982 for the purpose of discussing lease agreements with the Chinese government. Following
the idea of Gilles Deleuze that new cinematic images emerged as a response to historical change,
Abbas argues that the history of Hong Kong is implicated in topological and spatial relations:
One of the features of new Hong Kong cinema is its sensitivity to spatial issues, in other
words, to dislocations and discontinuities, and its adoption of spatial narratives both to
underline and to come to terms with these historical anachronisms and achronisms: space
as a means of reading the elusiveness of history. (Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of
Disappearance 27)
According to Abbas, people in Hong Kong try to stay detached from history to protect
themselves from the shocks of potential radical changes. However, history cannot be simply
ignored as it persists in the city space. A new approach toward understanding the city, Abbas
suggests, is to study Hong Kong history through spatial relations.
Even when Wongs films, such as Ashes of Time (1994) and Happy Together (1997), are
not set in contemporary Hong Kong, they still reflect the concerns associated with it. The film
Ashes of Time is loosely based on the martial-arts novel The Eagle Shooting Heroes, written by
Hong Kong writer Louis Cha. The story takes place in the wild west of Middle China during the
13th century. Although the film does not seem to have the least connection with Hong Kong,
many critics read it as an analysis of postmodern Hong Kong. For instance, Curtis Tsui
although the film is set during an undetermined medieval time period, many of its
narrative elements are decidedly postmodern, a social condition which cultural theorist

Fredric Jameson argues is the central characteristic of late capitalism, in which moral
judgments are irrelevant or at least inoperative. (101)
The protagonist, deprived of love, becomes an assassin who makes his living by preying on
peoples hatred. Wongs lack of moral judgment on this character draws attention to the impact
of consumer capitalism on cultural values and social relations. The desert, therefore, can be read
as a metaphor of Hong Kong in late capitalism since the desert and contemporary Hong Kong
seem to be characterized by the same wilderness and despair and both force residents to push
their limits in order to survive.
The same is true with Happy Together, which was released right before the handover in
1997. The gay couple, Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-fai (Toney Leung), escapes
Hong Kong to start over in Buenos Aires. However, as they become stranded in the latter, their
relationship changes. Eventually, Lai has to return to Hong Kong alone. Throughout the film,
Buenos Aires remains alien and almost featureless to the Chinese characters. Wong explains,
[Happy Together] was not about Buenos Aires, but was somehow more related to Hong Kong
(Ong). An Argentinean story turns out to be a reflection on Hong Kongs colonial past and
postcolonial future through exploring the themes of sexuality, masculinity, and identity.
Further, Wong is not the only one who is intrigued by the fantastic city landscape; Hong
Kong urban space is also a major concern of his cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who has
worked with Wong in six of his films. In an interview with CNN, Doyle says:
In my job you look for a response to the spacewhat we just went through or what we
live inand as a person who is not of Chinese origin I think the point about why we
engage with a city is that we see it with different eyes and our need is to celebrate that.


How do you respond to a city? You respond emotionally I think. (Q&A: Christopher
The cinematographer understands his filmmaking as a response to the everyday life in the city,
and his own relationship with the surrounding space contributes to his aesthetics. His gaze in
Wong Kar-wais films is an emotional and celebratory response to Hong Kong and brings
attention to his outsider status, which, instead of hindering his enjoyment of the city, provides
him with a fresh perspective on it.

Space and Theory

In recent years, architecture, city planning, and landscape design have enriched film
studies, a tendency invigorated by the trend of spatial turn (Warf 27). Scholars have focused
on space as an interpretive framework for understanding human existence and social relations.
In the 1960s, spatial turn swept across a wide range of disciplines, including both the social
sciences and humanities, corresponding to the fast processes of urbanization and globalization.
It represented a major shift in critical focus from temporality and chronology to spatiality and
geography. A few thinkers, such as Henry Lefebvre, Michel Foucault, and Edward Soja, have
made convincing arguments that space matters.
Lefebvre and Foucault were the first to renounce the practice of privileging time over
space, an approach that they believe only led to the neglect of space. They brought attention to
the important role of space in global capitalism. According to Lefebvre, space is a social product
that is ideologically charged and culturally produced. Lefebvre argues that (Social) Space is a
(social) product the space thus produced serves as a tool of thought and of action, that in
addition to being a means of production it is a means of control, and hence of domination, of


power (26). For Lefebvre, space is not passive, neutral, or a pre-existing given. On the
contrary, it is an on-going production of social relations that are active and constantly changing.
Lefebvre believes that space is a stage for the exercise of power. More importantly, according to
him, space is not only political but also ideological. While dominant ideologies influence the
social production of spatiality, space, in return, reinforces or shapes ideologies because
production of space is subject to human interventions and their perception of space (Production
of Space).
Michel Foucault is also deeply engaged in the discussion of space. He is especially
interested in the organization of space in realms of power and politics. Based on the examination
of the exclusion of the leper and the confinement of mental patients as well as criminals,
Foucault argues that space, such as prisons, hospitals, and asylums, is fueled with violent power
struggles. Acknowledging that power struggles are inscribed on space, Foucault points out:
A whole history remains to be written of spaceswhich would at the same time be the
history of powers (both these terms in the plural)from the great strategies of geopolitics to the little tactics of the habitat, institutional architecture from the classroom to
the design of hospitals, passing via economic and political installations.
(Power/Knowledge 149)
By accentuating the important role of space in power relations, Foucault asserts that the
twentieth century is, above all, a time of space, an epoch in which people are defined precisely
through their relationship with spatiality.
Similarly, Edward Soja contends that in the last hundred years, historicism has unduly
privileged history over geography, which has caused the neglect of spatiality in critical theory.
To challenge this problematic attitude toward space, he encourages the development of spatial


consciousness among intellectuals. He concludes, We are becoming increasingly aware that we

are, and always have been, intrinsically spatial beings, active participants in the social
construction of our embracing spatialities (1).
Fredric Jameson also writes extensively on space and on architectural discourse in
particular. In response to the alienated city and the lost sense of place described by Kevin Lynch
in The Image of the City, Jameson proposes an aesthetic of cognitive mapping, which seeks to
endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system
(Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism 54). Jamesons extensive
examination of the hyperspace of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles
functions as an exemplary work of cognitive mapping of the hotel and the city outside.
Jamesons observations on Taiwanese cinema are especially useful in my discussion of
Hong Kong urban space in Wongs films. Jamesons The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and
Space in the World System explores the representation and interpretation of space in mass media.
He provides examples of cinematic urban space in late capitalism and examines how cinematic
space allegorizes our sense of place as postmodern subjects. In Remapping Taipei, Jameson
focuses mainly on The Terrorizer (1986), a film by Edward Yang, who is a highly-acclaimed
director from the Taiwanese New Wave. Jamesons article showcases the prevailing hybrid
identity constructed through the presentation of plurality of urban spaces. Yang is often
compared with Antonio Antonioni because of their common obsession with urban landscapes
and depictions of alienated life with an urban backdrop. By juxtaposing Yangs film with others
such as Blow-up and Orphe, Jameson applauds Yangs effective ways of using different types
of spaces to define contemporary Taipei.


Through the examination of Yangs Terrorizer, Jameson concludes that one exclusive
characteristic of the spatiality of this film is the insistent relationship it establishes between the
individual space and the city as a whole (The Geopolitical Aesthetic 153). According to
Jameson, Terrorizer creates the urban space as sites of confinement from which the characters
are driven to escape. Although the male characters have access to public space and are therefore
spatially mobile, their female counterparts, such as the novelist and the Eurasian prostitute, are
imprisoned in apartments owned by men or in anonymous hotel rooms. For instance, the
dwelling space of the Eurasian girl, in which her mother locks her, suggests her identity in
society. Jameson explains, It marks a peculiar intensity of ressentiment which is surely not
unrelated to her socially marginal status and to the exclusion of half-breeds from traditional
Chinese society (as from most other traditional societies) (The Geopolitical Aesthetic 138). In
Yangs cinematic Taipei, the individuals dwelling spaces, although often on the upper stories of
buildings, for Jameson, function as cubicles that open onto the city and the street in one way or
another, and which are somehow incomplete and spatially parasitic upon it (153). Reading the
national allegory into Yangs multiple cinematic spaces from the traditional, the national, the
multinational, and the transnational, Jameson concludes that all figure or embody the
unevenness or inequality of the world system (154).

Space and Film

Film is a combination of spatial and temporal arts. As early as 1911, at the beginning of
film history, Riccioto Canudo announced in his manifesto The Birth of a Sixth Art that cinema
will be a superb conciliation of the Rhythms of Space (the Plastic Arts) and the Rhythms of
Time (Music and Poetry) (Abel 59). Similarly, Haig Khatchadourian in Space and Time in


Film notes, Space and time are primary organizing or structuring principles of a film; indeed,
in different ways space and/or time are organizing principles of all art, just as they provide the
basic framework of the world and of subjective reality (British Journal of Aesthetics).
Although the division of spatial arts and temporal arts is somehow outdated and highly
controversial, it is indisputable that film is spatial.
Film as a cultural product is an object of interest for the study of space and spatialization.
Film is spatial the same way sculpture, architecture, and painting are. One of the most
fascinating attributes that distinguish film from other art forms is its ability to capture objects in
motion through spaces and therefore give spatial representation to movement. It creates spatial
illusion on the screen that lures the audience into believing the world in which the stories are set.
In Cinema and the City, Mark Shiel illustrates the essential role that space plays in cinema: space
in reality helps the construction of cinematic space while films in return shape the space in
What is important to my discussion is Shiels conceptualization of two sets of
relationships between space and film: Space in films and films in space. The former, namely
filmic space or cinematic space, according to Shiel, includes the space of the shot; the space of
the narrative setting; the geographical relationships of various settings in sequence in a film; the
mapping of a lived environment on film (5). The latter primarily deals with films influences on
urban society, as well as its production, distribution, and marketing in certain locations.
Examining the cinematic space in Wongs films is an investigation of space in films.
Space in films, or cinematic space, is what can fit into a three-dimensional scene with light and
shadow, and it constitutes the fictional world that lures the viewer into believing its reality,
which is largely influenced by elements such as mise-en-scne, camera angles, lenses, lighting,


and music. This analysis of Wongs cinematic space involves the investigation of all these
elements that constitute the filmmakers cinematic city.
By analyzing spatial representations, this study investigates what is not articulated in
Wongs films: the desires muffled by conformism, social anxieties, and individual aspirations.
Analyzing Wongs cinematic city helps to articulate this repressed desire, which is absent in the
grand narrative of the success story of Hong Kong. Drawing from his own immigrant
experience, the filmmaker reinvents the city and creates a very subjective version of Hong Kong.
Wongs cinematic Hong Kong is more than a mere setting for action. Understanding the spatial
organization in his films helps to unravel what is hidden under the disguise of the characters
seemingly ambiguous attitudes toward their surroundings.
Wongs cinematic space is important because it is not a neutral site. As a matter of fact,
it embodies ideologies. In A Mapping of Cinematic Places: Icons, Ideology, and the Power of
(Mis)representation, Jeff Hopkins explains the essential role of cinematic landscape, which
reflects ideologies as a product of culture, political system, and social customs:
The cinematic landscape is not [] a neutral place of entertainment or an objective
documentation or mirror of the real, but an ideologically charged cultural creation
whereby meanings of place and society are made, legitimized, contested, and obscured.
Intervening in the production and consumption of the cinematic landscape will enable us
to question the power and ideology of representation, and the politics and problems of
interpretation. (47)
Hopkins contends that the cinematic space is not a neutral setting for stories but has its own
important role in deciphering the codes of contemporary cultures and ideologies.


The cinematic landscape in Wongs films expresses what is not said in the ostensibly
personal romances, which might appear to be apolitical. Spatial organization changes as a
response to the development of the identity of Hong Kong, which is interrelated with political
and economic issues and social transformations. The 1960s and the 1990s are two critical
periods in the developing local identity in Hong Kong. The sense of local identity among its
residents started to emerge in the late 1960s. As a result of the industrialization in the 1950s, the
economic development in Hong Kong during the 1960s helped it become one of the four Asian
Tigers along with Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea. Hong Kongs economic success boosted
the local inhabitants confidence in the colonial system and further separated Hong Kong from
the mainland China. In the 1990s, the approaching 1997 handover of Hong Kong threatened the
very existence of local identity, and many artistic representations of Hong Kong during this
decade showed great concerns about Hong Kongs unpredictable political future.

City and film

Historically, film has been fascinated by urban space and city life. The Lumire brothers
filmed across Liverpool in 1897, the very second year after motion pictures made their first
appearance in public. Many audiences come to know cities through films before they have
contact with physical or material ones. Great filmmakers, such as Walter Ruttmann, Woody
Allen, and Hou Xiaoxian, are often associated with the cities they depicted in the films.
The cinematic city is never merely a backdrop for actions in that it changes the city and
our perception of it over the course of time. The relationship between cinema and city is best
illustrated by Walter Benjamin in his The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical


Our tavern and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad
stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film
and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now,
in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling.
With the close-up, space extends; with slow motion, movement is extended. The
enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was
visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject.
(Illuminations 236)
Benjamin celebrates the power of motion picture, which changes our perception of urban space
that is revealed or extended by the camera as well as our experience of the city. This new
technology at Benjamins time turns the passive and powerless urban residents into active
travelers and adventurers.
Jean Baudrillard is also fascinated by the nexus of cinema and city, and he notes that in
this media-laden postmodern world, media shapes our experience of reality and involves us more
deeply with an artificial world that simulates a lost reality. We are so preoccupied by the
simulacra that, to us, the simulations are no less real than the reality they simulate. Commenting
on the relationship between celluloid U.S. cities and those in reality, Baudrillard observes, The
American city seems to have stepped right out of the movies. To grasp its secret, you should not,
then, begin with the city and move inwards towards the screen; you should begin with the screen
and move outwards towards the city (America 56). According to him, one first experiences an
American city through its cinematic representation. In other words, the representation of city
precedes the represented.


The representation of Hong Kong in Wongs films destabilizes and subverts the grand
narrative of this city. Instead of following the hegemonic representation of the city as a capitalist
success and economic miracle, Wong focuses on characters that are not included in the metanarrative of the success story. In The Hi/stories of Hong Kong, Esther M. K. Cheung argues
that histories of Hong Kong, framed by British historians such as Nigel Cameron, Alan Birch,
and Frank Welsh,
pay very little reference to various kinds of miseries produced by modernity
(exploitation, alienation, uneven development), not to mention the history of pre-colonial
and rural Hong Kong or the history of everyday life that embody many historical
anomalies about which the Hong Kong grant narrative cannot absorb and silence. (565)
In this context, Wongs urban narratives attempt to rewrite Hong Kongs history through
depicting everyday life, which is largely ignored by the British historians. In his cinematic Hong
Kong, Wong articulates the alienation, miseries, and the suppressed desires of the marginalized
characters. Rather than taking a god-like view of the city from an aerial level and seeing only
the economic success, Wong starts his story from down below and gives voice to the silenced
and the oppressed.
The filmmakers down below viewpoint depicts the urban experience of Hong Kong,
and the true knowledge of the place comes from the inside rather than the outside. Michel de
Certeau argues that looking down upon the city from a point high above transfigures the viewer:
It transforms the bewitching world by which one was possessed into a text that lies before
ones eyes. It allows one to read it, to be a solar Eye, looking down like a god (92). According
to Certeau, in a text created from the ground-level:


The ordinary practitioners of the city live down below, below the thresholds at which
visibility begins. They walkan elementary form of this experience of the city: they are
walkers, Wandersmnner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban text
they are able to write without being able to read it. (93)
Wong Kar-wais perception is not distant and above but close and down below. Like Eileen
Chang, a Shanghainese woman writer in the 1940s, who devoted her writing to Shanghainese
urbanites everyday life, Wong gives priority to the politics of the everyday, however
insignificant and sentimental, instead of the grand narratives of nationalism or the rational. This
is where Wong starts his narratives of Hong Kong, the ground-level that concentrates on
individual characters everyday activities in the city.

Hong Kong as a City

Wong Kar-wais films exclusively concentrate on urban space. The construction of
cinematic space in his films is the construction of urban Hong Kong. The development of Hong
Kong as a city influenced and continues to influence the urban space of today.
What is city? The origin of the English word city can be traced back to the Latin word
civitas, which translates Aristotles polis, referring to a city in the sense of a city-state, a selfgoverning political unit comprising one city and its surrounding territory (The Defender of the
Peace xlii). From the definition, it is obvious that autonomy is one defining characteristic of the
However, in Chinese, the word city has different implications. The word for city in
Chinese is chengshi. It is made of two characters: cheng, meaning walled city, and shi, which
means market. It suggests two major functions of city: first, to protect its residents from


outsiders; second, to trade. Nevertheless, as the word has evolved, it has taken on new meanings.
Yingjin Zhang explains the changing meaning of the Chinese concept of city,
Shi has become disassociated from the concept of market and is now increasingly
associated with a large city or metropolis (dushi or duhui), particularly treaty ports and
commercial manufacturing centers such as Shanghai or Guangzhou (Canton), where
industry and trade seem to matter more than politics and culture in the modern era. (The
City in Modern Chinese Literature and Film 7)
In this sense, Hong Kong, like Shanghai, is also a city for its significant role in industry and trade
rather than politics and culture. In terms of its administrative system, Hong Kong has been a
semi-autonomous city-state since 1841. It was first under the control of the British and then
became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China after 1997.
Hong Kong is what Robert Redfield and Milton B. Singer called a heterogenetic city.
It is not a place that carries on an old culture and an old order but a place of conflict of differing
traditions, a center of heresy, heterodoxy and dissent, of interruption and destruction of ancient
tradition, of rootlessness and anomie (58). Located in the frontier between the East and the
West, Hong Kong had remained a barren rock, a remote place of wilderness for exiles, and a
small fishing village until 1842, when it was ceded to the British as the Crown Colony. It
eventually turned into a colonial port city, and its economy heavily depended on its role as a
trading port in the British Empire. Unlike most Western cities, which came into being as a
direct result of the Industrial Revolution, the development of technology, and the migration of
rural populations to urban areas, the urbanization of Hong Kong, like many other Asian cities,
cannot be separated from the history of colonization. Deprived of political decision-making,


Hong Kong focused on the development of its economy, and, by the 1970s, it had transformed
into a city of entrepreneurs.
In terms of its political system, Hong Kong is a city-state because the residents share
Chinese cultural identity and form a political entity under one unitary system of government.
Hong Kong comprises 235 islands and one small peninsula from Mainland China including four
major sectors: Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, the New Territories, and the Outlying Islands. As a
city-state, Hong Kong, like Singapore, enjoyed semi-autonomous status as a Crown Colony
between 1841 and 1997. After 1997, it became a Special Administrative Region (SAR), like
Macao, under the rule of the Peoples Republic of China. Hong Kong residents refer themselves
as shimin, which in Chinese means city people, in the recognition of themselves as the
people of Hong Kong in terms of civic identity. This marks them as different from the majority
of Chinese in China, who identify themselves as Chinese.
Hong Kong presents too many issues at once, and there is no easy way to conceptualize it
as a city. First of all, it is a trading port, a former British colony, a former Asian tiger, a
commercial center, a global city, a postmodern city, a world financial center. Further, it is one of
the most densely populated places in the world with a mixture of Chinese traditions and Western
influence. Hong Kong became one of the two SARs of China under the principle of one
country, two systems. This policy for Hong Kong is to have one China but allow Hong Kong to
enjoy its own capitalist economic and political systems for fifty years after the 1997 turnover.
Although Hong Kong is not completely independent politically, it now enjoys a high degree of
autonomy in internal affairs and keeps its own delegation in international organizations,
including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, the Financial Action Task Force, the
Olympic Games, and the World Trade Organization under the name of Hong Kong, China.


Hong Kong cinema and local identity

In this dissertation, identity refers to who Wongs characters are in relation to Hong
Kong, the British colonizers, and the Republic of China. My interpretation of these characters
identity is based on the observation of their experiences in Wongs cinematic Hong Kong in the
1960s, 1980s, and 1990s. As identity is determined by gender, class, and culture, among others,
it has different implications for different people. For instance, the first-generation Chinese
immigrants in the lower spectrum of Hong Kong society, with lower income and no Western
education background, are more inclined to hold on to their roots in mainland China and cling to
a Chinese identity. In contrast, those who are born and bred in the colony, receive Western
education with higher income and more prestigious occupations, tend to resist the Chinese
identity and claim themselves to be Hong Kongnese. Although it is impossible for Wongs
characters to represent every Hong Kong residents struggle with local identity, there is no doubt
that his fictional accounts offer an insight into the actual struggle with local identity in Hong
Since Wong Kar-wai films are part of the cinema of Hong Kong and the question of
identity was not raised by him alone, it is important to know how films about Hong Kong in
general tackle the issues of local identity. Hong Kong cinema, whether commercial or art-house,
as a cultural product has displayed great concerns for local identity, the distinctive sense of
which did not come to public attention until the 1970s. Regarding the important relationship
between Hong Kong cinema and the notion of identity, Teo in Local and Global Identity:
Whither Hong Kong Cinema? observes: if I were to choose one word to characterize Hong
Kong cinema, I would choose Identity. To my mind, Hong Kong cinema is obsessed with the


notion of identity. It is a cinema that constantly asks of Hong Kong people, Who Am I? Teo
gives the example of Jackie Chans film Who Am I (1998), a story about a policeman who loses
his memory, and he has to find out his own identity in time before he is killed. Another good
example is the trilogy of Infernal Affairs (2002-2003) directed by Wai-keung Lau and Alan Mak.
These three films tell one story about an undercover policeman infiltrating the triads and
identifying a mole planted by the same triads head in the police department. Crisis of identity
arises as two moles strive to maintain control: the undercover policeman loses his identity as a
cop and tries to get it back while the mole, promoted to a high position in the police department,
fights to be a real cop.
Abbas contends that new Hong Kong cinema emerged during the 1980s as a result of a
stronger demand for local identity. He observes, [n]ow faced with the uncomfortable
possibility of an alien identity about to be imposed on it from China, Hong Kong is experiencing
a kind of last-minute collective search for a more definite identity (Hong Kong: Culture and
Politics of Disappearance 4). Influenced by Hong Kongs unique geohistorical situations and
the formation of local identity, the new Hong Kong cinema addresses the anxieties and
complexity of political issues through visual images on the screen.
The formation of Hong Kong identity cannot be easily traced since identity is not fixed
but malleable and forever changing. Many scholars believe that the gradual emergence of local
identity in Hong Kong started in the 1960s, a decade in which Hong Kong, plagued by riots and
natural disasters, witnessed a shift in the discourse of identity from a refugee mentality to a
different self-perception as Hong Kong became a permanent settlement. After Hong Kongs
economy took off and became one of the four Asian Tigers in the 1970s, the colonial
government gradually tightened up regulations on Chinese immigration, and, as a result, Hong


Kong was further disconnected from mainland China. Cantonese, the vernacular language of
Hong Kong, took the place of Mandarin and became popular in the mass media. The popularity
of Cantonese contributed to the formation of a local identity. Before the 1970s, local art works
were more preoccupied with the national past and anti-Japanese narrative than anything else.
After the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989, citizens of Hong Kong became anxious, or even
fearful, toward the approaching deadline, anticipating the end of freedoms and wealth and
suddenly felt the urge to look back to their most recent colonial past.
The confusion over identity resulted from the unique and complex history of the city.
Hong Kong, in her transformation from a small fishing village to a modern-day international
financial center, has changed hands and gone through countless trials. In the late eighteenth
century, when European Imperialism reached the East, China, a self-sufficient agricultural
country with very limited needs to import from the outside, gained large amounts of silver from
Europe. In order to stop the trade deficit, British merchants smuggled opium into China against
Chinese law, which led to two opium wars from 1839 to 1842 and from 1856 to 1860. Already
corrupt and weak, in addition to being poorly equipped, the Chinese forces sent out by the Qing
government were quickly defeated in both wars. As a result, the Chinese government was forced
to accept the notorious Treaty of Nanking, which stipulated that the Chinese had to open
additional ports for trade to Britain. This treaty also demanded the cession of Hong Kong to
Britain for one hundred and fifty five years and twenty-one million silver dollars paid to Britain
in compensation for the expenses of the wars and the opium that the Chinese had confiscated and
destroyed. During the Second World War, without adequate naval or air backup, the British
surrendered to the Japanese. As a result of this surrender, the Imperial Japanese administration
ruled Hong Kong for more than three years. In 1982, Margaret Thatcher visited China and


signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration with Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang from the PRC in
1984. This ended more than 150 years of British colonial rule in Hong Kong and transferred it
to the Chinese government.
Hong Kong did not have its own voice in deciding its own fate from the very beginning
of colonial history. Between China and the Britain, Hong Kong is an object, a prize possession,
a negotiating chip in the two nations contest for power. It was rendered without agency in the
process of colonization. Aim Csaire and Robin D.G. Kelly in their book Discourse on
Colonialism point out that the dehumanizing nature of colonialism othered the colonized and
made them an instrument of production (177) to serve imperial expansion. Hong Kong, as
merely an instrument deprived of any participation in politics, lost not only its independence but
also its agency. According to Albert Memmi, the colonized was neither responsible nor guilty
nor skeptical, for he is out of the game. He is in no way a subject of history any morealways
as an object. He has forgotten how to participate actively in history and no longer even asks to
do so (158). Colonial subjects became things that did not have control over their own fates.
Although many Hong Kong Chinese had identified with their ancestors in mainland
China, the city witnessed a shift in their political allegiance from the prevailing nationalism to a
third identity over the last fifty years. This shift has largely been due to Hong Kong emerging as
a melting pot of Eastern and Western influences. The Chinese identity seems distant and
strange, especially among the younger generations who receive Western education and whose
favorite places are cafes and McDonalds. Instead, they identify themselves as Hong Kong
Chinese instead of simply Chinese or British.
Nevertheless, although Hong Kong survived colonial rule and managed to prosper in the
colonial era, the colonized never fully identified with the colonizer. In Rey Chows words, the


Chinese never emotionally consented to British colonialism. For 155 years, they had refused to
forget that Hong Kong was a Chinese city (Hong Kong in Hong Kong Watching the
Handover from the U.S.A. 307). For instance, in Hong Kong, English has become important
next to Cantonese in not only classrooms but also residents daily lives. The popularity of the
English language contributes tremendously to the construction of the local cultural identity.
However, the use of English, the language of the ruling class, is often associated with the
privileged, the colonizer, and the master. A native writer of Hong Kong, Leung Pin-kwan,
recalls his early experience with this language: English is valued as an asset in business, it is
essential in the service professions, yet I am not interested in business English, and I am
uncomfortable watching programs on Hong Kong television teaching English only as service
English (Bolton 200). As the colonial language, English reflects a racial hierarchy, shaping
peoples perception of themselves as well as the world and changing indigenous cultures.
Those who identified themselves as Hong Kong Chinese felt betrayed when the British
denied their right to democracy until 1994. The political reform, which brought to the about-tobe-decolonized Hong Kong by the leaving British colonial ruler, was more of a questionable
parting gift. The colonial British government, represented by the last governor Patten,
introduced democracy in the last few years right before the turnover. This last-minute action led
Mark Roberti to point out, it was not until Britain had formally agreed to return Hong Kong to
China that the Hong Kong government began introducing democratic reforms. China had every
right to feel tricked. Democracy, it seemed, was good for Hong Kong only when the British
were no longer running it (305).
However, the Hong Kong citizens identification with Chineseness is not unproblematic
either. Before the reformation conducted by the colonial administration in the 1970s, people in


Hong Kong were nostalgic about their national past and preoccupied with the possible reunion
with the Chinese mainland. In Hong Kong Cinema: Coloniser, Motherland and Self, Yingchi
Chu explores the development of Hong Kong cinema from the colonial time to the postcolonial
era. He argues that Hong Kong films before 1956 are an integral part of Chinese national
cinema. In the 1950s, because Cold War started and Western forces boycotted the mainland,
Hong Kong cinema turned from a national cinema to a diasporic cinema. It gradually lost China
as its center of attention and turned to the overseas Chinese for new markets. In addition to the
disconnection that already existed because of years of separation, the event of Tiananmen Square
in 1989 further distanced residents of Hong Kong from China and stopped them from identifying
themselves as Chinese. They were now afraid that Hong Kong would soon become a part of
China, ruled by a communist regime. Yash P. Ghai remarks,
It is an identity of ambiguity, traditional and yet modern, which, for example, has been
nourished on the freedoms of Western liberalism but does not fully accommodate it
within its mind set, or is suspicious of communist china yet hurries to make peace with
(even to placate) itperhaps because it is founded on the morality of commerce. (33)
Torn between British and Chinese, the East and the West, colonial and local, traditional and
modern, Hong Kong locals articulated their desire for a localized and hyphenated identity.
The notion of Hong Kong identity in the citys transition period involves an articulation
of the indigenist desire, an active political defiance against the grand narratives of both Britain
and China. In Staging Hong Kong, Rozanna Lilley states, To speak of Hong Kong identity
was an active articulation, a violent gesture, which attempted to compel recognition of the
existence of Hong Kong people, an existence too often viewed as inert and apathetic by other
players on the political scene (284). Given this, it is not surprising that the films of Wong Kar-


wai primarily deal with the issues of identity. He is part of the younger generation in Hong
Kong who lived through this dynamic social transformation. Although Wongs films involve the
past and loss, they observe the world around them from the perspective of a new generation, like
the filmmaker himself, who was raised and educated in Hong Kong. The older generations
nostalgia for the old country is forever lost to the young. To them, the home that their parents
dream of returning to is no more than a dream. Therefore, in Wongs trilogy, Shanghai, his own
birthplace which he left at five, is only a vague memory or perhaps an imaginary place that he
conjured up from the memory of the older generation.

Wongs Cinematic Hong Kong

This analysis of Wongs films is composed of two groups, each of which contains three
chapters. In the first group, the three chapters focus on the modern, colonial, and diasporic space
through examining Wongs 1960s films: Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love and 2046.
The three chapters in the second group concentrate on the postmodern and postcolonial urban
space in Wongs 1990s films: As Tears Go by, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels.
The construction of the cinematic city in the 1960s differs from that in the 1990s films.
Wongs version of Hong Kong during the1960s, dominated by diasporic identity, shows the
characters mostly confined to their private dwelling places, dark and enclosed claustrophobic
spaces. The configuration of space and time unique to Hong Kong revolves around the motifs of
transition, ephemerality, and an absence of local identity. The settings are temporary places for
residence, and forever-moving trains surround the refugee mentality that dominated the city
during the 1960s. The majority of the residents viewed Hong Kong as a stepping stone to
somewhere else. To them, the city is a place that is full of possibilities and often provokes


questions starting with what if. All these produce an illusion of a drifting world forever in
motion. Wongs films set in the 1960s present a liminal identity that is embodied by Yuddy in
Days of Being Wild and Chow Muyun in the film In the Mood for Love and 2046. As Yuddy
imagines Philippines, instead of mainland China, as his place of origin, other characters in Days
of Being Wild are too caught up in their lives to engage in any discussions about their identities.
Similarly, Chow experiences the dispersal of the Shanghainese community in In the Mood for
Love and eventually moves to the anonymous and temporary hotel room in 2046. In these films,
the exterior landscape is simply neglected as there is a noticeable lack of traditional establishing
shots from outside to show the location of the narratives. Although the trilogy takes place in
Hong Kong, there are rarely shots of any landmarks in the city. As a result, Hong Kong itself
does not seem important. These films privileging the interior over the exterior space omits the
location of these works and further accentuates the diasporic identity.
In Wongs films set in and after 1980s, male characters, outlaws and policemen alike,
show more confidence in their relationships with their surroundings. They are more often seen
in outdoor public spaces, chasing each other in the urban space in attempts to take control of the
territory. These characters show strong connections with Hong Kong. For instance, Wah and
Fly in As Tears Go by show their roots in rural Hong Kong, while Cop #223 in Chungking
Express and the killer in Fallen Angel both reveal that they have been educated in Hong Kong.
The cinematic space of the 1960s articulates a strong diasporic identity that was
predominant among displaced Chinese emigrants. The Shanghainese community is one of these
huaqiao (overseas Chinese) groups. From this perspective, Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for
Love, and 2046 deemphasize Hong Kong since the emigrants are still too involved in their past to
see the host city. The camera eye aligns itself with the perspective of these emigrants and


presents a Hong Kong that is obscured by Shanghai. In these films, no establishing shots are
ever used to locate the setting of Hong Kong. The city merely exists as a backdrop and is rarely
However, Wongs films set in the 1980s and 1990s express a distinct Hong Kong
identity. In contrast to the ambivalent imageries in the films set in the 1960s, the cityscape in
Wongs films set in the 1980s and 1990s is unmistakably Hong Kong. Establishing shots
highlight the landscape of the city, distinctive buildings, familiar streets, crowds, and foreign
residents. Characters are more active and more aggressive. They start running around in public
domain, not afraid of being seen in the streets as they fight for control. These characters deviate
from the relatively passive characters in the 1960s films who are never sure of their own places
or fates, avoid crowds, and hide inside their apartments. Also, the 1960s films rarely show
characters embedded in a family structure to suggest their homelessness and rootlessness,
whereas characters in the 1980s and 1990s films often reveal their family connections. For
instance, Ngor is Wahs cousin in as Tears Go by. Faye is her bosss cousin in Chungking
Express. The mute lives with his father in Fallen Angels. In terms of soundtrack, Wong uses
Western music almost exclusively in the 1960s films, yet he utilizes Cantonese songs and
traditional operas alluding to Chinese heritage in his 1980s and 1990s films. Also, in films set in
the 1960s, characters are often seen in temporary dwellings, such as hotel rooms and residential
buildings, from which they soon move; in films from the 1980s and 1990s, characters often have
their own apartments, living in a relatively stable environment.
The cinematic Hong Kong in the 1960s is configured through controlled visual images,
such as fetishized shots of female bodies, to conjure up an ordered world, from the perspective of
the male characters, who are powerless subjects and exilic outsiders. These elements manifest


throughout In the Mood for Love as Su Lizhen, a woman who is trapped in her marriage with an
unfaithful husband, is always seen in her stunningly beautiful cheongsam. No matter where she
goes, she dresses up for the voyeuristic camera eye. The tight dress, on one hand, effectively
enhances the actress sexy figure; on the other, it restricts her movements and reinforces order
and discipline as they are defined from the male perspectives. The fact that the art director,
William Chang, was in charge of clothing design for this film further suggests that men literally
control womens look. In an interview, Maggie Cheung recalls her experience with cheongsam,
saying: It was difficult at first. I wasnt used to it. [The dress] was tight. When you turn your
head, youd feel strangled. The high heels, the hairstyle took four hours. It was hard (Camhi).
Order is eventually restored as Su Lizhen refrains from fulfilling her desires in order to act in
accordance with the responsibilities of a traditional Chinese wife.
This need for control is absent in the 1980s and 1990s films as the female characters are
financially independent and do not dress for men. They work as a flight attendant, a helper in
restaurants, and a killers partner. Ngor in As Tears Go by is seen in plain clothing. Faye
doesnt even look feminine in Chungking Express: she is a tomboy with short hair who always
wears shirts and long pants. Although the female agent in Fallen Angels wears black stockings,
low-cut dresses, and mini skirts, she is more dangerous than seductive. Her gothic look is
associated with destruction and death. She scouts murder spots for the killer. Therefore,
whenever she goes to work, death follows. Also, the scene of her masturbating in the killers bed
further excludes men from her world and suggests her identity as a self-sufficient woman, one
who seeks pleasure independently of relationships with men.
Despite all the dissimilarities, the imageries of Hong Kong in Wongs films set in the
1960s, 1980s, and 1990s share common features. For instance, both groups of films register a


strong sense of transiency, the dominant theme of the moment, which often accompanies a
characters loneliness and desire to belong as a result of the places complex relation with the
motherland, the British colonial administration, and the self. This quality of transiency,
inscribed in the characters displacement and disorientation, reverberates with Hong Kongs
colonial history and the impending postcolonial era. The cinematic space also embodies the
residents lack of a strong sense of local history in addition to their confusion, fear, and anxiety
toward the uncertain present and the unpredictable future. Projected onto the cinematic space,
these fears and anxieties are manifested through an overall unsettling feel associated with the
This poignant sense of transiency is a reflection of Hong Kong as a city of immigrants
where large numbers of migrants congregate, a place characterized by the trajectory of border
crossings. The phrase borrowed placeborrowed time, first used by writer Han Suyin in
Hong Kongs Ten-Year Miracle published in Life in 1959 and later adopted by Australian
writer Richard Joseph Hughes (1906-1984) in Hong Kong: Borrowed Place, Borrowed Time
published in 1968, is the most quoted phrase to describe life in Hong Kong. Under the colonial,
postcolonial, and postmodern condition, the residents refugee and immigrant mentality
produced a strong sense of contingency, temporality, transiency, and ephemerality, which
contribute greatly to the experience of Hong Kong.
Wongs films define and redefine the idea of home as the characters never cease
struggling against their fates, and they only wait to be relocated again. The resulting inner
restlessness is externalized as the characters frequently cross national borders, or escape from
mountain to desert, from inner Hong Kong to outer, or onto some future train. Unlike other
travelers who search for thrills in the exotic world, these protagonists escape there to find solace.


For instance, Chow Muyun from In the Mood for Love has to travel to Angkor Wat to find a hole
in an ancient wall to voice his secrets and pain. Their travel is a flight, and life to them is
divided into different brief stops from which they must soon depart. In some ways, they are not
too different from the legless bird in Days of Being Wild that never stops flying until it is dead.
They voluntarily banish themselves to the foreign and unknown, cut off all the bonds with the
familiar, vent their secrets to a hole, and pretend to move on, yet they are incapable of settling
down comfortably anywhere else.
The imagery of Wongs cityscape resonates with the nature of Hong Kong itself and
accordingly provides ephemeral and often uncertain narratives. The recurring temporary spaces,
such as the tight quarters in In the Mood for Love, the basement in Days of Being Wild, the hotel
rooms in 2046 and Chungking Express, and the back seats of cabs in Happy Together, In the
Mood for Love, and 2046, support the theme of constant motion and sweeping changes. In his
study of Hong Kong in the postcolonial era, Abbas observes:
Hong Kong has up to quite recently been a city of transients. Much of the population was
made up of refugees or expatriates who thought of Hong Kong as a temporary stop, no
matter how long they stayed. The sense of the temporary is very strong, even if it can be
entirely counter factual. The city is not so much a place as a space of transit. It has
always been, and will perhaps always be, a port in the most literal sensea doorway, a
point in between even though the nature of the port has changed. A port city that used
to be located at the intersections of different times or speeds. (Hong Kong: Culture and
the Politics of Disappearance 4)
Abbass observation accurately captures the essence of Hong Kong, which is populated with
people who are always from somewhere else, and they are ready to move again to seek stability


and prosperity in life. In this sense, Hong Kong is a gateway that, for some, signifies possibility,
opportunity, and adventure, but for others, the city may entail chaos and uncertainty.
In the 1980s and 1990s, there is still a strong sense of exile lingering on as the city
became again unsettled by political concerns. Justin Clemens and Dominic Pettman observe that
the city has been cut loose from its previous colonial moorings, and now floats uncannily
between the political grids that link Chinese and British history (131). The sentiments of lone
characters alienated from the mainstream combined with the free-floating feelings typical in the
postmodern era torment Wongs characters during the transition from Britains last colonial city
to a global city. The director was again plunged into another world of turmoil due to the
handover. Urban space in Wongs films set in the 1980s and 1990s continues to be ruled by
uncertainty and is subject to disruption of violence. The sense of rootlessness is only more
prominent through Wongs representation of spaces that are defined by a lack of history and
identity such as the non-place in Chungking Express. The prevailing symptoms of amnesia and
schizophrenia among the characters in Fallen Angels further question the traditional notions of
subjectivity and paint a bleak picture of contemporary Hong Kong.
The construction of such a cinematic space is inspired by both the past as well as the
present Hong Kong. The sentiments among Hong Kongers were complicated and the attitude
toward nationalism and the colonial government ambiguous. Ever since the Qing government
ceded Hong Kong to Great Britain, anti-colonial sentiment had been strong among Chinese in
Hong Kong. Many films and works of literature never stopped displaying their longing for
China and their desires to be reunited with the mainland. The Star Ferry riots in 1966, induced
by the raise of ferry fares, pressed the colonial administration to make changes. As a result of
the anti-government riots, the colonial rulers were forced to change their attitudes and adopt


indirect rule in Hong Kong. The credibility of the Chinese government became severely
damaged because of the negative image of the Communists, formed by two incidents: the 1967
disturbance of Hong Kong and the Tiananmen incident of 1989. Gradually, due to economic
success and steady social development, a local identity emerged among the younger generations
in Hong Kong, which replaced the older generations imagining of the national Chinese
The impact of present political relations, social conditions, and cultural issues on Wongs
nostalgic films and works from the 1990s should not be overlooked. In his 1960s films, the
reinvention of the past is closely related to the political situation in Hong Kong during the 1990s.
In addition to the approaching handover and the strong sentiment of the Fin de Siecle, Hong
Kong also developed at an incredibly fast rate, which caused a rapid disappearance of the things
that people used to know. As part of the search for a local identity, heritage preservation
suddenly became important. Many films follow this trend in the cinema of Hong Kong, such as
Wong Kar-wais trilogy, Stanley Kwans Rouge, Ann Huis Song of Exile, Peter Chans He aint
Heavy, he is My Brother, and Stephen Chows Kung Fu Hustle. All these films, while being
attempts to recall the past by a fusion of past images, actually reflect on the present situations.
One photo of Wong Kar-wai on the cover of Wong Kar-wai, a collection of articles on
Wongs films edited by Jean-Marc Lalanne, best demonstrates the kind of diasporic quality in
Wongs 1960s, 1980s, and 1990s films. In the photo with an overexposed orange color that
indicates a nostalgic overtone, the filmmaker, dressed in black, is sitting in a small room with
minimal furniture, reminiscent of all the sleazy hotel rooms in his films: an iron bed on his left, a
peeled dark-red chair on the right. Wong is seated in front of a bed stand with his eyes covered
by a pair of dark sunglasses. In the picture, the room is an enclosed space without a window or a


door. The only thing that reminds one of the outside world and distinguishes the place from a
prison is the painting of a beacon hanging on the wall few inches above the filmmakers head.
Wong, partly confined and partly protected by this small enclosed space, presses his palms
together and hides a large portion of his face behind them as if he is meditating or praying or
whispering. His gesture reminds one of Chow Muyun from In the Mood for Love. Near the end
of the film, Chow whispers into his cupped hands as he reveals his secrets into a hole in Angkor
Wongs early experiences of dislocation and alienation result in certain pattern of spatial
organization in his films set in the 1960s, 1980s, and 1990s. When asked why geographical
factors play such an important role in his films, Wong replies: For some time, I was totally
alienated, and it was like the biggest nightmare of my life. It might not be conscious, but
certainly I have an intense feeling for geographical upheavals (Lalanne 88). Wong Kar-wais
works belong to what Hamid Naficy defines as accented cinema, which refers to films that
respond to exilic experience with double voices: one articulates cinematic traditions and the
other reflects diasporic traditions. Naficys concept of accented cinema is similar to mulatto or
mulatta, terms used by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to refer to black texts which have two voices:
one utilizes Romance and Germanic languages and literary tradition, while the other articulates a
strong black vernacular tradition. As a way of distinguishing accented cinema from the
mainstream cinema, Nacify states, if the classical cinema has generally required that
components of style, such as mise-en-scne, filming, and editing, produce a realistic rendition of
the world, the exilic accent must be sought in the manner in which realism is, if not subverted, at
least inflected differently (22). The cinematic city in Wongs films is a subjective experience,
in which realism is altered to create a new actuality that reflects an exilic subjectivity. The


filmmaker translates his personal experience of diaspora into films by writing the observations in
his childhood as a new immigrant in Hong Kong onto the filmic narratives.
To divide films according to time, it is necessary to know that there are generally two
conceptions of time in cinema: the time in which the film was made and the time within the
fictional world of the film. Acknowledging the effects of the historical context on films form
and content when it is made, critics such as Stephen Teo and Peter Brunette arrange their
discussions of Wongs films around chronological order. However, this study examines his
films based on the time period in which they are set, i.e., the fictional time. My study will
follow this sequence: Days of Being Wild (1990), In the Mood for Love (2002), 2046 (2004), As
Tears Go by (1989), Chungking Express (1995), and Fallen Angels (1996). With this kind of
arrangement, my analysis aims to unfold an account of the main historical development of Hong
This approach of dividing the six films into two groups is based on the filmmakers own
idea of grouping his films. Wongs films set in the 1960s are three parts of one story, and
Chungking Express and Fallen Angels belong to one unit. In an interview, when asked why he
didnt make a sequel to Days of Being Wild, Wong answers, I think I made it alreadyIn the
Mood for Love and 2046 basically, to me, is like the second part of that dream (Schwartz).
Therefore, when these films are viewed together, one big story is discernible. As a matter of fact,
Chow Muyun from In the Mood for Love and 2046 is also seen in the last scene in Days of Being
Wild. This individual links the three films, which show a clear development of the character.
Likewise, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels are also meant to be one part of a story. Wong


Chungking Express and Fallen Angels are one film that should be three hours long. I
always think these two films should be seen together as a double billChungking
Express and Fallen Angels together are the bright and dark of Hong Kong. I see the films
as inter-reversible. (Ong)
Similar to two sides of a coin, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels represents two sides of
Hong Kong. As Chungking Express shows the audience the bright side of the city, Fallen Angels
attends to the dark side. Seeing the possibility of grouping As Tears Go by, Chungking Express
and Fallen Angels as one unity, Lalanne says: Fallen Angels can at once be thought of as one of
the episodes intended for Chungking Express and as a possible follows-up to As Tears Go By
Further, the look of Hong Kong is consistent throughout Wongs 1960s films, although
every individual film explores a different aspect of the city. The same is true with Wongs
contemporary films. There are different kinds of consistency in the use of music, mise-en-scne,
spatial arrangement, and visual styles that structure the two groups and create different
impressions of the same city. These disparate depictions of Hong Kong in these two groups
delineate changes in the characters attitude toward the city and the progression of their cultural
identities. Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, and 2046 offer a glimpse at an expatriates
life in Hong Kong of the 1960s. As Tears Go by, Chungking Express, and Fallen Angels provide
a view of the image of the city different from those depicted in the first group by offering a
portrait of contemporary Hong Kong as already affected by the signing of Joint Declaration in a
global and postmodern era.
The first part of the dissertation examines the theme of diaspora by investigating spatial
arrangements in Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, and 2046. To explore the diasporic


experience in Hong Kong during the 1960s, Wong employs a series of private romantic
narratives, retrieving the collective native memory of Hong Kong and resisting the official
narrative of success. The protagonists romantic encounters with various women parallel the
struggles of the colonial subject with identity, which are both inscribed in the fluid and open
space that problematizes traditional notions of home, nationalism, and identity. In these films, a
return to the mainland as the motherland becomes impossible, indicated by the portrait of the
central characters that are disconnected from China. The characters turn to the Shanghai
community in Hong Kong or even to a fictional place in the Philippines rather than the mainland
to locate their origins.
The second chapter, The Liminal SpaceDays of Being Wild, focuses on Hong Kong
as a highly imaginative city that is retrieved and reinvented from memory. To the Shanghainese
migrants who are the central protagonists of the film, Hong Kong is absent, and the strong
presence of Shanghai takes its place. This is conveyed through the predominant image of
Yuddys foster mother, a former Shanghainese courtesan, her luxurious lifestyle, and the
Shanghai dialect she speaks. Yuddys struggle for control over his surroundings draws attention
to a strong sense of displacement and loss, which is an integral part of diasporic life. Yuddys
journey to find his biological mother in the Philippines parallels his generations search for
identity. His individual frustration comes to signify his generations failure to locate where they
come from and who they are. The answers to the questions are forever lost in the past. The
metaphor of the legless bird, to which Yuddy repeatedly compares himself, accurately captures
the essence of his generations experience of the city. Because of the uncertainty of the past and
the future, they lead rootless lives that resemble that of the legless bird that flies all the time and
only stops when it is dead.


The third chapter concentrates on the interiors of the apartments within a Shanghai
community, the disappearance of which at the end of the film marks the end of a memorable era
in Hong Kong and gives way to the emergence of local identity. The primary setting of the tight
quarters, dimly lit and windowless, largely restricts the characters movement and puts them
under the close watch of their judging neighbors like Foucaults panopticon. This further
emphasizes the diasporic experience and the expatriates struggle with dislocation and
estrangement. In the Mood for Love, by means of the characters spatial relationship with their
surroundings, reveals the tension and even conflicts between traditional Chinese ideas and
modern Western values.
The fourth chapter explores the relationship between Hong Kongs colonial past, the
postcolonial present, and the future through the film 2046. In this film, while the Shanghainese
identity gradually fades away, the identity of Hong Kong as a melting pot becomes increasingly
distinctive as Chow Muyun leaves the apartment building, moves into the Oriental Hotel, and
mingles with migrants from other places of China who also seek safety and stability amid the
political turmoil in Hong Kong. The major setting is still limited to interior space because this
mingling takes place primarily in bedrooms of the hotel. The films socio-political agenda is
made clear as the title refers to not only Chows neighboring hotel room but also the year in
which chinas one country, two systems policy in Hong Kong will end. As anxiety increases
among residents of Hong Kong while anticipating the arrival of 2046, the cinematic city reaches
new heights of despair and panic, manifested in the characters promiscuous behavior and
aimless wandering across the city.
The second part of the dissertation will focus on Wongs depiction of contemporary
Hong Kong as it is thrust onto the center stage of the world because of the handover of


sovereignty. This causes the citys shift from its colonial condition toward the postcolonial era.
Here we witness a major change in the construction of space from the enclosed interior space in
the 1960s to the characters increasingly active interaction with the public space in the 1980s and
1990s, an apparent indicator of the awakening historical consciousness regarding Hong Kong
identity. Wongs characters are no longer confined to the small apartment rooms but claim more
agency by being involved in the mapping out of the city by physically traveling across it.
The fifth chapter centers on As Tears Go by, a gangster movie in which two criminals are
driven back and forth between country and city as a result of their transgressions into territory
dominated by their rivals. By tracing their dangerous movements across different spaces, the
film follows the conventions of the gangster genre in Hong Kong cinema, presenting the city as a
jungle in which people would not hesitate to resort to all means for more power and money.
However, instead of glorifying and glamorizing the characters as respectable heroes and
rewarding them for observing traditional values, Wongs gangster film has his characters brutally
killed at the end of the film. The deaths of Wongs protagonists preclude their escape or return
to the country, a symbol of innocence and tradition. The deeply troubled cityscape from their
perspectives is a space that is easily threatened by violent disruptions caused by precarious
historical and political conditions.
The sixth chapter, the Global CityChungking Express, examines the conflicts and
tension between global and local in contemporary Hong Kong. The global Hong Kong in
Chungking Express is depicted as a contested terrain, where different races and forces come into
play and compete against each other for power. In the film, Wongs preoccupation with nonplace and the absence of placeless show the directors awareness of the impacts of global process
on the traditional sense of place. Through two cops excessively sentimental love stories, the


filmmaker also presents a new racial order and gender structure in the global space of Hong
Kong. In terms of its visual and narrative styles, the film celebrates changes and encourages
transcultural readings, in contrast to Wongs other over-all bleak films.
The seventh chapter examines the marginal space of postmodern urban Hong Kong
portrayed in Wongs Fallen Angels. It is a nocturnal city that is occupied by outlaws who are
completely cut off from society and whose transgressions of space signify resistance against the
official arrangement of space. Instead of following the official meta-narrative of the success
story of British Hong Kong, Wong depicts a cinematic city that is chaotic, fragmented, and
governed by chance and violence, one characterized by schizophrenic behavior and waning of
affect. It stands in stark contrast to the city depicted in Chungking Express. Although
bombarded with various visual stimuli, the nocturnal city in Fallen Angels does not allow a clear
view of its true self, which is well hidden behind layers of blurred images. The place is a
depthless pit where the characters, suffering from unspeakable depression, are trapped like caged
Although Wongs six films under study are all postmodern to some extent due to the
obvious features of postmodern elements such as ambiguity, nostalgia, fragmentation, and
playfulness, I only deal with the postmodern attributes in depth in the analysis of the film Fallen
Angels. My emphasis on the postmodern culture in Fallen Angels does not deny that postmodern
elements are also notable in Wongs other films. Rather, I intend to point out that the
postmodern characteristics, such as a weakening of historicity and the waning of affect, are most
prominent in Fallen Angels, and the subjectivity shown in Fallen Angels can only be most fully
explained in the postmodern context.


My analysis in this study follows a historical outline of the interconnected relationship

between Hong Kong and Wongs cinema set in the colonial period and the postcolonial era.
Through the examination of Hong Kong in Wongs films, this study investigates how the
representation of the city reflects the transformation of local identity. It is my hope that the
spatial patterns and their relationship with the modern, colonial, postcolonial, and postmodern
life, generated from the examination of Wongs cinematic urban space of Hong Kong, will shed
some light on his other films, such as Happy Together, Ashes of Time, and My Blueberry Night.


In Wong Kar-wais films, the earliest image of Hong Kong emerges in 1962, as
illustrated in Days of Being Wild (1990). Revolving around Yuddys journey of seeking his
biological mother, the film presents the audience with a distinctive diasporic space that is defined
by a strong sense of uncertainty and empherality. Through analysis of Wongs selection of
location, arrangements of mise-en-scne, camera angles, composition, and a careful examination
of important themes such as mother, homeland, and identity, I shall argue that Days of Being
Wild is primarily about a liminal space which best defines the diasporic experience of the new
immigrants in Hong Kong during the early 1960s.
The film, set in 1962 Hong Kong, centers on Yuddy (Leslie Cheung), a Don Juan figure.
Yuddy is abandoned by his mother immediately following his birth and is adopted by Rebecca
(Rebecca Pan), a retired Shanghainese courtesan. Despite her care, Yuddy cannot forget his
biological mother. When Rebecca reveals the whereabouts of his biological mother, Yuddy
travels to the Philippines in search of her. However, as he arrives at his mothers luxurious
residence, she refuses to meet him. Heartbroken, Yuddy decides to leave and never look back.
In the Chinatown in Manila, he turns to alcohol and prostitutes for solace. His self-destructive
behavior eventually leads to his murder on a moving train.
Day of Being Wild is by definition a nostalgic film. Nostalgic film remakes space and
time by creating an imaginary space that is retrieved from the past and reinvented by the
filmmaker. Because it is a reinvention, the representation of the city on the screen is not a


neutral object but the filmmakers own interpretation. Wong admits that his cinematic Hong
Kong of the 1960s is a combination of reality and imagination based on his own memory: the
Hong Kong of Days of Being Wild is set in the sixties, but the society as shown in the film never
really existed like that, its an invented world, an imaginary past (Ciment 39). In nostalgia, the
past is illusory. The reinvented past is a mirage in which things might take familiar forms and
shapes but never fills the gap between what really was and what one wants it to be.
The word nostalgia, originated from the Greek nstos, means return home. The idea
of nostalgia, therefore, starts with the loss of home. When home is lost, nostalgia begins.
However, nostalgia, an emotion lamenting over the home that is lost, does not deal with the past
alone. As it is busy engaging itself with the past, it actively responds to the present need. While
looking back, nostalgia creates new meanings. John Brenkamn explains that home is endowed
with meaning only in ones retrospect and nostalgia marks a yearning to return to where you
never were (226). In retrospect, nostalgia in its desperate attempt to recapture the unattainable
past, or an unattainable object, keeps revisiting the site and makes impersonal things personal. It
is rather a stylized form of melancholy that emerges over objects that are forever lost, and the
past in nostalgia is often idealized.
In Days of Being Wild, prodded by nostalgic desire to return to his mother, Yuddy
imagines the Philippines as his place of origin, his true home. He willingly pictures the
Philippines as a paradise full of hopes and sunshine, which is represented in the film by dreamy
Hawaiian guitar music and slow tracking shots of the tropical forests. The lost mother is the
embodiment of his lost origin. Yuddy keeps dreaming of returning to his biological mother and
true home in the Philippines, which is exactly what Brenkamn calls a yearning to return to
where [one] never [was].


Wongs nostalgic imagination of Hong Kong in the 1960s is immersed in despair and
depression, which makes his vision of 1960s Hong Kong distinguished from that of other Hong
Kong filmmakers. For instance, in Alex Laws Echoes of Rainbow (2007), Hong Kong is filled
with joy and hope during the same period from a childs perspective. Wongs city is associated
with a gloomy atmosphere and often covered by cold colors, such as green and blue, while Laws
Hong Kong is lit up by bright sunlights and warm colors, such as orange and red. Wong uses
close-ups to separate one character from another and deliberately expands the gaps between
people, suggesting distance and alienation. Law, by contrast, uses medium shots and long shots
to include every family member or community member to describe communal life. For Wong,
Hong Kong is a stage for desperate youthful love, but Laws version of the city as a site for
family struggles is, as the narrators mother repeatedly says in the film, half difficult half
Days of Being Wild demonstrates that the construction of cinematic urban spaces is
closely related to the formation of identities, while the inhabitants, through their everyday
practices, give meaning to urban spaces. Seen through the eyes of emigrants, who make up the
majority of Hong Kongs population, the city in the 1960s is a space of transit, evoking strong
senses of displacement, alienation, and miscommunication. Due to the instability of the
environment, the characters are often engaged in border crossings, which results in geographic
and psychological dislocation. To avoid the impact of chaos from the outside world, they
withdraw into themselves. As they become too involved in their own private worlds, the city
appears to be a deserted place, populated only by characters without roots. The diasporic
subjects struggle to negotiate selfhood on a daily basis. The cinematic Hong Kong in Days of
Being Wild is a place where the characters identities are constructed, performed, and negotiated.


In this film, Hong Kong identity is overall ambivalent in that the screen is characterized
by anonymity and banality. When projected onto the screen, the ambivalence manifests in the
absence of usual establishing shots of monuments or any recognizable landmarks in Hong Kong
during the time. Instead, the opening scene starts with a tracking shot in an anonymous snack
shop, which the protagonist casually enters. Life in the city, for the protagonist, is filled with
mundane routines limited to the football stadium and his adoptive mothers apartment.
The image of the nocturnal urban space dominates the screen. The landscape consists of
empty streets, covered by the shadows of streetlights and trees. Other people remaining in the
background are anonymous and most remote. Through the camera eye, the city is depicted as a
labyrinth of anonymous streets and houses. The cinematic Hong Kong is at best a temporary
shelter for all the characters and a most disorienting one at that. The urban space in this film
functions as a metaphor of the fluid nature of diasporic identity.
In the 1960s, Hong Kong experienced large numbers of immigrants crossing border from
the mainland. This influx of people increased the conflicts between the established residents and
new immigrants and tensions between the immigrants and the British colonizer by creating
shortages of water and land, political turmoil, and unemployment. According to Albert Memmi,
economic privilege is at the core of the colonial relationship, and all the policies and laws aim for
protecting the colonizers interest while exploiting the colonized. Those social limitations and
constraints imposed upon the immigrants in Hong Kong made it difficult for the colonized to
identify with the colonizer and to consider Hong Kong a permanent settlement. In Remaking
Citizenship in Hong Kong, Agnes S. M explains:
Constitutionally, the Hong Kong government was accountable only to the British Crown.
While there were consultative mechanisms for a selected elite and charities for people in


need, the disenfranchised majority of residents in Hong Kong were little more than
colonial subjects allowed the privilege of living in a foreign territory. (91)
As the local government only worked for the best interest of the British, the majority of those
who lived in Hong Kong, deprived of right to participate in politics, were treated as colonial
subjects. Since the law did not allow the colonized to be equal with the colonizer, the expatriates
viewed the place and the period as transitional, akin to a bus stop, or a stepping stone to
somewhere else.
For refugees, escaping to Hong Kong to be colonized heightens fragmentation, alienation
and loss, which makes the already traumatizing experience more devastating. In his book On the
Margins: the Art of Exile in V.S. Naipaul, Timothy Weiss links the experiences of exiles with
colonialism and explains, To be a colonial is already to be an exile, for by definition a colony is
a satellite, something ancillary; the colonial lives his unnecessary life in an unnecessary land
(87). Excluded from decision-making by the colonizer and forced to the margins of society, the
diasporas are treated as outsiders and must channel their energy elsewhere. The decision of
staying or leaving largely depends on the political and economic condition of ones homeland
and of Hong Kong, over which the exile has no control.
This profound sense of fragmentation, alienation and insecurity is what Homi Bhabha
calls the unhomely. Drawing on Sigmund Freuds concept of the uncanny, the return of the
repressed, Homi Bhabha proposes the notion of the unhomely, which captures the estranging
sense of the relocation of the home and the world in an unhallowed place (445). According to
him, in the unhomely moment,
[t]he recesses of the domestic space become sites for historys most intricate invasions.
In that displacement, the borders between home and world become confused; and


uncannily, the private and the public become part of each other, forcing upon us a vision
that is as divided as it is disorienting. (Dangerous Liaisons 445)
The unhomely is most common for the victims of spatial and temporal displacement, such as the
colonized, the marginalized, the diasporic, and the exilic, who are caught in psychological and
geographical dislocation. Similar to the women in Bhahbas analysis who politicize their
personal spaces and turn from the world to the home, Wongs displaced subjects also engage in
the project of seeking to find their homes away from their homelands.
This structure of feeling does not involve pining for the lost home; instead, it centers on
making a home in unhomely spaces. This feeling of unhomeliness is best demonstrated in the
character Yuddy, who is consumed by a feeling of loss because of his mothers abandonment.
Underneath Yuddys confidence and exuberance, he has an underlying melancholy, an insecurity
that figures decisively in the construction of his identity as a displaced colonial subject in Days
of Being Wild.
Wongs characters are trapped in unhomely urban spaces, lacking stability and happiness.
Reflected in the narrative, this sense of entrapment shows that each character is entangled in a
certain dilemma. Rebecca withholds information about Yuddys biological mother from him to
prevent him from leaving her. In return, Rebecca is stuck with Yuddy because he is hostile
toward her boyfriends. Although Tide (Andy Lau) wants to be a sailor, he has to be a street
patrol in order to take care of his ailing mother. He sacrifices his dream, pacing up and down the
narrow streets of Hong Kong instead of sailing the sea. Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung) is trapped
in her relationship with Yuddy, although he has already moved on. Lulu (Carina Lau) is caught
in her obsession with Yuddy, although she knows she can never be the only one for him. Zeb


(Jacky Cheung) falls in love with Lulu, but she shuts him out. Everyone is trapped in one way or
another in Hong Kong with no way out.
The lighting and mise-en-scne also create claustrophobic spaces out of urban Hong
Kong. Apartments are filled with too many objects: photos, fans, mirrors, curtains, beds, and
chairs. Rooms are usually poorly lit, and the lighting casts heavy shadows, which give a haunted
feeling to the domestic realm. On the screen, the characters appear trapped among these objects
and shadows. The tinted camera lens, coloring everything with cold green or bluish pigment,
further intensifies the atmosphere of alienation and coldness. Inside the buildings, corridors
become an important motif for the characters predicaments. The first time Lulu comes to
Yuddys apartment, he traps her in the hallway. When Su waits for Yuddy downstairs in the
corridor, the camera shows her reflection in the only bright spot on the mirror, which indicates
her sense of entrapment. Yuddy corners and beats up Rebeccas boyfriend in a small fitting
room in a clubhouse. Even the room of Yuddys mother in Malina is over-furnished, and the
oversized portraits on the walls seem to squeeze the human characters to one corner in the same
The lingering sense of entrapment, powerlessness, and hopelessness is accentuated by the
gloomy atmosphere that envelops in Wongs cinematic city. Diffused low-key lighting and the
use of filter lenses contribute to the melancholy and nostalgic appearance to the environment. In
addition to these visual effects, the tone and color of the settings and costumes express a sense of
mourning over a space that is forever lost in the past. There are no bright colors in the settings
or costumes throughout the film to draw the viewers attention. Wong says in an interview, I
told Chris I wanted to do a monochrome film, almost drained of color. Its a film about
different kinds of depression, and it needed to be very blank, very thin in texture (Rayns 13).


Additionally, the non-stop downpour of rain and the dark alleyways, reminiscent of the dark city
in film noir, present a city that resists easy mapping.
In the cinematic Hong Kong in Days of Being Wild, Yuddy is the colonial subject trapped
in the present. The loss of his origin becomes his excuse to live recklessly and to take a careless
attitude toward life itself. He has neither a job nor any survival skills, living an aimless life
without ambition or a plan for the future. When asked what to do after Rebecca can no longer
take care of him, Yuddy answers, Lets starve to death together. While analyzing the
psychology of the colonized, Memmi explains in The Colonizer and the Colonized:
As long as [the colonized subject] tolerates colonization, the only possible alternatives for
the colonized are assimilation or petrifaction. Assimilation being refused him, as we
shall see, nothing is left for him but to live isolated from his age. He is driven back by
colonization and, to a certain extent, lives with that situation. Planning and building his
future are forbidden. He must therefore limit himself to the present, and even that present
is cut off and abstract. (102)
No matter how hard the colonized try, they cannot completely assimilate and join the colonizer.
For them, life is ruled by randomness, and there is no point of making plans. While riding a train
to escape the Philippino gangsters, Tide complains that Yuddy acts impulsively. Yuddy says:
Didnt you know you would be killed? Every minute people are dying. May be train accident.
How can you predict that?
Yuddys obsession with the legless bird foregrounds this experience of entrapment and
living in the moment. The ability to fly away and enjoy freedom is fascinating to Yuddy. In
one scene, as he dances alone in the apartment, his voice-over describes, In this world there was
a kind of bird without legs. It could fly and fly. When it got tired, it slept in the wind. This kind

of bird could land only once. That was the time when it died. Yuddy romanticizes the tragic
fact that the bird does not have legs and identifies himself with this creature. The Chinese title
for Days of Being Wild is A Fei Zheng Zhuan, which means the legend of A Fei. Although A
Fei refers to hooligans in Chinese, its literal meaning is to fly. In this way, the films Chinese
title highlights the characters desire for freedom, a meaning that is completely absent in the
films English title. Yuddy, the A Fei in the film, is the bird that dreams of flying away. When
Rebecca is tired of Yuddys repeated inquiries as to his biological mothers whereabouts and
decides to tell him everything, she says, you want to fly away, right? You can fly now. Fly as
far as you can. At the end of the film, as Yuddy realizes that freedom is only a dream that he
can never realize, he says, there was a bird, which flew and flew until it died. It never went
anywhere because it died from the start.
The cinematic space is constructed in a certain way to reflect Yuddys predicament of
inability to fly. As the voice-over tells the story of the legless bird, Yuddy, alone in his
apartment, turns on music to dance. In the first shot of the scene, Yuddy watches himself dance
in the mirror attentively and then turns to the balcony. The camera spins from the mirror to
follow him. Yuddy whirls to the left of the screen. In the next shot, instead of watching him hit
the wall because of the rather limited space of the balcony, the camera spins back to the mirror.
In the next match-on-action shot, we see Yuddy, rather than making a u-turn to avoid hitting the
wall, continue to dance smoothly to the very left end of the balcony, which is not supposed to
exist at all. The filmmaker extends the space of the balcony by editing. This visual deception
matches perfectly with the psychology of Yuddy, who, confined to his apartment, dreams of
breaking free of the place in which he is trapped. This moment of willful imagination of
freedom functions as a temporary release from his identity crisis.


The confining nature of the city also manifests through the straining relationship between
Rebecca and Yuddy. In her conversation with Yuddy in a coffee house, she says, if I wanted to
tell you, I would have done this a long time ago. I didnt tell you because I didnt want you to go.
And now I still wont say it because I dont think it is worth to. The tension between her and
Yuddy is amplified in the scenes set in the coffee house and in her apartment. Whenever they
are in one room, they are arguing, except for the scene in which Rebecca is drunk. Second, they
are seldom on the screen together even when they just sit across a table. Their conversations are
filmed in shot/reverse shot, in which only one character is visible at a time. Additionally, the
whistles of boats outside Rebeccas apartment create a space off screen that forms a stark
contrast with the almost suffocating interior shots of Rebeccas residence. As Yuddy makes his
exit, Rebecca stands on the balcony looking back. The next shot directly cuts to Yuddys car
racing into the distance as quickly and joyfully as a caged bird that is suddenly set free.
In Yuddys imagination, Hong Kong, the space of exile, is claustrophobic and as
miserable as it can be, whereas the Philippino island where his mother lives is an open and
inviting paradise. The binary opposition of the city and nature further reinforces the sense of
entrapment, separating the space Rebecca inhabits from that Yuddys biological mother.
Rebecca dwells in a luxurious apartment in metropolitan Hong Kong, while Yuddys biological
mother lives in a big house on a large plantation in the Philippines. Rebecca, who never has a
child of her own, is always confined to a dark, enclosed space in the big city, completely cut off
from nature, indicating her sterility. In contrast, Yuddys biological mother is affiliated with
open spacesgreen, abundant, and living nature. At the beginning of the film, an extremely
long tracking shot shows the green forests bursting with signs of life, accompanied by Hawaiian
guitar music. This location is alluring as it reflects Yuddys hopes and dreams. The true power


of life lies not in the luxurious and expensive apartment in Hong Kong but in the beautiful
tropical islands where his biological mother lives.
The open spaces of the island are juxtaposed with the enclosed space of Rebeccas
spacious apartment, an urban setting full of artificial and meaningless items. In the film,
Rebeccas balcony faces the ocean but the filmmaker refuses to give us the ocean view. The
only scene in which Rebecca and her balcony are shown in relation to nature is when Yuddy is
leaving the place. In this scene, Rebecca stands in the balcony with her back facing the ocean
against the blue and red sky. However, the color of the sky seems so dramatic that it appears to
be artificial and lifeless, in stark contrast to the island on which green plants wave vigorously in
the wind.
The characters construct their reality somewhere else as a strategy to resist their feelings
of entrapment and powerlessness. The resistance lies in the characters mobility and traveling
across borders. For instance, Rebecca looks forward to immigrating to America with an old man
who shows her affection. America, the modern First World, seems to ignite her wildest
imagination as a place where she could have a more fulfilling life than the one with Yuddy in
Hong Kong. In America, she will be loved. As the motif of the mythic bird has suggested,
Yuddy also wants to be somewhere else, even though he has his own spacious apartment and a
flashy car, which gives him no reason to rebel. Yuddy identifies himself with an adventurous
bird that knows nothing but flying until the day it dies, the exact opposite of his own colorless
and dormant life.
Half way through the film, the desires to leave in order to create personal change
materialize into the form of dispersal: everyone is either already on the move or ready to move.
Life is no longer rooted in one place, and everyone drifts away from his or her former location.


Yuddy leaves Hong Kong for the Philippines, Lulu follows him there, Rebecca moves to
America, Tide becomes a sailor and travels around the world, and Su Li-zhen embarks on a new
life without Yuddy. By the end of the film, each character ends up in a new place, which further
draws attention to the sense of instability and uncertainty that characterizes their lives. For a
mobile society like this, settling down and starting families are out of the question. In Days of
Being Wild, Hong Kong is depicted as a lifeboat that is running out of provisions, and everyone
on board wants to be somewhere else.
In this film, tensions between refugees and their surroundings present Hong Kong as a
highly contested space. A comparison between Yuddy and Tide will clarify this point. Yuddy is
a Shanghainese refugee, while Tide is a native Hong Konger. Yuddy is jobless and lives on an
allowance that Rebecca provides, whereas Tide is a filial son who works hard and sacrifices his
own dream for his sick mother. Yuddy represents old money and personifies disorder,
disruption, and irrationality. Tide, by contrast, comes from the working class. Unlike Yuddy,
Tide is rational and compassionate. His job as a policeman is to restore order and peace. Yuddy
and Tide represent the historical conflicts between the wealthy Shanghainese emigrants and the
poor natives in Hong Kong during the 1960s. In an interview, Wong asserts: Days of Being
Wild centers on various feelings about staying in or leaving Hong Kong. I tried to evoke two
different families from the first postwar generation. One is Cantonese and is originally from
Hong Kong, and the other, Leslie Cheungs [character], comes from Shanghai (Rayns 14). The
tensions between Shanghainese and Cantonese emerged when the Shanghainese immigrants
crossed the border and brought not only their families, skills, and wealth, but also their
metropolitan attitude, a chauvinistic belief that people from others parts of China were ignorant
and provincial. However, this resentment was mutual because Shanghainese expatriates self-


righteous superiority irritated people from many other groups of refugees, who showed equal
contempt toward the Shanghainese immigrants in return.
In Days of Being Wild, this tension is manifested through Yuddys and Tides
relationships with their surroundings: Yuddy is often associated with the enclosed domestic
space, yet Tide, the proxy of authority due to his job as a cop, dominates the public space. In
Hong Kong, Yuddy is seen in a snack store, his own apartment, Rebeccas apartment, a dressing
room of a nightclub, and the Queens Caf. The enclosed space, a primary setting for
melodramas, is often related to domesticity, feminization, and emotions. In Cultural Geography,
Mike Crang observes that the gendered geographies of home as a domestic space for women
serve as a prison for men. He posits that:
men and women are cast not only into spatial relationships, but those relationships help
support what the experience of place is, and what it means for a man and a womanthey
are both assigned gendered desires through geography. Such suggests a close connection
between spatial experience and personal identity. (48)
If the space associated with Yuddy defines his identity, he is definitely feminized by the spatial
locations in which he is seen.
In opposition to Yuddy, who is presented in the settings that are rarely invested with
masculinity, Tide, the enforcer of social order, is associated with an outside masculine space that
signifies adventure, freedom, power, and movement. Tide is a privileged individual who is able
to move between the spheres of the city. His job as a police officer is to walk the streets to
reinforce order. Instead of presenting a menacing picture of Hong Kong, the streets, cast in
heavy shadows and sometimes heavy rain, become calm and peaceful when supervised by Tide.
The long tracking shots draw attention to Tides harmonious relationship with the place and


make him an integral part of the urban landscape. The night scenes highlight Tides role as a
strong and masculine protector of the city. He walks, actively observes, and diligently records,
rendering the otherwise illegible urban space legible. His mapping of the city through walking
involves movements that make the control over the territory possible.
Furthermore, Yuddys yearning for control is also inscribed in his confrontation with
Rebeccas lover and his domination of space. While examining the interaction between
characters and the spaces they occupy, Mary P. Wood summarizes the representation of power
relationships illustrated in cinematic space by claiming, In many cases, the characteristics of
place are used as signifiers of character or class. Ritualized male conflict is often expressed as
attempts to dominate space by moving through it in a violent or purposive way, the desire for
control represented by a mise en scne, which contains elements perceived as possible threats
(201). Yuddy finds the gigolo in the changing room and asks him to return the earrings that he
steals from Rebecca. At the beginning of the confrontation, the mirrors that cover one side of the
changing room shows that the gigolo, although cornered, is bluffing and yelling at Yuddy. His
image dominates the screen, and Yuddy is only visible through his reflection in the mirror behind
the man. However, as Yuddy corners the man and begins to hit him, the gigolo falls to the floor.
The power shifts from him to Yuddy, which is made obvious through their positions on the
screen. While striking the man, Yuddys image no longer stays in the mirror but looms large on
the screen with the camera looking up at him from ground level. The gigolo eventually collapses
and disappears from the frame and leaves Yuddys image to dominate the whole screen.
As the male characters struggles are indicated by their relationships with their
surroundings, the powerlessness of the young female characters in Days of Being Wild is
suggested through their lack of space. In the film, the male characters are endowed with places


of their own: Yuddy has an apartment and in the near future inherits Rebeccas place, whereas
streets are Tides territory. Yet young women like Su and Lulu do not have places of their own
and hence are always associated with their workplace or Yuddys bedroom. These are important
indicators of the working single womens poor financial status and low social status at that time,
who are torn between their families and their personal desires for self-fulfillment. As we see in
the film, Su belongs to the small store in which she works as a salesgirl and later the small ticket
booth of a football stadium; Lulu is always seen in glittering costumes in a dressing room at a
dance club.
In the film, both young female characters are defined by their inability to afford their own
places. Womens struggle with space is akin to the writings of Virginia Woolf, the influential
American writer who published a seminal article titled A Room of Ones Own in 1929. In the
article, Woolf stated: a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write
fiction (4). Woolf helped women realize that their independence heavily depended on material
and financial circumstances. In Days of Being Wild, young female characters struggle with
space reflects their lack of independence. Su used to live with her cousin. As her cousin is
getting married and planning to move out, Su cannot afford to rent the place on her own. She
asks for Yuddys permission to move into his apartment. Sus passivity and dependence is
implied in her inability to have a place all to herself. Although Lulu is rebellious, aggressive,
and outspoken, she also shares with Su for lack of her own space. Lulus defiance against the
passive role that the society imposes upon women finds its expression in her strong desire for
space. Lulu has unusual interests in space: whenever she enters a place, she likes to walk around
and inspect the place. The first time she comes to Yuddys place, she carefully examines every
single room in the apartment. When told by Yuddy that his rent is 40 dollars, Lulu exclaims,


My whole family lives in one room and we pay 28 dollars! She is so desperate to have Yuddy
and his place to herself that when asked to give back Sus slippers she refuses and says, I am
not giving anyone anything. Once I step into this place, everything belongs to me!
Furthermore, after Yuddy leaves for the Philippines, she has to go to Rebeccas place and
demands to see the place with her own eyes. When she finishes, in an attempt to hide her
jealousy for not being able to retain such a big place with an ocean view, she tells Rebecca:
Every time Yuddy brought me here, he asked me to wait downstairs. I have always wanted to
see what the interior of this place looks like. [The place] is really just ordinary.
The female characters lack of space is further reinforced visually through Wongs use of
cinematic space, light, and the camera in the film. These young female characters images on the
screen are often obscured by objects such as poles, screens, doors, and fences, deliberately
placed between them and the camera. Su makes a primary example of this. In the scene when
Su senses that Yuddy has no intention to marry her, Su walks away from Yuddy to sit on a chair
in the balcony. A pole in front of her blocks our sight of her face. The camera slowly moves
aside to have a clear view of her but only catches a glimpse of her between the pole on the left
and curtains on the right, which suggests her fragile condition in the scene. Also, when Su
comes to visit Yuddy, she stands outside the apartment looking up with bars between her and the
apartment, which visually indicates her distance and separation from Yuddy. As the clock
strikes twelve, the gate of the building is slowly pulled and shut in a dramatic manner to signify
the closure of her relationship with Yuddy. Standing behind the bars, Su watches Yuddys
window in despair trying to remember the minute when Yuddy first made her his one-minute


The female characters subordinate role and Yuddy as the dominant figure in his
relationship with them can be easily detected in Wongs construction of cinematic space. When
Su comes to Yuddy and begs him to take her back, Lulu is filmed inside Yuddys room. When
Yuddy is talking to Su, Sus black blouse and black hair reduce the significance of her presence
in the scene visually because she blends into the dark background. In contrast, Yuddys white
shirt and the audiences clear view of his face in the foreground help him stand out. When it is
cut to the scene in which Lulu is eavesdropping behind the door, we only see her back as she
stands at the door with her back facing the camera/the audience. In other words, in the presence
of Yuddy, womens powerless status is fully demonstrated in their positions in Wongs
construction of cinematic space.
Furthermore, Wong employs his cinematic space as a reflection of the characters states
of mind. As Yuddy comes all the way from Hong Kong to visit his mother, her denial of any
affiliation with him is reinforced in silence through shots of her dark hiding place. After Yuddy
walks into his mothers house, the camera focuses on a portrait of a woman, slowly pans to the
left, and stops on his mother, who wears a grey gown, the morning color for the dead, in a dark
room watching him from behind the curtains. The scene is almost morbid compared with
Rebeccas well-lit apartment in Hong Kong, which suddenly seems warm in comparison because
of her attachment to him. Yuddy walks away resolutely denying his mother the last chance to
see his face. He says,
On April 12th, 1961, at last, I came to my mothers house. But she didnt want to see me.
The maid told me that she was not there. By the time when I left her house, I knew that
there was someone behind staring at me. But I make sure that I would not turn my head.


I just want to see herto look at her face. Since she didnt give me the chance I would
not give her such a chance.
Suddenly the scene dims expressively, an externalization of Yuddys inner turmoil. With his
back facing the camera, Yuddy makes the final decision that he would never look back. Partly
punishing himself for wanting the mother and partly punishing the mother for refusing to see him,
Yuddy walks into the forest in slow motion. As he continues walking away, the whole scene
becomes dark as if night suddenly falls upon the place.
When the mother refuses to see Yuddy, his despair is not clearly shown through his facial
expression but externalized through the representation of place as it immediately loses its
original tropical charm and suddenly becomes dangerous and uncanny. In this part of the film,
the filmmaker does not present the characters melancholy or anguish as he walks away with his
back toward the camera, determined to avenge himself by not giving the mother a chance to see
him. After leaving his mothers house, Yuddy turns to alcohol and passes out in a deserted street,
where a prostitute robs him of his belongings. The robbery takes place in a dark alley, and
Yuddy seems so vulnerable while lying on the floor unconscious. When Tide comes to rescue,
the long shot from Tides point of view reinforces the threatening image of the other by
standing by passively while watching the robbery take place. Furthermore, in the film, the
Philippines appear to be alien and primitive. To a Chinese audience, among a few shots of the
streets in the Philippines, the building in which the big fight between Yuddy and the local
gangsters occurs seems exotic.
The frantic camerawork of Yuddys last scene in the railway station before his death
leaves the last impression of the Philippines as chaotic and totally out of control. As the camera
swoops into the building, imitating Yuddys drunken yet smooth dance moves, the jazz music


exudes an air of ease, arrogance, and superiority. The camera almost bumps into a pole but
makes a detour by passing a policeman in uniform, who is forcing a beggar to move. The
camera is placed in a higher position, so the local people seem quite insignificant until the
camera finds Yuddy and focuses on him again. After Yuddy goes into a room and leaves Tide
outside waiting, the camera shifts to Tides perspective and focuses on a group of local men as
they make a noisy entrance. Their voices as well as their physical presence quickly dominate the
whole place, while Tide sits alone by the table. The camera fixes its attention upon a middleaged man who fixes his eyes on Tide in a hostile manner, and a swift spin shot from the crowd to
Tide immediately increases the tension. Inside the back room where Yuddy negotiates with the
man who makes fake passports, a mirror hangs on the wall. The small corner of the mirror
greatly reduces the size of the back room, and the reflection of the room in the mirror makes the
actual room seem tinier, filthier, and darker. There is no illusion of control for Yuddy or Tide,
and what is left is the presence of the menacing local people and the threatening space, from
which the protagonists have to escape.
In early 1960s Hong Kong that is marked by loss, the search for identity is invested with
great importance among the characters. Traversing spaces from the affluent district in Hong
Kong to the slums in Manila, Yuddy undergoes a transformation. In Hong Kong, he is jobless
and lives like a dandy. He imagines himself as a descendent from an honorable family, wealthy
and famous. However, when his mother refuses to see him, his dream is shattered and a
fundamental change takes place in him. He is no longer as romantic as before, stops caring, and
becomes cruel even to his friend. In the process, he loses his mother, hope, his beliefs, his
money, his passport, and eventually his life.


Similarly, Lulus identity depends on where she is and whose company she is in. In the
nightclub where she works, she is known as Lulu. On the first floor of Yuddys apartment where
she dances for Yuddys friend, she calls herself Mimi. In Yuddys bedroom, she reveals her true
name to be Liang Fengying.
At the end of the film, the scene in which Yuddy dies on a train passing a bridge is
crucial to the question of his identity. It is unclear where the train comes from or where it is
going. Yuddy and Tide are presumably taking the train to leave the Philippines because Tide
worries about embarking on a ship on time. Therefore, this transit involves a liminal space of the
border, a state of in-between. In Latin, the word limina means threshold, a place that connects
spaces. It is a unique site in which the absolute is suspended, and uncertainty takes over.
Yuddys death in such a liminal space suggests his own liminal identity because he is the one
who never truly belongs anywhere. Unlike Su, Lulu, or Tide, Yuddy doesnt work, so he doesnt
belong to any social group. He is not Philippino since his mother denies any relationship with
him, yet he never regards Hong Kong as his home either. Although he shows slight interest in
following Rebecca to America, America is not his first choice. He only considers the possibility
to go to America when his plan to see his biological mother in Philippines fails. Yuddy dies
before the emigration to America takes place. For Yuddy, there is no homeland, only a place of
origin. As a marginal man in Hong Kong who simply doesnt fit anywhere, Yuddy experiences
his identity as plural, fragmented, and ambivalent, which resonates with the problems that many
Hong Kong residents were facing in actuality at the time.
Yuddys death in such a liminal space does not provide a satisfactory answer to the initial
question regarding his identity. This scene presents an interstitial space because the train on the
bridge is caught in between two places at one time. The use of such a space is a gesture of


deciding not to decide. In his article Deciding to Stay, Deciding to Move, Deciding not to
decide, Wong Siu-lun analyzes the dilemma that people in Hong Kong faced while making
decisions about their identities when they believed in neither grand narratives nor unitary
identities. Some Hong Kongers decided to stay, some decided to move, and some decided not to
decide. Wong argues that identities tend to be multiple and pluralistic. Hong Kong migrants
are keen collectors of passports and nationalities. In order to maximize options and security,
they are seldom content to stick to just one insurance policy (138). The uncertainty about
future and identity is best illustrated in the film as an extremely long shot shows the train moving
on the screen from right to left, a determined movement reminiscent of the passage of time that
will eventually take us all into an equally unknown future.
Wongs urban landscape is not a natural topography but a representation with a specific
point-of-view. It is from the perspective of a diaspora, one who looks but does not see the host
city because of a preoccupation with the homeland. We have to take into consideration the
filmmakers own experience of the city in 1963 when he emigrated to Hong Kong following his
parents at the age of five. To show his concerns about displacement and geographies, Wong says:
It is probable that this has everything to do with my transplant from Shanghai to Hong Kong at
the age of 5. When I got there, I spoke nothing but Shanghainese, whereas Cantonese was, and
still is, the local dialect (Lalanne 88). The experience of displacement and alienation at his
early age obviously influences Wongs later filmmaking.
Contrary to historical reality in which Hong Kong is notoriously crowded, the cinematic
city in Days of Being Wild is sparsely populated, and the resulting social isolation that is intrinsic
to the diasporic experience is reinforced by the filmmakers reinvention of the city by focusing
solely on the main characters. Hong Kong is one of the most highly populated cities in the world


with 155 thousand people per square kilometer (King 6) in urban areas, such as Mongkok,
according to the 1971 census. Whenever one goes into urban Hong Kong, one is immediately
surrounded by thousands of people. However, in Days of Being Wild, Hong Kong is depicted as
an abandoned city in which there are not too many people around.
Wongs representation of Hong Kong in 1962 reflects Yuddys diasporic condition and
an ambiguous space of Hong Kong at the dawn of the emergence of local identity. The sojourner
mentality inscribed upon the urban space defines the place as liminal or interstitial, where there
is no certainty or stability. The feel of the city is conveyed mostly through the depiction of
interior spaces, which are characterized by claustrophobic experience, sadness, loneliness, and
alienation. However, it is important to note that the sense of homelessness in this film is
different from the rootlessness in postmodernist discourse since the characters still long to return


This chapter analyzes Wongs expressive way of using space in In the Mood for Love
(2000) through examining the diasporic life of a Shanghainese community in Hong Kong during
the mid-1960s. The interior shots continue to dominate the cinematic space in In the Mood for
Love, while Hong Kong remains anonymous in the background as the backdrop for events and
actions. Though the diasporic identity prevails in the film, the characters personal struggles
with love and marriage only aggravates their plight of dislocation.
In the Mood for Love is a romantic melodrama that depicts an impossible love between
two neighbors, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chang, whose spouses are having an extra-marital affair.
Suspicious of their spouses illicit relationship, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chang initiate an
investigation. In the process of this investigation, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chang grow emotionally
attached to each other. Because of the ethical concerns of the community, Mr. Chow and Mrs.
Chang decide to suppress their feelings and move on with their separate lives.
Apparently, In the Mood for Love shares some common spatial features with Days of
Being Wild for both films concentrate on interior spaces rather than the outdoor spaces of Hong
Kong. The cities in both films are also characterized by the absence of any recognizable scenery
that distinguishes Hong Kong. This spatial arrangement serves to externalize the characters
inner world and to reflect the lack of local identity in collective memory in 1960s Hong Kong.
To the central characters, Hong Kong, similar to any other anonymous town far away from home,
remains an imaginary city where they find themselves stranded.


With all the references to Shanghai throughout the film In the Mood for Love and the
absence of images of Hong Kong, the film shows concerns about local identity in Hong Kong.
Ackbar Abbas observes, stories about other places (such as Shanghai) within the Hong Kong
mass media are inclined to be parables about Hong Kong (The Last Emporium 17). It seems
that with the exclusive attention on the depiction of a Shanghainese community, In the Mood for
Love is more interested in the memory of Shanghai than Hong Kong, the setting of the story.
Nevertheless, the nostalgia for the lost community is not all about Shanghai; instead, this
nostalgia reflects a memory of the early experience of Hong Kong that Wong cherishes. The
Chinese title for the film Hua Yang Nian Hua, which literally means the years of blossoms,
refers to the prime years of the central characters. However, it could also indicate Wongs most
memorable years in Hong Kong, to which he emigrated as a schoolboy in 1963. Wong says,
I always wanted to make a film about this period, because its very special in the history
of Hong Kong, because it is right after 1949 and a lot of people from China are living in
Hong Kong and they still have their dreams about their lives back in China. (Kaufman)
It is his own memory of Hong Kong, in which the Shanghainese community happens to be
located, that Wong wants to capture and preserve. In Wongs story, Hong Kong is born out of
his imagination of old Shanghai.
In the Mood for Love depicts life in a self-contained Shanghainese community in the
North Point of Hong Kong during the mid-1960s. Under the surface of an almost romantic story,
Wong faithfully records the transitional moment of Hong Kong, which was on the verge of
becoming an industrial city. It is the directors wish to produce a portrait of Hong Kong from his
memory during this period in order to preserve the fleeting past. Wong says, I want to show
people what really these Shanghainese communities are (On Film).


While the cinematic city in Days of Being Wild is defined by the highly mobile characters,
who are all single and constantly cross borders, In the Mood for Love focuses on relatively stable
characters, whose lives revolve around work and marriage. Their daily routines are simple and
predictable: going to work in the daytime, coming back to dine in noodle shops and restaurants
in early evenings, and playing mahjong with neighbors before going to bed. If not for the love
affair and disruption of the 1965 riot, everyone seems to be content.
A brief historical explanation on old Shanghais role in the construction of Hong Kong
cultural identity is necessary before delving into the spatial analysis of In the Mood for Love.
Shanghai migrs made significant contributions to the economic and cultural development of
Hong Kong. In the late 1940s, a massive influx of Shanghainese migrs, including intellectuals,
enterpreneurs, filmmakers, and skilled labors moved to Hong Kong. Kingsley Bolton observes
In the late 1940s, the transfer of Shanghainese industrial expertise and capital helped set
up the labour-intensive low-cost industries, such as textiles, garments and plastics, that
became the major employers in the period up to the mid-1970s. These shanghai migrs
brought with them a cosmopolitanism and cultural capital that found expression in the
film industry, music, food and entertainment in 1950s Hong Kong. (1)
The influence of old Shanghai is important to the construction of Hong Kong cultural identity
because these migrs brought with them not only money and expertise but also a Westernized
cosmopolitan culture that was new to Hong Kong in the 1950s. Stephen Teo describes this
phenomenon as Shanghai hangover or shanghai redone (Hong Kong Cinema 14-39), while
Leo Ou-fan Lee calls it Shanghainization (Shanghai Modern 330).


In recent years, mass media in Hong Kong showed renewed interest in the glamorous
decadence of modern Shanghai, a phenomenon that reveals a deep concern for Hong Kongs
own identity in the pre-handover period. Old Shanghai and Hong Kong are related by their
similar colonial history, capitalist cosmopolitan culture, and similar destinies in the hands of the
Communist regime. Abbas summarizes the connections between the two cities by observing that
For better or for worse, the two cities seemed to have been linked at birth, which makes it
possible sometimes to read what is tacit in the history of one city in the history of the other
(Cosmopolitan De-scriptions 213). Hong Kong films such as Tsui Harks Shanghai Blues
(1984), Stanley Kwans Ruan Linyu (1991), and Lee Angs Lust, Caution (2007) betray their
own fear of loss in the depiction of the former prosperity of old Shanghai. In Hong Kong Art:
Culture and Decolonization, David Clarke argues that Hong Kongs nostalgia for old Shanghai
was handover-related in that it showed a fascination with a city whose past might prefigure
Hong Kongs future: Shanghai was also a modern Chinese capitalist city that had been taken
over by the Communist regime (187). Hong Kong, through its imagination of the golden age
of Shanghai, articulated its own anxiety and sense of loss in its process of decolonization.
Although Wongs romantic melodrama does not take place in modern Shanghai, it
undoubtedly constructs Hong Kong as the other Shanghai with its profound longing for the
glamorous former version of this city. As a matter of fact, Wongs obsession with Shanghai
lifestyle, fashion, music, food, and dialects is so poignant in the film that Hong Kong becomes
abstract and unreal. Leo Ou-fan Lee observes that Wong reveals a fascination, bordering on
obsession, with Shanghai. But for him it is the Shanghai of Hong Kong, the dislocated Shanghai
landers in Hong Kongs North Point, that occupies center stage (City between Worlds 262).
Although Wong repeatedly asserts that he wants to catch the actual mood in this film so he can


bring back to life the past (Kaufman), Hong Kong is indirectly suggested rather than presented in
a realistic fashion. Overwhelmed by details alluding to the Shanghai roots, such as the twentyfive traditional cheongsam that Mrs. Chang wears, the Shanghai dialect that Mrs. Suen speaks,
and the song Hua Yang Nian Hua sung by the famous singer Zhou Xuan, the audience is lured
into a cinematic city of old Shanghai presented by tight living quarters, dark valleys, cabs,
noodle stools, Western restaurants, and exotic hotel rooms.
Wongs preoccupation with the Shanghainese community in 1962 Hong Kong sheds light
on the construction of Chinese identity in Hong Kong. In Wongs description, the early
diasporic life of the Shanghainese community in Hong Kong is fraught with tension partially
because of their dream of returning to mainland China but also because of the unstable social
order. Wong says, In 1997, just before Hong Kong's handover to China, we had to reregister
our identity cards. And I realized that although I had been staying in Hong Kong for 33 years, it
still feels like a permanent vacation, a transition that lasts forever (Camhi). In the past 33 years,
the diasporic life with which he has been familiar will end with the return of Hong Kong to
China. Further, he does not identify himself as one of the mainlanders or the British due to the
hegemonic Western education he received in Hong Kong. In his 33 years in Hong Kong,
diasporic experience and identity were clearly rewritten and reinterpreted over time.
From the perspective of a Shanghai expatriate, the diasporic community, although
situated in a larger socio-spatial network, is an isolated island. In the 1960s, refugees in Hong
Kong were treated as outsiders without any say in policy-making or any claim to the place. This
remained true until the 1967 Star Ferry riots unsettled the government and engendered radical
changes in immigration policies. Aside from the conflicts between the colonized and the
colonizer, exhibited by constant riots and upheavals, tension also existed among the colonized


themselves. The refugees in Hong Kong all spoke different dialects and hailed from various
regions in China with diverse cultural backgrounds. Different groups, distinguished by different
origins and dialects, tended to congregate in different parts of Hong Kong and formed various
associations for financial and emotional support.
Coming from a highly developed metropolitan city, Shanghainese emigrants in Hong
Kong believed that they had a more sophisticated culture and therefore they were superior to
other refugees. Leo Ou-fan Lee in City between Worlds describes popular views among these
expatriates in the 1950s by observing that the Shanghai refugees despised Hong Kong (101).
As a result of this confidence in their superiority, the Shanghainese refused to associate with
other groups in Hong Kong and rejected other cultures. While Shanghainese expatriates
regarded themselves to be superior, other groups also tend to build solidarity on their own sense
of superiority. Guldin GE. coined the term Cantonese chauvinism to describe the hostility of
Cantonese dialect group toward other dialect groups in Hong Kong (27). David Nunan and Julie
Choi further explain: Ethnic Chinese who do not speak pitch-perfect Cantonese will be
considered as outsiders and marginalized (62).
Refugees, instead of focusing on their similar experiences of suffering, concentrate on the
differences, which only further reinforces dislocation and alienation. This is illustrated by Wong
Kar-wais own experience as an immigrant. He recalls, during the period of time in 1962, we
know that you are Shanghainese and I am Cantonese. Sometimes we hate each other. We dont
talk to each other. Shanghainese mother doesnt want her daughter to go out with a Cantonese
boy. It is really strict (On Film). In face of the outside hostility, the Shanghainese diasporic
community from Shanghai had to draw upon itself for support on the grounds of their shared
cultural roots. This is similar to what Benedict Anderson conceptualizes as an imagined


community, whose communion is imagined by people with similar languages, cultural

backgrounds and places of origins, although they do not know one another in person.
In the film In the Mood for Love, the Shanghainese community gives its members a
common identity and a sense of belonging. At the beginning of the film, Mrs. Suen speaks to
Mrs. Chang in Cantonese when the latter comes to visit. The conversation proceeds in efficient
and appropriate manner, and the two seem polite yet distant. When Mrs. Suen discovers that
Mrs. Chang is also a Shanghainese, she becomes overjoyed and comfortably converses with Mrs.
Chang in the Shanghai dialet. When Mrs. Chang is about to leave, Mrs. Suen insists on seeing
her off to show her fellowship, exclaiming that We are both Shanghainese! In contrast, after
the Shanghainese community disappears, Mrs. Suen doest not even bother to talk to her
neighbors any more. When asked who is living next door, she answers, I dont know. We
never actually talked.
However, to maintain ones Shanghainese identity sometimes calls for sacrifices in
troubled times, and in the film, this sacrifice is linked to suppressing the love between Mr. Chow
and Mrs. Chang. Since shared cultural roots are the foundation of a community, any violation of
expected behavior is a direct threat to the very existence of the community. Mrs. Suen, the core
of the community representing traditional values, has to watch over Mrs. Chang and warns her of
the possible consequences of her misbehavior. As a result, Mrs. Chang has to end her
relationship with Mr. Chow.
Under such circumstances, a Western mode of life is considered contamination. Western
ideas, such as fulfilling individual desires, are unacceptable. In his book Hong Kong Cinema,
Stephen Teo sums up the crucial role that traditional family values play in collective survival
among refugees, noting that Survival meant not merely escaping from poverty, but, more


importantly, doing so with the sacred institution of the family intact. Sacrifice, humiliation and
punishment were foregone conclusions in the battle to preserve the family (62). With this in
mind, it is not surprising that Wongs story culminates in Mr. Chow and Mrs. Changs agreement
to suppress their emotions in order to confirm to traditional values. The romantic involvement of
these two characters must come to an end in order to ensure that the foundation of the
community remains intact. In order to preserve the family, despite the husbands infidelity and
the humiliation that follows it, Mrs. Chang has to make the right decision by not divorcing him,
even if this means she has to live a lie.
Under the pressure of social norms, Mr. Chows and Mrs. Changs internal turmoil is
never fully expressed in words but inscribed in the cinematic space. In the film, Mr. Chow and
Mrs. Chang speak carefully and politely with one another. Their psychic worlds are concealed
underneath superficial and meaningless conversations. For instance, although Mr. Chow and
Mrs. Chang are suspicious about their spouses, to not to lose face, they are never direct about
what is on their minds before they team up for the investigation of their souses love affair. In
one scene, the two are about to open their doors at the same time. In a medium shot, Mrs. Chang
in the foreground is out of focus, whereas Mrs. Chow is seen clearly in the background. Mr.
Chow takes a glance at Mrs. Chang, pauses, and says, I havent seen Mr. Chang lately. Mrs.
Chang answers, Hes been busy with his work. Mr. Chow pretends to be casual and continues,
No wonder I often see you at the noodle shop. It cuts to the next shot with Mrs. Chang in the
background who is now in focus. Mrs. Chang smiles, I am too lazy to cook for my self. What
about your wife? I havent seen her lately. A close-up shows Mr. Chows hesitation, and he
says, She doesnt feel well and goes to her mothers place. Both of the characters figure their
spouses must be spending time together, but neither of them is direct and honest about it. They


have to disguise their true purposes in their seemingly casual conversation. With such a mood of
restraint, the expressive cinematic space provides the only access that we have to the characters
inner worlds. Commenting on the construction of space in this film, Paul Arthur notes, The
narrow passages and cloistered chambers in which most of the action takes place are
subtletropes for the labyrinthine quality of the mind, its ceaseless movement along the same
unending pathways of remembered experience (40-41). Wongs cinematic city is constructed
as a landscape that speaks of anxiety and desires that are well hidden and suppressed under the
surface of beautiful dresses and seemingly tranquility.
For instance, when Mr. Chow invites Mrs. Chang to his hotel room, her cab not only
travels across the town but also traverses moral boundaries. Underneath her red trench coat, a
symbol of passion, is a white cheongsam with dark blue prints, the colors of chasteness and
solemnity. This attire externalizes her inner struggle. On one hand, she is aware of the moral
expectations of her elderly neighbors, who require her to remain chaste in spite of her husbands
infidelity. On the other hand, she cannot resist the temptation of love and suppress her own
desires. In shots of her inside the cab, Wong casts heavy shadows to whittle down the space she
occupies. Maggie Cheungs acting also heightens the characters anxiety with her constant
blinking and touching her lips. When Mrs. Chang arrives at the hotel, the vertigo staircase and
the curious stare of the clerk both add to the tension. Her hasty movement up and down the
stairs and her hesitation on the top floor, organized through rapid editing, present a dysphoric
character, who is tormented by the conflicts between her desires and ethical expectations.
Wongs slow motion also helps to show the characters inner worlds in the film. Unlike
John Woo, who uses slow motion to give aesthetic expression to violence and pain in action
films, Wong employs slow motion to set the overall tone and rhythm, which is essential in his


construction of urban space. Explaining its functions in his film, Wong states in his interview
with Michel Ciment and H. Niogret that There are some details that I wanted to show. The
slow motion doesn't express the action, but the environmentIt was there to capture a certain
space, a certain ambiance (80). Although the director does not specify what kind of ambiance is
created by slow motion, it is not difficult to see its effects. When seen in slow motion, action is
amplified and divided into smaller details, which invites keen observation. Unlike violence, the
brutality and damage of which is often amplified and brought to the foreground in slow motion,
the slow body movements of Mrs. Chang and the slow curls of cigarette smoke both prolong the
action and suggest that nothing changes in the daily routine. However, things do change in these
seemingly repetitive activities in quotidian life. This use of slow motion heightens the central
characters meaningless, repetitive daily routines and highlights their profound loneliness.
In In the Mood for Love, the closed space dominates the characters urban spatial
experience. The closed form, indicated by interior shots, cramped spaces, tight composition, low
lighting, foregrounds the characters poor living conditions, uprooted lives, and their diasporic
identities. In his book An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking, Hamid Naficy
examines how filmmakers with diasporic experience translate their own experiences of
dislocation into films. He suggests two aesthetic forms of space in accented films: open form
and closed form. The former shows outdoor landscapes of the homeland whereas the latter
emphasizes the claustrophobic spaces to which the exiles are confined in the host country.
According to Naficy,
The spatial aspects of the closed form in the mise-en-scne consist of interior locations
and closed settings, such as prisons and tight living quarters, a dark lighting scheme that
creates a mood of a constriction and claustrophobia, and characters who are restricted in


their movements and perspective by spatial, bodily, or other barriers. Tight shot
composition, static framing, and barriers within the mise-en-scne and in the shots
foreground suggest closedness. (153)
This closed form is prevalent throughout Wongs trilogy, especially in In the Mood for Love.
Although there are a few depictions of claustrophobic space in Days of Being Wild, there are
wide open spaces like the Philippines to which the characters can escape. However, in In the
Mood for Love, both public and private realms are closed spaces. Rooms are cramped not by
furniture but by people, whereas city streets are enclosed by walls. For example, at the
beginning of the film, the hallways are blocked by those who help Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chang
move in. The communal living room is crowded with the tenants who come to play mahjong. In
the streets where Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chang act out their spouses roles in the love affair,
medium shots show the two trapped by walls in the foreground and the background. Therefore,
no matter where the characters go, they are forever confined in closed space either by actual
walls or the metaphorical walls constructed by their judgmental neighbors.
The ubiquitous voyeuristic gaze also restricts the characters behavior alongside the
closed form of diasporic space. In the film, both Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chang are being watched.
The camera eye represents a curious investigative neighbor who follows them and watches their
every move. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chang are captured in medium shots or long shots since the
camera eye always has to keep a safe distance from the objects it is spying on. The objects are
observed from the most peculiar positions. A good example is the shot shows Mrs. Changs
slippers on the floor from a camera that is hidden under Mr. Chows bed when Mrs. Chang is
stranded in Mr. Chows place. As a result of this obscured viewing point, the upper half of the
whole picture is blocked by a blanket that is hanging over the bed. Throughout In the Mood for


Love, the camera eye is torn between the desire to see and the fear of being exposed and the
consequent retribution.
This illicit gaze that violates the privacy apparently makes an impact on Mr. Chows and
Mrs. Changs behaviors. Mrs. Chang is the one who internalizes the gaze and becomes her own
overseer. In his study of knowledge, power, and space, Michel Foucault points out, There is no
need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze. An inspecting gaze, a gaze
which each individual under its weight will end by interiorising to the point that he is his own
overseer (Power/Knoweldge 155). Since the neighbors gaze is ubiquitous, the community
wields power and control over its members. Inside the apartment building, Mrs. Chang feels that
she is being watched all the time; she has to exercise extreme caution and avoid being seen with
Mr. Chow. In one scene when the neighbors are away, Mrs. Chang visits Mr. Chow to discuss
martial arts. Suddenly, Gus and Mrs. Suen return home earlier than expected. Although Mrs.
Chang does nothing wrong, she dares not walk out of Mr. Chows apartment like a normal
neighbor would. Instead, she is stuck in his place over night and only sneaks back to her room
when all the neighbors have gone to bed after several hours of mahjong.
Housing problems give rise to the lack of privacy within Wongs diasporic community,
and the ubiquitous gaze blurs the line between public and private spaces. Wong recalls, In
those days, the housing problems were such that youd have two or three families living under
the same roof, and theyd have to share the kitchen and toilets, even their privacy (Tobias 7).
People in the apartment building cannot hide their secrets from neighbors in one of the most
densely-populated cities in the world. Private places are no longer private when the camera eye,
aligning with the gaze of curious neighbors and audience, has easy access to residents


bedrooms. In one scene, as if he becomes aware of the intruding stare of the camera in the dark
hallway, Mr. Chow slams the door. It feels like he just slammed the door in the audiences face.
As private space is no longer private because of the watchful eyes of the community
members, public spaces, where strangers congregate, ironically, become places to express true
feelings. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chang never talk about their private feelings inside the tenant
building. However, in public spaces, such as restaurants, although still cautious, they discuss
sensitive topics regarding their private lives. Also, in a semi-public space inside a cab, the most
intimate moment takes place as Mr. Chow tries to touch Mrs. Changs hand. In this scene,
artificial lights set up the back seat like a small stage to present the characters faces clearly,
whereas the cab driver is completely out of the picture as if the two have the cab all to
themselves. Wong employs a close-up shot to show Chow carefully moving his left hand toward
Mrs. Changs. Also, the street around the corner is the one of the very few places in which the
two dare to hold each others hands.
Wongs use of deep-focus highlights the sense of confinement within the film and shows
that the characters are embedded in their environment as well as their own predicaments.
Because film produces two-dimensional images, it often provides flat and horizontal
representations of space. However, in In the Mood for Love, space is divided into different
planes with clear focus on the action, while the background and/or the foreground is blurred.
This style of camerawork vividly depicts the diasporic life, showing the characters trapped in
their surroundings, from which there is no escape. For instance, Mrs. Chang and Mr. Chow
often role-play as their spouses in the street near their building. The camera watches them from
behind the window. In the scene, the frame is divided into three components: the foreground
window in a blur, two characters in the middle in focus, and the foreground wall in a blur.


Thanks to this clever division of planes, the characters are literally sandwiched between the
window and the wall, which most accurately points out their dilemma. Furthermore, in the
communal living room well lit by a floor lamp, the deep-focus shot shows Mrs. Chang and Mr.
Chow discuss novels. However, the camera stays far away from the room, using the dark
hallway and the lamp inside the room to create a spectacular example of depth of field. These
two characters are embedded in their dark surroundings, and the lamp, probably a symbol of
their romance, gives out light and warmth within an oppressive society.
Overall, Wongs cinematic city is a perplexing space that refuses any easy mapping. It
starts with the confusing floor plan at the beginning of the film when both the Changs and the
Chows move in on the same day. This coincidence creates chaos as the movers keep moving
furniture into the wrong couples apartments and have to redeliver it to the other wing of the
building. The traffic in this enclosed space only adds to the sense of bewilderment. The
building is not only disorienting to the movers but also to the audience. The filmmaker confuses
the audience more by not following a consistent camera position while filming the scenes. In
some scenes, we see Mrs. Changs apartment on the left side of the hall way but in some other
scenes it appears on the right. For a moment, one thinks that he or she knows where the
apartment is located, but in the next minute, one only becomes completely lost again.
Sometimes, contradictions seem to be deliberately placed in the film to confuse the audience.
The sense of disorientation is further enhanced through the characters ambivalent
relationship as Wong plays with the audiences expectations. Between Mr. Chow and Mrs.
Chang, many scenes that show intimacy only turn out to be acts. The seduction and the break-up
scenes are inserted into the film without any warning, which raises questions about whether these
are acts or real feelings. For instance, following the two scenes in which Mr. Chow and Mrs.


Chang dine and take a walk, the next shot shows Mrs. Chang acting seductively, and Mr. Chow
invites her to spend one night with him. In the subsequent shot, Mrs. Chang suddenly becomes
sad and refuses to believe her husband could have initiated the love affair. Maggie Cheung
comments, Everything that [Mr. Chow] and [Mrs. Chang] say to each other can also mean its
opposite. Are they rehearsing their love, or is it real? (Camhi). In other words, things are not
quite what they seem in the film.
The experience of the urban space is proved to be bewildering as the viewers align their
point of view with the standpoint of a little boy, who spies on his neighbors out of curiosity. The
camera eye plays hide-and-seek with the objects on which it spies, and this creates suspense and
mystery as it defamiliarizes the familiar. This standpoint also challenges usual ways of
observing the world. The camera is placed on the eye-level of a child, observing the residents
and surroundings. Since the camera is often hidden behind obstacles and remains distant from
the objects, the characters are more often heard than seen. It is difficult to identify the source of
the voice, and it is confusing as to who is talking to whom and about what. At Mrs. Chows
workplace, there is an oval screen behind which the camera is placed. Shooting from behind the
oval screen, the camera can only see the left corner of the screen. As a result of this vantage
point, in one scene, we see only Mr. Chow but not Mrs. Chows colleague, who is supposedly
having a conversation with Mr. Chow. Besides obstacles, abrupt movements of the camera
interrupt the audiences identification with the camera eye and cause disorientation. The camera
eye is evasive in avoiding direct eye contact, which also denies the audiences identification with
the actors on the screen.
The use of mirrors in this film challenges our sense of space and facilitates a feeling of
disorientation by creating illusions and distractions. The function of mirrors in this film is


different from that in Days of Being Wild. As opposed to a tool for narcissistic reflection,
mirrors in In the Mood for Love play with lights and shadows while showing the audience a city
through a kaleidoscope. One prime example is the hotel scene in which Mr. Chow and Mrs.
Chang work together to write martial-art novels. Inside the hotel room, there is a folding mirror
on the desk. As Mr. Chow is working right in front of the mirror with Mrs. Chang sitting behind
him, the camera eye observes the two from behind Mrs. Chang. The desk mirror creates an
illusion that they are sitting right next to each other, which is impossible in reality. The camera
dances around these two characters. When it is on the left side, the desk mirror shows Chow
watching Mrs. Chang attentively, whereas the reality is that Chow is simply staring at the mirror
thinking about his novel. The mirror draws the two closer to each other in Wongs visual
imagery than what is allowed in their reality. The mirror provides a means to spy on the
characters for the curious neighbors and the audience. In one sequence, when Mrs. Chow finds
out that Mr. Chang does not intend to divorce his wife, she becomes upset and starts to cry. In
the following shot, the camera enters an empty room, but we can hear that someone is crying in
shower. Instead of approaching the shower to find out who is crying, the camera hovers over a
mirror on the wall. In the reflection of the small mirror, we discover that nobody is actually
taking a shower and the woman is simply using the sound of it to cover up her own voice.
Regarding this function of mirror, Thomas Y. T. Luk explains: the audience peeps on the
behavior of Mr. Chow and Lizhen through the mirrors hung on the wallthe director is
interested in showing the contrary effectthe characters are cornered under the pressure of
social propriety and mores (215). Similar to the function of a surveillance camera, mirrors put
characters under close scrutiny. Rather than directly staring at the objects, the camera eye
discreetly observes the community members in the reflections of mirrors.


In the film, stairways also become expressive tools to reveal the characters inner turmoil
and the tensions in their relationships. The stairway between the apartment building and the
noodle shop is a public space where the central characters can escape from the neighbors
watchful eyes and show their loneliness and frustration with their spouses. The narrow and steep
staircases are never wide enough for two people to walk up side by side. Under the dim
streetlights, as Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chang walk up and down the stairs, their relationships
secretly change like plants under misty rain in sub-tropical climate. In Architecture Inside Out,
Karen Frank observes the movement on stairs, Architecture does not simply suggest movement.
It frequently choreographs it, encouraging us to move in particular waysHow clear it is with
stairways: short steps with no landings tell your body to move straight up, no pausing, no
turning (qtd. in City of Women 117). In Wongs film, the flight of stairs leads the tenants
from their apartments to the food stand for wonton soup. Stairs in the city magically enable the
expansion of space vertically, and they are always full of mysteries and suspense.
Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chang meet each other while going out to the noodle stand. This
happens more often when their spouses are absent. A bowl of noodles is a rather quick and
therefore convenient food for single people, and family men are rarely found eating in the fast
food stand. The frequency with which Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chang hit the noodle stand suggests
the crisis in their marriages. Mrs. Chang, according to one of the watchful neighbors, dresses up
even for a short trip to the noodle stand. Her overdress-ness calls attention to her loneliness and
quiet despair.
To add to the sense of confusion and uncertainty, Hong Kong is associated with not only
bewilderment but also moral decline in that most of men are depicted as promiscuous. Mrs.
Chang witnesses the corruption and decadence that prevails in the city, and most of men that she


knows of are promiscuous. Her own husband is having an affair with his neighbor. Her boss is
an old man who secretly keeps a mistress named Miss Yu. Working as a secretary, Mrs. Chang
has to lie to her bosss wife for him and buy gifts for both his wife and mistress. Coincidently,
the bosss double life perfectly mirrors that of Mr. Chang. Also, Mr. Chows only friend Ah
Ping is driven by lust for Mrs. Changs beauty. From Ah Pings conversation with Mr. Chow,
we learn that he once deliberately left his hat in Mrs. Changs office in order to use it as an
excuse to see her again. Furthermore, on one decrepit wall, which Mrs. Chang often passes on
her way to the noodle shop, there are advertisements for gonorrhea treatment and sex tonic. As
these advertisements speak silently to those who pass by, they also present a city of corruption
and decadence, indicated by the loss of innocence, through unspeakable and oppressed sexual
desires linked to shameful venereal disease and sexual incompetence.
The dominant closed form of space eventually gives way to the open space in the last
sequence when Mr. Chow visits Angkor Wat and vents his secrets into a hole in a ruined wall.
The sight of sky, the sun, and the empty monastery in Angkor Wat offers a rather pleasant
alternation and temporary relief from the oppressing built environment in Hong Kong. When
Mr. Chow starts whispering into the hollow, the close-up of him changes to a long shot from a
low angle while the camera spins around him. As the camera continues to move around the
central character, the place is set in motion. Sunrays and the shadows of the ruins dance around
Mr. Chow, which endows an illusion of lightness and freedom.
The film opens with the formation of the Shanghainese community, signified by the
moving-in of the characters families, and closes with the dispersion of this community. The
development of the relationship between the two central characters is affected by the attitude of
the community, whereas the fate of the community is determined by political and economic


conditions in Hong Kong. Mrs. Chang terminates her relationship with Mr. Chow because of the
disapproval from Mrs. Suen, which leads to Mr. Chows escape to Singapore. Three years later,
the whole community disappears due to political upheavals in 1966: Mr. Gu moves to
Philippines, and Mrs. Suen is leaving for America.
The collapse of the Shanghainese community, although considered a loss, makes way for
the emergence of local identity, manifested by Mr. Chows moving out to a hotel room and
mingling with diasporas from other regions of China in the next film 2046. The group identity,
the Shanghainese diasporic identity, fades and individuals start their new search for who they are
as they go to new places. This change is reflected in the construction of cinematic Hong Kong in
2046. Although the claustrophobic space, characteristic of diasporic experience, continues to
dominate 2046, the mood of restrain disappears along with the Shanghainese community. Hong
Kong in 2046 is configured as a landscape of desire, which embodies deeply-seated cultural
anxiety over Chinese governments promise of no change for 50 years. The spatial features in
2046, how they are different from those in In the Mood for Love, and how the interaction
between space and characters affects the construction of identity will be further explored in the
next chapter.


In this chapter, my analysis will focus on Wongs depiction of Hong Kong in the late
1960s. Through examining Wongs representation of the city in its crucial moment of forming
local identity, I shall argue that Wongs construction of the city in the late 1960s reflects the
tensions of the postcolonial present. Through the protagonists experience with the city and his
strong escapist tendencies, the filmmaker further explores the relationship between Hong Kongs
colonial past, the postcolonial present, and the unpredictable future.
2046 (2004) is the last chapter in Wongs 1960s trilogy. The protagonist, Chow Muyun
(Tony Leung), is the continuation of the character with the same name from In the Mood for
Love but with some variations. Chows unrequited love for Mrs. Chang (Maggie Cheung) and his
rugged life in Singapore transform him from a caring family man to a womanizer who adopts a
cynical attitude toward life. He gambles, attends lucullan parties, and beds random women.
2046 is Chows adjacent hotel room, and the future city that he creates during the most
depressing time in Hong Kong history. The future city of 2046 is a place where nothing
changes, and people are allowed to retrieve their lost memories. Chow travels back and forth
between reality and the imaginary place of 2046 in search of answers to questions about the past,
present, and future.
In Wongs 2046, a distinguishable Hong Kong identity begins to emerge, first as it
manifests itself in the symbolic location of Wan Chai to define a sense of place. In the previous
two films, Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love, the location of Hong Kong is


downplayed or simply ignored because both films are set in an anonymous background without
any recognizable signs referring to Hong Kong. However, from the outset of 2046, the narrator
introduces the audience to the place of his residencea hotel room in Wan Chai, a district that
was made famous worldwide by English writer Jacksons novel The World of Suzie Wong in
1957. The emergence of local identity is also emphasized by Wong through bringing to the
audiences attention the old footage of the Star Ferry riot. In Hong Kong history, the Star Ferry
riots mark a critical moment for the emergence of local identity. After witnessing how the leftist
force instigated violence during the riots, Hong Kong residents lost their trust in the Chinese
government, stopped looking up to the mainland for cultural inspiration, and chose to side with
the colonial government. To better show the filmmakers identification with the colony, I will
also compare Wongs perception of the city with Liu Yichangs in the novel The Drunkard, on
which 2046 is roughly based, and show how the differences between the film and the original
text suggest two artists different relationships with the city and how they demonstrate Wongs
assertion of local identity.
While local identity slowly rises to the center stage in Wongs film, diasporic identity
still persists. When the film was made in 2004, Hong Kong was still going through its transition
period of fifty years to the expiration date of the one country, two system policy. The anxiety
of waiting in Wongs reality can be easily detected in the diasporic life of the characters, who are
also trapped in a transitional period in 2046. The sense of instability and insecurity that is
inherent to diasporic experiences reaches a new level in 2046 through the filmmakers
representation of the city in its most chaotic historical moments. The primary setting of the film,
the Oriental Hotel, provides an epitomic example of the in-between spaces, the ultimate form of


transitoriness and liminality. The liminal space of hotel is closely linked to the temporary erotic
love or the lack of long-lasting partnerships among the characters.
Besides the emerging local identity and persistent diasporic identity that coexist in
Wongs cinematic space of Hong Kong in 2046, the film is also dominated by a strong sense of
escapism that is most evident in the narrators perception of the city as a site for erotic love and
his creation of an imaginary future that is opposite to his present time. Akin to the drunkard of
the novel who drowns his conscience in alcohol to protest against rampant commercialization
and excessive materialism, Chow vents his dissatisfaction against the chaos and insecurity in the
society of his time through his candid exploration of sexuality. Juxtaposed with the cinematic
decadent Hong Kong in the same film is the imaginary future city, which reflects the
postcolonial desire for stability yet also problematizes the obsession with permanence in order to
suggest an alternative attitude toward change and uncertainty, which also plays a significant role
in shaping postcolonial local identity.
Before I start the discussion of the emergence of local identity in Wongs cinematic city
in 2046, I shall first address the issue of identity in post-colonial Hong Kong during the time
period when the film was made. Wongs 2046 emphasizes the colonial past and an unknown
future, which stems from the postcolonial present. The film was released in 2004, seven years
into Hong Kongs postcolonial era, a time when local identity was of central concern. As
economic cooperation between Hong Kong and the mainland had greatly increased, many people
in Hong Kong became anxious about losing the uniqueness of the locality amid its integration
into a pan-Chinese identity.
Nevertheless, affected by disparate and conflicting ideologies and interests, even people
from the same community had different perspectives on the power that the economic affiliation


between the mainland and Hong Kong would have over local identity. For instance, in
Postcolonial Hong Kong Cinema: Utilitarianism and (Trans) local, Laikwan Pang dismisses
the possibility of losing local uniqueness and argues that in spite of the nationalization, Hong
Kong cinema still strives for a local Hong Kong identity. According to Pang, nationalization in
Hong Kong cinema is presented as a utilitarian economic survival strategy. Pang claims:
Since the nationalization that Hong Kong cinema is embracing is mainly an economic
one, Hong Kong people would appear not to be giving up but indeed holding more tightly
to a local Hong Kong identity, which serves as a fantasized coherence of the people that
grounds their economic games. (425)
For Pang, although some actors such as Tony Leung, Andy Lau, and Chow Yun-fat opt for a
pan-Chinese identity to appeal to mainland audiences, regional identity still persists in Hong
Kong cinema. For instance, Ronald Cheungs Dragon Loaded (2003) and Johnnie Tos Election
(2005) still present an unmistakably Hong Kong identity by addressing Hong Kongers concerns
in daily life and defending the local voice in the desire for democracy.
While some people in the community hold fast to local identity, others embrace PanChinese identity; the post-1997 era of Hong Kong entails identity crisis. Films directed by
Johnnie To, John Woo, Alan Mak, and Tsui Hark are constantly read as allegories of
postcolonial concerns around national identity. In the article Schizophrenic Hong Kong,
Howard Y. F. Choy argues that the Chinese governments control over Hong Kong involves the
recolonization of the capitalist city despite Hong Kongs quasi-nation status. Choy reads the
main characters identity crisis and split personality in Andrew Lau and Alan Maks Infernal
Affairs trilogy as an indicator of an identity crisis among the natives of Hong Kong. He


[Hong Kong natives] find themselves helplessly trapped in the juxtaposition of the dual
identities of overseas British (as classified and parenthesized in their passports), who
have no right to their adopted country, and Chinese nationals, who have no choice in
determining their own nationality. (53)
For Choy, Hong Kongs reunification with China after 150 years of British rule is not seen as a
return but an internal struggle that causes a schizophrenic identity.
Made in this tension-ridden postcolonial era, 2046 captures Hong Kong in its agonizing
struggle with social transformations and identity. The film is by far the most overtly political of
Wongs films. Although the work was finished in 2004, the director conceived the story in 1997,
the year when the British transferred Hong Kong to China. The Chinese government promised
that the economic and political system in Hong Kong would remain the same for the next fifty
years. 2046 is the last year of that promise. The director explains: The film is about promise.
In 1997, Chinas government promised 50 years of change. And I think, well, I should make a
film about promises. Have things really changed in 50 years? So the film is set in the year 2046;
it is a futuristic film (Kaufman). Inspired by the political agenda, the director explores the
nature of promise and change.
Promise, first of all, is an assurance of continuity against uncertainty and insecurity. It
links the present with the future because making a promise takes place now but the promise is
enacted in the future. While exploring the theme of promise and its central role in human affairs
in On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche asks, To breed an animal with the right to
make promisesis not this the paradoxical task that nature has set itself in the case of man? is
this not the real problem regarding man (1). For Nietzsche, a promise entails responsibility and
conscience, and the faculty of promising distinguishes humans from animals. Hannah Arendt,


inspired by Nietzsches argument, further illuminates the temporal structure of promise. For
Arendt, promise is a mechanism that controls the future, by binding the group together and
linking the individual back to a past from which it began and from which it can begin again
(Lemm 162). Promise has power over the future under unpredictable circumstances if people
remember their promises and are noble enough to keep them.
The Chinese governments promise aimed at assuring a smooth transition of Hong Kong
from Britain to Chinese sovereignty. It promised that the laws of Hong Kong, its current social
and economic systems, and its inhabitants lifestyles would remain unchanged for the next fifty
years. The promise here was to set up a state of unchanging time because the residents of Hong
Kong wanted their current modes of life to remain intact.
However, the promise not to change per se is problematic because it is simply
implausible to deny change. Though human agency cannot stop the world from changing, the
people of Hong Kong feared change before the handover. Wongs 2046 exploits this fear and
attempts to channel it into something positive. While the majority of residents in Hong Kong are
afraid of changes and uncertainty, Wong suggests that change might not be as negative as it
seems. In 2046, through Chow, who is desperate for change, Wong proposes a survival strategy:
if change is inevitable, embrace it. Stephen Teo observes: Wong is really telling his Hong
Kong audience that they should take the opportunity of changeless time to reflect on themselves
and their historyin order to prepare themselves for the great changes that are to come after
2046 (Wong Kar-wai 142). In 2046, the future is troubled by the promise of changeless time.
As others flock to a place that does not change, Chows fictional character Tak wants to leave the
unchanging realm of 2046. Taks desire for change somehow parallels with Chows and Wongs
desires for transformation.


The search for a local identity in Hong Kong has not faded after 1997. Postcolonial
identity crisis not only inspires the making of 2046 but also affects Wongs choices of which
historical events shall be included in the film and how these particular incidents shall be
presented. The film 2046 is set in Hong Kong during the late 1960s, a strife-ridden time defined
by constant chaos and violence in the public realm. The 1966 disturbances and the 1967 riots
reflected a general dissatisfaction over social issues, such as poor living and working conditions
in addition to rampant corruption among law enforcement officers. Nevertheless, it is also a
crucial moment in Hong Kong history in terms of local identity.
In the spring of 1966, a young man named So Sao Chung was arrested for starting a
hunger strike against the fare increase at the Star Ferry terminal. Immediately, his supporters
joined the protest. Violence broke out as some of the rioters set fire to cars and public facilities.
The British government quickly responded and sent troops to the streets. In a few days, the riots
were under control. By 1967, a series of anti-colonial riots, inspired by the Cultural Revolution
on the mainland and organized by local leftists, erupted in Hong Kong. It started as an industrial
dispute but rapidly changed into a violent confrontation between the rioters and the British
government. This anti-colonial action soon involved terrorism, including bombings and
murders. Those who had previously showed no support for either the communists or the colonial
regime now sided with the government of Hong Kong. In Hong Kongs Watershed: the 1967
Riots, Gary Ka-wai Cheung points out, In the aftermath of the 1967 riots, many Hong Kong
people began to treasure the colonya refugee society that served as a haven for those fleeing
from political upheavals in the mainlandas their genuine home (5). In the following years,
government reform helped restore social order and faith, and the subsequent economic
development gave rise to the emergence of local identity.


The late 1960s was a critical time for the emergence of Hong Kong identity since
residents abandoned their hopes of returning to the mainland and decided to stay in Hong Kong
permanently. Before the riots, the majority of population was mainly exiled to this small island
for political reasons, and the immigrants had strong cultural connections with mainland China.
They were against the colonial rule and disgusted by the rampant corruption among the British
police officers. However, the riot in 1967 made people change their opinions once and for all.
Witnessing the damage and destruction caused by the Chinese Communist Party, the firstgeneration immigrants decided that they could no longer return to China and that Hong Kong
was the only choice for their survival.
This historical moment and the consequent identity crisis are reflected in some old
footage of the 1967 riots that Wong uses in his film and his depiction of the city that is
characterized by confusion and commotion. The filmmaker adopts a defensive reaction toward
the anonymous and violent crowds in the footage of the riot. The black and white newsreel
shows close-ups of clenched fists waving in air with revolutionary ardor and anonymous angry
middle-aged men shouting. Soon demonstrations and protests turn to violence as fires, shooting,
and looting rage throughout the city streets. As tension builds up, the length of every shot
shortens, and the cutting speeds up. In a voice-over, Chow reports the whole incident in a
matter-of-fact fashion, while the theme music flares up in a rather high and sharp pitch denoting
urgency and crisis. Following the violent street scene is a close-up of the back of Chows head
in an interior setting, which announces his protest against the chaotic world. The next shot cuts
to a puff of smoke rising from Chow lighted cigarette. With white and blue side-lighting, the
smoke itself appears to be expressive, corresponding to the outside pressure. Heavy stripes of


moving lights cast shadows on Chow, and this effect creates a noirish atmosphere and enhances
the sense of oppression.
Due to the important role that the Star Ferry incidents played in the emergence of Hong
Kong identity, the flashback of these particular historical incidents in 2046 suggests the local
identity that has been sought after by people of Hong Kong since the signing of the Sino-British
Joint Declaration in 1984. Wongs unmistakable interests in this decisive moment of Hong
Kong history in which local identity came into being is further shown through Chows change of
residence from the Shanghainese community to the Oriental Hotel, where people from different
places congregate. Chows choice of residence confirms a new identity that grows out of the
previous Shanghainese diasporic identity as he mingles with other Chinese who are not
Shanghainese. For the first time in Wongs trilogy, the audience sees Hong Kong as a melting
pot. The owner of the hotel, the professional gambler Su, and Chows neighbor Bai Lin are from
different regions in China. The owners daughter dates a Japanese man, who later becomes the
inspiration for Chows science fiction.
The fact that Chow acknowledges the existence of other Chinese migrs who speak
neither the Shanghai dialect nor Cantonese but Mandarin is a big step forward in Wongs
engagement with the construction of local identity. In Wongs experience, these three
languagesShanghainese, Cantonese, and Mandarinrepresent his past, present, and future.
Shanghainese is spoken around the Shanghai area and also within diasporic Shanghainese
communities overseas. It is the language of Wongs emigrant parents but not of younger
generations. For Wongs generation, which has grown up and been educated in Hong Kong,
Cantonese is more commonly used. This point is well demonstrated in Days of Being Wild and
In the Mood for Love. Rebecca Pan in Days of Being Wild, the old Shanghainese woman, is the


only one who speaks perfect Shanghainese, whereas the younger characters all speak Cantonese
even when spoken to in Shanghainese.
Although English and Cantonese are the official languages of Hong Kong, Mandarin,
also known as putonghua, has become popular since the handover. Daniel Kane remarks, Until
recently Putonghua was rarely heard on the streets of Hong Kong. Now it is heard everywhere.
This partly reflects political reality: Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997,
and the official language of China is Putonghua (23). In the film, Su Lizhen (Li Gong), Bai
Ling (Ziyi Zhang), Wang Jingwen (Faye Wong), Wang Jiewen (Jie Dong), and the hotel
manager (Wang Sum) all speak Mandarin.
Wongs use of Wan Chai in 2046 also indicates an awakening of local identity. In Days
of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love, the city remains anonymous and distant since the
characters never reveal their specific locations, and they do not seem to care since they are too
caught up in their own private worlds. By contrast, in 2046, Chow states through the voice-over
right at the beginning of the film: I wasnt sure how long Id be staying [in Hong Kong] so I
took a room in a small hotel in Wan Chai. It is the first time in Wongs trilogy that a specific
location is announced and Hong Kong is no longer an anonymous backdrop. Wah Chai gained
international fame that defines it as a distinctive place in the history of Hong Kong.
Despite the increasing attention to local identity, diasporic identity still prevails in 2046
with the sense of dislocation clearly manifested through its settings. Spaces such as train
compartments and hotels rooms are the thresholds that link the homelands of the diasporic with
their unknown destinations. These two major settings in 2046 provide recurring motifs of exile
in general. Inhabitants of these spaces are suspended from their normal lives until they get to
their final destinations. The potentialities associated with these places often make the inhabitants


involuntary flneries. While examining the characteristics of Russian exiles in Vladimir

Nabokov: The Russian Years, Brian Boyd asserts that exile is a mere locus of movement, or at
best a station where people only kill time between a place they remember coming from and a
destination they do not know (246). Trains and hotel rooms in Wongs film serve as spatial
metaphors for the diasporic life and its characteristic indeterminacy.
The Oriental Hotel, for example, involves a free flow of individuals coming and leaving,
which characterizes the hotel by mobility and contingency. In 2046, the hotel is a microcity
inside Hong Kong that represents its extremely mobile population and unstable social structure.
Different people take turns to inhabit the room next to Chows in a short period of time: Lulu
(Carina Lau), Faye, and Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang). Wongs hotel room resembles Siegfried
Kracauers hotel lobby in terms of the fleeting relationship between space and the visitors. In
The Hotel Lobby, Kracauer compares the anonymous crowd in the hotel lobby with the
congregations of church:
The hotel lobby accommodates all who go there to meet no one. It is the setting for those
who neither seek nor find the one who is always sought, and who are therefore guests in
space as sucha space that encompasses them and has no function other than to
encompass themLacking any and all relation, they drip down into the vacuum with the
same necessity that compels those striving in and for reality to lift themselves out of the
nowhere toward their destination. (175)
These guests are strangers whose pasts and futures are unknown to one another. When Chow
lives in the hotel room, he is not sure of his future. This uncertainty is reminiscent of Wongs
own experience as an exile as he recalls that, we were always prepared, as kids, that we would
move on, to somewhere else or back to Shanghai. There was no sense that you belonged to this


place or city (Camhi). The diasporic life typically juxtaposes displacement from the familiar
with the constant emergence of new spaces.
Ironically, these spaces promise liberation yet they produce random and fleeting
relationships. For Chow, the hotel is free from responsibility or family ties, and the place only
engages highly mobile people. Although he always becomes involved with his female
neighbors, they come and go. Lulu used to live in room 2046, but she is stabbed by her
boyfriend the night she meets Chow. Faye moves in but soon moves to Japan when she marries
a Japanese man. Chows encounter with Bai Ling is short and tragic, and because of her
unrequited love for him, Bai Ling has to escape to Singapore to start over like Chow did in In the
Mood for Love.
This in-between space, best illustrated in the Oriental Hotel, is portrayed as entrapment.
The use of 1:66 Cinemascope in 2046 highlights how the characters are stranded in their
environments by greatly amplifying space inside the frame and squeezing the characters into
small corners on the screen. Teo asserts that Wongs use of the scope aspect ratio creates depth
and mystery because characters composed close to the edges leave vast shadow and space to fill
in the rest of the frame and, with the help of light and shadow, characters are placed off center
to activate the space that surrounds them with mystery and depth (150). By filling the actual
space between characters with more space through the use of Cinemascope, Wong further
separates the characters and keeps them apart to suggest the great distance between them.
Furthermore, Chows entrapment cannot be more explicit as the hotel room that he inhabits used
to be a jail for political prisoners. Wong says:
Hong Kong is a small city. All the space is very limited. To shoot with a cinemascope is
looking for troubles. We are going to shoot the film with a cinemascope in the small hotel


room, which used to be a prison for political criminals in 1960s. Everything is vertical
and very narrow. For [Christopher], it was extremely hard since there is no way to put the
light. Everyone has to squeeze in one corner. Cinemascope is wide and horizontal. I
want to show that this character [Chow] is trapped in this space. (Lan)
The lens amplifies the space between characters to show how they are close to each other
physically but far apart psychologically and how the characters are caught in an empty space.
The main character Chow in 2046 is based on the protagonist of Hong Kong migr
writer Liu Yichangs The Drunkard (1963), the first stream-of-consciousness novel in modern
Chinese literature. The narrator of Lius novel, a disillusioned writer, is a Shanghainese
immigrant who lives in 1960s Hong Kong in which capitalist modernization is affecting every
line of life. Appalled by the prevalent values of commercialization of everything in Hong Kong
society and disappointed in love, he chooses to become an alcoholic in order to escape reality.
The protagonist is extremely poor, struggling daily to make ends meet yet he still aspires to be a
serious journalist who writes political pieces. In order to pay rent and have a regular alcohol
supply, he has to give up his dream and dignity to write martial art and porn fiction, the mass
popular literature that he considers far below his taste. Eventually, disheartened by the
dehumanizing commercial society and stripped of hope in love and fulfilling his ambition, the
writer attempts suicide. However, when his plan fails, he decides to start a new life.
The different between how Liu and Wong depict Hong Kong is critical to understand
what identity politics each adapts. Hong Kong in Lius novel is an alien city, a state that is
repeatedly indicated in the drunkards memories of Shanghai and his severe criticism of Hong
Kong society as a cultural desert which is simply not sophisticated enough to appreciate high art.
The drunkards perception of the city is closely related to Lius own experience as an exile and


an outsider to Hong Kong city. Hong Kong was never Lius first choice but a concentration
camp of various evils (crime, philistinism, venality, prostitution) (Stanley 161). After spending
several years in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Liu was forced to return to Hong Kong after the
newspapers he worked for was shut down. In the article Liu Yichang and the Temporalities of
Capitalist Modernity, Lo Kwai-Cheng describes,
[Lius] return was not a journey towards home, but merely a return to the city that he
originally had no wish to stay. So what he was practicing in his stories was a distanced
reading of this city, which he could only read through the isolation of detachment, by not
being a part of it, by being for once an insider who was also an outsider. (168)
Lius outsider status is further suggested through the depiction of his protagonist, the drunkard,
as a helpless victim of circumstances trapped in Hong Kong who can do nothing but kill himself
to stop the pain. By describing himself as a victim who passively suffers from all sorts of plights,
the narrator denies any possibility of agency and regards himself as a victim rather than the
producer of history.
Probably due to the fact that Lius experience with Hong Kong is different from Wongs,
Lius drunkards relationship with the city differs from that of Wongs character Chow. Liu and
Wong came to Hong Kong in a different time period. Despite two artists common
Shanghainese background, Wong moved to Hong Kong in 1963 at age of five, whereas Liu
immigrated to Hong Kong in 1949 when he was thirty. Based on different life experiences, these
two artists developed different perceptions of the same city. Hong Kong is just a host city for
Liu, but it is a home for Wong. Lius original story takes place in 1963 but Wong starts his story
in 1966 to include the 1966 political riots. As Liu laments on the loss of the motherland, Wong
sides with the colonial government by allowing his point of view to follow that of the authority


in the old footage of the riot. In the short film documenting the riot, apparently positioned
behind the policemen, the camera films everything from across the rioters, who appear to be
irrational and out of control on the other side of the streets. Furthermore, Wong ignores Lius
characters internal struggles with his outsider status, his ambition with high art, and his
relentless attack on the commodification of everything in Capitalism by attributing all the
characters suffering to his personal loss of the former lover. Lastly but not least, Wongs Chow
is not depicted as a helpless victim but an aggressive womanizer, whose pervert voyeuristic gaze
is always set upon the girl living next door. Living in a suite in the Oriental hotel, Chow is more
of a listless playboy than a disheartened intellectual as impoverished as Lius drunkard who
always has problems with having enough money to pay rent.
Similar to the drunkard in Lius novel who, as an outsider to his surroundings, can do
nothing about reality but seeks mental distraction through alcohol, Chow also adopts a
pessimistic and passive attitude toward his private life and the society of his time. Chows lack
of deliberate effort to change the realities of his life and confront his sense of anxiety and
dislocation are demonstrated through his similar act of escapism in 2046, though not primarily
through drinking but sex.
The decadent cinematic Hong Kong in 2046 shows the protagonist Chows relationship
with the city and how this relationship shapes his identity. The city is decadent, rapacious, and
squalid from the perspective of Chow. Chows perception of Hong Kong in the late 1960s as a
decadent city has political implications. In terms of using a profligate city to convey a political
message, Chow shares his experience with the writers of decadent literature in Shanghai during
the 1920s. Hu-mei Shihs observation on decadent literature from Shanghais colonial period


sheds light on Wongs graphic eroticism. To illustrate the political meaning of this tradition in
Chinese literature, Hu-mei Shih notes in The Lure of the Modern:
Decadent literature was an expression of the hypersensitive moderns pursuit of sensual
stimulation, which was a form of escape from but also a kind of protest against the world,
toward which they harbored profound sadness and disappointment. In this specific
historical moment, even escape could be construed as a form of protest, since alienation
from society often indicated the individuals sense of nihilism towards undesired social
transformation. (112)
The works of the decadent writers in Shanghai articulate dissatisfaction with a society that is
characterized by injustice and corruption.
In a similar fashion to this literature, Chows Hong Kong is defined by the obsession with
excessive sensual stimulation, and his voluntary self-alienation in times of trouble is an active
protest against undesirable reality. It is the unspeakable profound sadness and disappointment
of which the eroticism in the film 2046 tries to speak. Through eroticism, the film 2046 explores
repressed emotions and tackles sensitive topics such as corruption and moral decline.
In the construction of the decadent city of Hong Kong, Wong also follows Richard
Mason in his novel The World of Suzie Wong by emphasizing the licentious, pleasure-mad, and
corrupt aspect of the city. The district of Wan Chai in particular was first made famous
internationally for the interracial romance between a Hong Kong prostitute, Suzie Wong, and an
English artist. The novel, written in 1957, was made into a Hollywood film in 1960 with Nancy
Kwan as Suzie Wong and William Holden as the male lead. Both the novel and the film The
World of Suzie Wong chronicled the new service economy in addition to the reemergence of
the sex industry in Hong Kong. They helped encourage Western mens fantasies of the Orient as


a paradise for sexual adventures with Saigon, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Hong Kong as exotic
spectacles for Western voyeurism. Wan Chai, located on the northern shore of Hong Kong
Island, is still famous for prostitution. In Streets: Exploring Hong Kong Island, Jason Wordie
recommends Wan Chai as a must-see attraction:
The international reputation of Wan Chai as a raunchy nightlife zone developed in the
postwar period and became legendary during the Vietnam War, when large numbers of
(mainly) American servicemen came to Hong Kong for R&R (Rest &Recreation)also
irreverently described by some observers as I&I (Intoxication and Intercourse). (104)
In mass media, Wan Chai is constructed as a site full of sexually charged desires and fantasies.
Ironically, when put into the film The World of Suzie Wong, the real site of Wan Chai in
the 1960s didnt seem to live up to the expectations. According to David Leffman and Jules
Brown in Hong Kong and Macau, this red-light district in reality was not sleazy enough to meet
the white mens imaginations: When the film was made in 1960, Wan Chai itself wasnt
deemed to be photogenically sleazy enough, filming taking place around Hollywood Road
instead (85). Hollywoods filmic representation of Wan Chai as a red light district was
apparently successful, and the myth about the Hong Kong hooker with a heart of gold lingers on.
In both the novel and the film, Wan Chai continues to entice men from all over the world who
want to explore this exotic aspect of Hong Kong.
It is obvious that Wan Chai is not only a white mans fantasy but also Wongs. Wong
was aware of the story of Suzie Wong in Wan Chai when he made 2046. Suzie Wong was the
filmmakers fantasy from childhood, and the space with which she is associated, such as bars and
clubs, were part of Wongs environment. Wong found the brooding environment and the
dancing girls alluring:


After I first came to Hong Kong from Shanghai, I was living in Tsimshatsui, an area
frequented by girls who were generally known as Suzie Wonggirls who worked in the
bars entertaining sailors arriving on those battleships. There were lots of bars and clubs
in that area which was my world at that time, and I was very much attracted to this sort of
sleazy establishment. (Lalanne 84)
With full awareness of the story of Suzie Wong, the filmmaker aimed at recreating a similarly
sleazy space for his male character in 2046.
To best capture Wan Chai in 2046, Wong uses the color red as a way of creating an erotic
feel for the place. This expressive color that often dominates the explicit sex scenes, which are
absent in Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love, creates an atmospheric landscape of
desire in 2046. In other words, the space of Wan Chai is sexualized, implied by the prevalence
of the color red. In the nightclubs, pubs, and restaurants where characters seek pleasure and
company, everything is red.
In one scene, a shot shows clearly a nightclubs hallway lit by red lights that extend all
the way into the distance. The depth of the hallway resembles a gigantic open mouth of a
monster that devours people that walk into it. In a close-up shot of the foreground, a bargirl is
soliciting a man in an attempt to lure him into entering the place. As the couple walks farther
into the other end of the hallway, Chow and his friends approach the foreground. Everyone
dresses up: dancing girls in alluring cheungsam, male clients in black western suits, and gigolos
in sparkling outfits. Everyone is dallying with everyone else and exchanging insincere
compliments with strangers. The whole sequence is shot in slow motion, and this flow of images
lends a sense of drunkenness to the scene. At the same time, human voices are drowned out by
the deep despair in Shigeru Umebayashis Polonaise, which enhances the apocalyptic feel.


The highly-sexualized character Lulu, the same dancing girl from Days of Being Wild,
always appears in spaces illuminated by red lights. The entire scene in which Chow and Lulu
run into each other after their last encounter in Singapore lasts thirty-six seconds, and it is all in
red. When Chow comes back to check on her, she has already been stabbed by her boyfriend,
and her place is covered in blood. In Chows novel, Lulu also appears in a red dress, and after
her boyfriend stabs her, the camera captures him looking back through a curtain of red flowers in
the foreground. Red is indicative of not only desire and passion but also violence and
destruction. When the space is covered in red, it generates a dreamy feeling but also a sinister
sense that reminds one of an inferno, in which fire devours human souls.
When red is combined with green, it alludes to the Chinese idiom deng hong jiu l, which
means red lanterns and green wine. The phrase describes more explicitly a decadent lifestyle
that involves promiscuity and intoxication. This combination of red and green also appears in
Chows imaginary future city. His fictional 2046 is a glittering neon world with red and green
lights. When the camera swoops down under the rail lines, from a low angle, two huge red signs
for a pawnshop and a pub further highlight a sinister urban space.
Similar to the cinematic Hong Kong, the future 2046 reflects Chows anxiety over his
time and Wongs uneasiness with Hong Kongs postcolonial identity. As Wongs major concern
in 2046, the future is an integral part of the present especially when the former is not only an
extension but also the imagination of the latter. In many ways, Chows future city is the opposite
of his present reality, and it is Chows fantasy that is meant to channel his anxiety over the
present. The future is a place that will never change, while the present undergoes radical social
transformations. Chows characters in the future look for love, whereas people have
meaningless sex in the present. In the future, people have the freedom to go to their dreamland,


yet in the present, Chow is confined to his hotel room. During the political upheavals, Chow
locks himself up in the small hotel room to create this imaginary 2046. Chow states that the
story 2046 is about a group of men and women who are looking for love. They risk everything
to get to a place called 2046. I made it as bizarre and erotic as possiblealthough it is a fiction,
some of my own experiences found their way into [my writing].
Despite Chows desire to conjure up a different world in order to escape the present, this
imagined future space, equally bleak and lonesome, is in no way a haven. In a dark tunnel, a
camera on a dolly track moves rapidly backward toward the audience as a bullet train races by
against a dark green and brown background. This oppressive claustrophobic space and the
intimidating power of the train generate a strong sense of tension. Accompanying the hissing
sound of the machine, a hysterical woman screams, Go away! Go away! The whole scene is
delirious and even frightening. Tak (Takuya Kimura), the Japanese narrator, introduces this
unchanging city to the audience:
In the year 2046, a vast rail network spans the globe. A mysterious train leaves for 2046
every once in a while. Every passenger going to 2046 has the same intention: they want
to recapture lost memories because nothing ever changes in 2046. Nobody really knows
if thats true because nobodys ever come back except for me.
Chows 2046 is a traumatic response to his present turmoil in the fictional world. This is made
clear when the future city is reconfigured as a dystopia, a ghost town, a visual spectacle
characterized by an absence of boundaries. In Chows imagination, the city strikes awe into the
audience. Touring with the fast moving camera, the audience watches the sprawling and
shapeless city unfold with its towering skyscrapers reminiscent of elongated gravestones. Indeed,
the city is a concrete jungle without any trace of human beings. An extreme long shot of the city


shows train tracks going up in the air and breaking up the cityscape. Trains meander like snakes
around high-rise buildings. As the camera tours the city on a moving train, the viewing angle
changes every few seconds, which adds to the sense of confusion and displacement. As the
camera rises above all the buildings, the buildings quickly move downward. Immediately, the
camera eye reaches the top of the city and is looking down from a high angle above the city.
Within a split second, the camera goes under and travels beneath bridges while looking up at the
Departing from the ambiguous portrait of Hong Kong, or rather the absence of Hong
Kong city, in Days of Being Wild and the image of temporary stability and order in In the Mood
for Love, Wong presents Hong Kong in 2046 through bleak pictures of depression and
destruction. Against the background of social disturbances and political turmoil, desperation and
chaos are inscribed on the fragmented cityscape of late-1960s Hong Kong. By depicting Chows
pointless involvements with his female neighbors in the Oriental Hotel, Wong sketches Hong
Kong in the late-1960s as a place of anxiety and insecurity. Chow desires an escape from the
past through women, wine, and writing, but these activities, illuminated by red and green lights
provide no way out. In attempts to explore themes of change, promise, and identity through
Chow, Wong creates more questions than answers as the film ends with a big hole to which all
characters reveal their secrets.
In Wongs trilogy, 2046 presents the most chaotic, fragmented, and bleak urban
landscape of Hong Kong to reflect the anxiety of the present postcolonial condition and
contemplation of the awakening local consciousness in Hong Kongs history. This chapter
analyzes Wongs representation of Hong Kong in the late 1960s through the discussion of the


emerging local identity, the persistent diasporic identity, and the prevailing sense of escapism
through Chows perception of Hong Kong as a decadent city and his imaginary future city 2046.
As much as the director wants to be open about changes, the future scene of 2046 does
not seem much a promised land but rather an apocalyptic space, replete with cold steel and
empty of humans. It is dominated by an ambience of despair. With this bleak picture of Hong
Kong, Wong ends his trilogy in a depressing manner. In the following chapters, we will see the
filmmaker turn his back on the claustrophobic space and the diasporic identity in his 1960s films
to focus on location shooting in Hong Kong in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the declaration
of a local identity. Contrasting starkly with the colonial edifices of the old Hong Kong, Hong
Kong in Wongs post-1980 films emerges as a city with its own distinguishing features, a
departure clearly defined by its enormous economic success in the 1970s.


This chapter examines Wongs portrait of contemporary Hong Kong and argues that his
construction of cinematic Hong Kong in As Tears Go by (1988) marks a break from that in his
1960s trilogy. Originating from rural Hong Kong, Wongs gangster characters are not troubled
by homeland nostalgia. Instead, their turf battles against other Triad members in Mongkok and
their strong desire to belong evoke a solid sense of place and locality in the film. Wongs
depiction of the city in As Tears Go by is defined by his concerns about the rampant
commercialism in contemporary Hong Kong and the tensions between Western influences and
Chinese tradition in Hong Kongs process of urbanization and modernization.
In the story of As Tears Go by, the protagonist, Wah (Andy Lau), is the older brother of
Fly (Jacky Cheung) and Ah-Site (Ronald Wong) in the triad underworld of Mongkok in Hong
Kong. Wah is a fierce gangster who excels in the triad business; Fly is an inept yet ambitious
Triad thug who always makes trouble, and his reckless behavior soon endangers everyone
around him. Out of brotherly love and unyielding loyalty, Wah sacrifices his relationship with
Ngor (Maggie Cheung), with whom he falls in love when she is ill and comes to stay with him,
to protect Fly. Against Wahs warning, Fly is determined to make a name for himself and
volunteers for a suicide mission, which culminates in his own death and Wahs destruction.
In As Tears Go by, Wongs cinematic Hong Kong is dramatically different from the
representation of the city in his 1960s trilogy, and the spatial alterations suggest significant
transformations in the characters identities and relationships with their surroundings. In the


trilogy, Hong Kong is largely defined by close-ups and medium shots inside claustrophobic
interior spaces, which foreground the characters diasporic identities. From the perspectives of
Wongs characters in the trilogy, Hong Kong is largely irrelevant and therefore invisible. There
are rarely shots of streets or landmarks, and Hong Kong remains in the background merely to
provide a setting for actions and events.
The 1960s trilogy registers a strong sense of nostalgia for the lost Shanghainese
community, and the diasporic identity dominates the cinematic space. In the trilogy, the urban
narratives focus exclusively on the experiences of Shanghainese diasporas: their nostalgia for
their former homeland, tensions between the older and younger generations, adjustments to the
new environment, and their struggles with Westernization and Chinese tradition. Memories of
Shanghai take various forms, such as the replication of luxurious art-deco style of Shanghai in
the 1930s, the female characters spectacular cheongsams, the black and white photos of families
and friends, the Shanghainese dialect that the characters speak. These elements all pay homage
to the characters former homeland.
In contrast, a strong sense of local identity prevails in Wongs urban narratives set in
1988 and the 1990s. Characters are no longer confined to their domestic spaces. Instead of
being filmed in close-ups and medium shots that separate them from their surroundings, they are
often seen in public places, integrated to the built environs. Through long or extreme long shots,
Wongs male characters are presented with recognizable landmarks of Hong Kong in the
background, which clearly establishes the characters as integral parts of the urban environment.
In the films set in the 1980s and 1990s, the central characters are no longer powerless and
isolated like Yuddy in Days of Being Wild or Chow in In the Mood for Love and 2046. In the
nostalgic films, the protagonists are not rooted in any place and show no interest or confidence in


Hong Kong. However, in As Tears Go by, Chungking Express (1994), and Fallen Angels
(1995), the male characters are either violent outlaws who often get themselves involved in turf
battles or policemen who patrol the streets of Hong Kong.
The shots of crowded local streets in As Tears Go by, which are not present in his
previous films, provide an especially important site for examination of space and identity. As
iconic spaces of modernity, city streets have always being intriguing to writers such as Charles
Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin. Baudelaire roamed through the dirty, poverty-stricken streets
of Paris, subjecting them to his voyeuristic gaze. Walter Benjamin, a keen observer of modern
life, also wrote excessively about crowded streets. Gangster films direct attention to street life
by presenting the protagonist moving across urban space. The gangster character has
considerable freedom in the urban environment as he not only subjects the terrain to his gaze but
also actually controls it. Therefore, in As Tears Go by, scenes of city streets have three primary
functions. First, local streets provide a familiar environment for local audiences and thereby
evoke a strong sense of locality. Second, the violent turf wars articulate the characters desires
for control over the urban space and suggest their plight in search for identities. For a gangster,
the urban space is full of opportunities and possibilities, and their chances to discover their
identities manifest in spaces they can control and occupy. Audiences in Hong Kong,
experiencing the anxieties and fear of losing locality, easily identify with the gangster characters
search for identities. Third, streets provide sites for individuals to explore the excitement and
contradictions of modernity.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the strong sense of local identity in Hong Kong is
further reinforced through its lack of connection with the mainland: Wongs characters in As
Tears Go by have no relation with Chinas national past. Wah and Fly are both native Hong


Kongers, and their relatives are located in this area. The lack of connection with national past is
particularly self-evident with the younger generations who were born in Hong Kong during and
after the 1960s. Like Wong himself, these young men grew up and received their educations in
the colony, which was heavily influenced by Western popular culture, and these individuals did
not share the older generations identification with the mainland.
There are two reasons for the lack of a sense of nationhood. First, the political turmoil of
the 1960s, most notably the Cultural Revolution in the mainland, cost the Communists the
support of most of Hong Kong residents, who grew exasperated by the political disruptions in
their daily lives. Consequently, most residents of Hong Kong opted for colonial rule, which
provided the stability and order necessary for development and prosperity. This was the first
time that Hong Kong residents of Chinese descent turned their back on the mainland in order to
protect their lifestyle in the colony. Second, the economic success during the 1970s boosted the
confidence and pride of Hong Kong residents, especially when compared to the economic
backwardness in the mainland. In mass media, this pride finds expression in the representation
of Chinese cousins as outsiders/country bumpkins, whereas Hong Kongers are portrayed as
sophisticated and modern. Therefore, from the 1970s onwards, Hong Kong seemed politically
and economically ready to detach itself from the influence of China and set off on its own.
Since political and economic forces are the primary agents of cultural changes, the
examination of Wongs cinematic space in As Tears Go by will focus on the political and
economic influences that shaped cultural identity in Hong Kong during the late 1980s. First, I
shall concentrate on the threats that arise from the political tension between Hong Kong and the
mainland. Second, I will examine Wongs presentation of Mongkok as a contested and
dangerous space full of uncertainty that mirrors the sense of powerlessness of Hong Kong


residents in face of the impending handover. Third, I shall look into how Wongs construction of
cinematic space reflects the social problems caused by rapid economic development. The
economic boom in Hong Kong during the 1980s produced profound changes in social and
cultural life, and the decline of traditional values due to the influences of modernization and
Westernization produces anxiety.
The 1980s were a crucial decade in the history of Hong Kong, both politically and
economically. In 1982, British Minister Margaret Thatcher visited China to discuss the future of
Hong Kong with Deng Xiaoping, who was the paramount leader of China from 1978 to 1992.
On December 19th, 1984, Britain and China signed The Joint Declaration on the Question of
Hong Kong, agreeing that the British government would return Hong Kong to China in 1997,
and Hong Kong would become a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the Peoples Republic
of China.
These talks and the final decision caused great anxiety and fear among many residents of
Hong Kong. Many intellectuals and artists deemed the handover as recolonization of Hong
Kong and were therefore strongly against it. However, diverse social groups had different
responses toward the handover. Based on the different attitude toward the handover, Nan M.
Sussman lists four types of identity: loyalists to China, Hong Kong locals, wavers, and
Chinas class enemies (20). The loyalists and the locals chose to stay, whereas wavers and
Chinas class enemies, most of whom were upper-middle or upper class, all planed to emigrate.
In the late 1980s, Hong Kong experienced a big wave of emigration involving those who
belonged to Sussmans third and fourth categories. Ackbar Abbas describes this kind of tension
and chaos as a last-minute collective search for a more definite identity (Hong Kong: Culture
and the Politics of Disappearance 4).


Identity is rooted in language to a great extent. The use of Cantonese as the primary
language for the majority of Hong Kongs populace signifies the awakening of a local
consciousness in Hong Kong during the 1980s, which played a pivotal role in the formation of a
dominant local identity. In film industry, this prevailing local identity manifests through the
dominance of Cantonese films in Hong Kong (Pak 42). This development ended a century-long
competition between Mandarin, the language of northern China, and Cantonese, the language of
some provinces in southern China. Before the 1980s, Mandarin was more popular than
Cantonese, and Mandarin films were more popular in Hong Kong because of the Chinese
diasporas identification with the national identity. During the 1960s and 1970s, Hong Kong
gradually lost its connection with the mainland as a result of economic, political, and social
changes, and Cantonese replaced Mandarin as the dominant language in Hong Kong. From then
on, films in Hong Kong were produced in Cantonese, and the residents of Hong Kong stopped
looking up to the mainland for their cultural influences.
Besides the use of Cantonese, other changes in Hong Kong cinema also contributed to the
construction of local identity. The connection with China became weak as the old genre of Kung
Fu films, which were usually set in pre-modern China and were therefore closely linked to
Chinese nationalism, slowly gave way to more popular urban narratives set in modern Hong
Kong. The increasing popularity of urban films among the residents of Hong Kong is important
to the formation of local identity. Sek Kei observes that, with purely Hong Kong urban settings,
Hong Kong cinema gave a sense of belonging to Hong Kong itself. No longer was there
a grappling for identity, to belong either to the left, right, or centerHong Kong cinema
belonged completely to Hong Kong. (Achievement and Crisis)


Among those movies set in urban environments, gangster films gained increasing attention
because, Fran Mason argues, these fictional criminal worlds articulated the wider concerns of a
society caught in the conflicts between tradition and modernity, residual ideology and freedom,
pleasure and discipline (vii). The audiences not only found the familiar settings engaging but
were also fascinated by the portrait of daring and liberating characters whose struggles reflected
their own anxieties and fears amid the process of modernization and urbanization. As a subgenre
of crime films, gangster films are uniquely urban. They mirror and comment on urban life,
social changes, and important issues, such as poor living conditions, street violence, increasing
immigration, and rising social inequality. Thereby, a typical gangster film provides its audience
with an alternative topography, an alternative community, and an alternative urban
consciousness (Mazumdar 415) alongside the economic success of Hong Kong.
Thomas Schatz makes keen observations on the relationship between gangster genre and
its urban setting. In his illuminating book Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the
Studio System, while reviewing the classic gangster genre in Hollywood filmmaking in the 1930s
and 1940s, Schatz uses determinate space to describe the filmic space of gangster, Western,
and detectives films and indeterminate space to represent the cinematic space in screwball
comedy, melodrama, and musicals. According to Schatz, in a genre of determinate space, a
specific social conflict is violently enacted within a familiar locale according to a prescribed
system of rules and behavioral codes (27). In gangster films, the urban milieu is the symbolic
arena of action in which conflicts arise and are resolved when the gangster is finally killed or put
behind bars. Wongs cinematic space in As Tears Go by is determinate in Schatzs sense in that
the major setting Mongkok is a highly contested space. It is a symbolic arena of action in which


fundamental values are in conflict and the conflicts and tensions are resolved in accordance with
a prescribed system of rules and behavioral codes.
In addition to the familiar urban settings in these films, Hong Kong audiences favored
lower-class characters like Wah and Fly since they existed within a similar social context. It was
easy for audiences to identity with such characters since Hong Kong consisted of mainly
working-class immigrants from the mainland and Hong Kongs own lower strata of society
(Kei). In the drama of modernization and urbanization, the majority of the population was still
living in unfavorable conditions, and they came to understand and to share the dreams and
desires of the working class characters on the screen, who, prodded by rising consumerism, also
wanted to participate in material prosperity of Hong Kong.
As Tears Go by is Wongs debut film as a film director, and critics find that many of
Wongs distinguishing trademarks are absent in his first film. Some critics argue that this is due
to Wongs obligation to observe genre conventions in Hong Kong cinema (Teo 15). In his
discussion of how Wong is influenced by generic filmmaking, Peter Brunette summarizes
various observations of As Tears Go by and lists two filmmaking groups: the generic camp and
the antigeneric camp. According to Brunette, the generic camp, represented by David Bordwell,
emphasizes Wongs debts to Hollywood gangster films in the thirties and the dominant tradition
of Hong Kong genre films. The second group, the antigeneric camp, represented by Chuck
Stephens, contends that As Tears Go by is completely a self-invention and shows no signs of
following gangster genre conventions. In his own conclusion, Brunette takes the middle ground
and states that As Tears Go by is apparently involved in generic filmmaking yet Wongs own
unique style and his counteracting against generic filmmaking that come to fruition in his later
films can already be detected in his first film (5). Stephen Teo agrees that, though Wong at the


time was heavily influenced by gangster genre conventions in Hong Kong cinema, a careful
examination of Wongs editing and manipulation of colors suggests Wongs unique style
originated in his very first film.
In addition to generic filmmaking, scholars differ on their opinions of Wongs political
implications in As Tears Go by. Abbas insists that one can find political implications indirectly
in the gangster characters struggles and contends that in spite of the violent and often crude
nature of the films action, As Tears Go by can be seen as Wongs first attempt to represent a
negative space (The Erotics of Disappointment 53). Despite his reflection on the portrayal of
gangsters in the film, Abbas does not provide a very clear definition of space of negativity, how
exactly this negative space is played out in As Tears Go by, or how particularly the space of
negativity reflects Hong Kongs concurrent political conditions.
Hong Kongs economic boom, starting in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, not only
accelerated the detachment from the mainland but also facilitated identification with the West.
The economic boom made Hong Kong one of the regions four economic dragons, along with
Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. This rapid economic and social development not only
improved the quality of life for Hong Kong residents but also boosted their confidence and
optimism in the British colonial administration. On its road to modernization, Hong Kong began
to look up to the West for inspiration.
However, as modernization and Westernization went hand in hand in colonial Hong
Kong, the threats of materialism and consumerism concerned the artistic community. For
instance, Patrick Tam, the pioneering director of Hong Kongs New Wave, uses film to express
his concerns about materialism and the ecological consequences of industrialism. Among his
films, Seven Women (1976) stands out for its attack on the consumerism of Hong Kong through


chronicling the tragic lives of seven modern women in the city. Tsui Hark, another director from
Hong Kong and one who received his film education in the US, raises questions about
Westernization in Once Upon a Time (1991). The film celebrates nationalism through the story
of kung fu master Wong Fei-hung, who lived during the decline of the Qing dynasty when
Western Imperial powers were threatening to colonize China. In the film, the protagonists
struggle with the conflicts between Chinese tradition and Western technology mirrors the
directors concerns with Westernization in contemporary Hong Kong.
Created during such an historic time, the cinematic space in As Tears Go by presents an
identity crisis that stems from anxiety over the 1997 handover and fear that Westernization will
compromise their cultural integrity. Wongs Mongkok is full of tensions and contradictions,
echoing with the social and political concerns about rapid economic development. Specifically,
Mongkok residents fear the loss of their traditional way of life in the process of modernization
and display anxiety over the pressing reality of the 1997 handover. The complex sense of
uncertainty, chaos, fear, confusion, and despair that are associated with such a transition
characterizes the emotional terrain of the cinematic space in this film.
Mongkok represents Wongs cinematic space of the late 1980s, one characterized by
danger, chaos, unpredictability, and confusion. The depiction of Hong Kong as a highly
contested place provides an effective allegory of the socio-political situation in Hong Kong
during this time period. Through the struggles of Wah and Fly, Wongs Mongkok expresses the
frustration, confusion, desperation, and powerlessness that are often expressed in Hong Kong
films from this decade. Given the turmoil Hong Kong experienced in the late 1980s, it is not
surprising that Wongs depiction of urban space does not present iconic locations in Hong Kong
but instead focuses on Mongkok, the most troubled and evocative place, for the film setting. To


better capture the plight of going through rapid socio-political changes, Wong focuses on
characters who exist in the margins of society. Unlike the middle-class areas of the metropolis
or the business district with skyscrapers owned by multi-national companies, Mongkok is
occupied by mostly working-class residents who dwell in tenement houses with the business of
three major industriesrestaurants, entertainment, and retail storesright at the street level.
The Chinese name means Prosperous Corner, and it is one of the most crowded
places in the world with a population density of 130,000 per square kilometer. Mongkok is wellknown for its busiest streets, where vendors sell flowers, caged birds, watches, clothing, and
Mongkok is also said to be the home of the Triads. In Streets: Exploring Kowloon, Jason
Wordie, Anthony J. Hedley, and John Lambon note that
For decades, Mongkokat least in the popular imaginationwas second only to
Kowloon city as Hong Kongs hotbed of organized crime, flagrant vice, several species
of haak she wui (Triad gangs), general immorality and permanently sleazy, down-at-heel
general ambience. (100)
For global audiences, Mongkok exists as a place plagued by gangsters and street violence. For a
relatively safe area in Hong Kong, one detective is assigned to work with 28.1 uniformed
officers; however, the ratio rises to one to 2.6 in Mongkok (Gaylord 60).
In the mass media, Mongkok is presented in a negative light as a sleazy space for illicit
business and criminal activity in line with the expectations of international audiences. This
location is known for counterfeit goods, illegal gambling, underage drinking, and prostitution.
For instance, in Derek Yee Tung-Shings One Nite in Mongkok (2004), Mongkok is described as
a place for fake-Rolex hawkers, gangsters, and prostitutes. The story starts as two fake Rolex

sellers get into a turf fight, and it eventually leads to a gang confrontation in which the son of a
gang leader is killed. To avenge the murdered son, the gang leader hires Lai Fu (Daniel Wu)
from a small town in the mainland to kill his rival. In the film One Nite in Mongkok, Mongkok is
a dangerous trap in which Lai Fu is stranded. The point that Mongkok represents entrapment is
also made clear in Wong Jings recent film To Live or Die in Mongkok (2009), as the Chinese
title for this film is the prison of Mongkok. The story centers on a man who gets out of jail
only to discover that his home in Mongkok has become another prison from which he cannot
escape. The poster for the film shows a man looking confused and stranded in urban space
surrounded by faceless crowds.
As the setting of Wongs first film, Mongkok is also portrayed as a violent place and a
trap that brings about the main characters demise. Wongs contested space in As Tears Go by
offers glimpses of Hong Kongs social reality, one that is characterized by instability, turbulence,
and intensity. Wongs Mongkok involves sudden eruptions of violence that create the
unpredictability that dominates the lives of his gangster characters. For instance, Wah always
wants to spend time alone with Ngor, but unexpected incidents always come up and make him
leave. Also, as a Triad member, Wah can never plan for tomorrow. At one point, he says to Fly:
We never know what will happen tomorrow. Do you agree? On their way out to eat, they are
ambushed and brutally beaten by Tony (Alex Man) and his hit men. This sense of uncertainty is
so strong that even the filmmaker is not sure about his characters, admitting that All through the
making of As Tears Go By, I had no clue what Andy Laus role was afterWhat did he want?
Was he tired of the triad life, or was the girl just a passing stage for him? All of this, I cannot
answer (Lalanne 105).


The color aqua-blue, which dominates the night scenes in the film, makes the city look
unglamorous, dangerous, chaotic, and ruthless. This is an unreal blue that is lurid and spooky. It
is frequently used in horror films to create an unnerving atmosphere or a supernatural liminal
space in which humans encounter the third kind. Wong often uses aqua-blue in scenes that
feature conflicts and high tensions. First, when Fly collects money from Fat Karl in the
restaurant, it is filmed through blue-filtered lens, which creates a tense and unreal atmosphere.
According to Fly, this is the first time he is on the job alone. Surrounded by Fat Karls gang, Fly
is intimidated, and the expressive cold color visualizes his inner fear.
The second example of this color scheme is the restaurant scene in which Wah kills the
man who has stabbed Fly. As Wah approaches the restaurant, the fluorescent lights shine
through transparent plastic screens, and the whole place glows a cool white, a bluish white that is
reminiscent of cold water or ice. When Wah steps inside the restaurant, everything is aqua blue
as if the whole scene is shot inside an aquarium. The eerie music, the sounds of boiling water,
and the screaming kitten enhance the terror, making the whole scene feels like a segment from a
horror movie.
Tonys mahjong den is also filmed through a blue-filtered lens. The color indicates a
cold space that sees no humans but money. Whenever Wah comes for negotiations, there are no
bright colors, and the setting looks as cold as a morgue. Through the blue filter, everything
appears washed-out, which signifies a cruel world that lacks human warmth. Further, the
characters only wear blue, white, and black. Teo also notices Wongs employment of this aquablue in his depiction of nocturnal Mongkok and comments, The flat, washed-out fluorescent
blue of the interior shots in the mahjong parlours and downmarket eateries of Mongkok are also


realistic of Hong Kong and reflective of the internal emptiness of the characters lives (Wong
Kar-wai 25).
The color red depicts the city as a sleazy, violent, and dreadful environment. Red is the
color of blood, and bloodshed is common in the world Wongs characters inhabit. Since
violence seems to be the answer to everything in the underworld, scenes of carnage are inevitable
in Wahs and Flys lives. For them, the streets of Hong Kong represent a jungle where they
make others bleed, and more ruthless enemies make them bleed in return. When Wah first
handles his Triad business, he breaks a beer bottle over the head of a man from whom Fly tries to
collect money, and in the next shot, blood splashes all over the mans face. The moment the man
sees his own blood, he agrees to pay back the money. Also, when Wah is about to kill his rival,
through a medium shot, we watch him marching closer to the camera and see his indignant face
loom large on the screen. In the scene, the red background generates an ominous feeling.
While red suggests erotic desires in 2046, this color serves as a sign of death in As Tears
Go by. When Wah meets his ex-girlfriend in the nightclub, she is dressed entirely in red. She
tells him the news of the death of his first baby, stating that she had an abortion because she
wanted him to feel guilty for ignoring her. Also, when Fly is murdered near the end of the film,
the red plastic curtain flapping in the background creates the illusion that his blood is engulfing
the screen.
Wongs employment of accelerated editing, hyperkinetic cameras, and abrupt camera
movements further evokes the image of an unstable urban space. Wongs accelerated editing is
evident during the sequence in which Fly and Ah-Site encounter the billiard parlor thug. His
editing technique mirrors anxieties over an unpredictable future and a sense of desperation in
finding a sense of place and self. As Wah and Ngor are getting ready for a night out, Fly enters a


dark room in the billiard parlor to get Ah-Site out of trouble. Tension slowly builds up as Fly
makes a bet with the King of Snooker. Slow music accompanies a few quick shots of King of
Snooker knocking balls into the pockets. When it is Flys turn to play, the music completely
stops, and Flys performance becomes the focus. Fly torments the thug persistently by openly
violating the rules and moving balls around with Ah-Sites middle finger. Flys behavior
eventually enrages the thug. Following a split-second shot of the break, the action explodes.
Fast-paced editing shows a sequence of shots in rapid succession. Before the audience figures
out what is happening exactly, Fly and Ah-Site are already storming out of the room and running
across the pool hall, and the dramatic music adds to the tension. An exterior shot of the pool
halls sign in the street pans quickly to one side of the building and anticipates the appearance of
the characters. Anxious waiting abruptly ends when Fly and Ah-Site break the wall down and
begin to run through the streets.
The use of a hand-held camera during the chase scene enhances the presentation of a
restless urban space. A brawl inside the house soon accelerates to a heated chase in the street,
which creates more disorder in the public space as the characters leave the building and begin to
run in the streets. The jerky camera sets the streets in violent motion as Fly and Ah-Site run
through a night market, among the pedestrians on the sidewalk, and into the main road with fastmoving automobiles. A high-angle shot shows the oncoming cars slow down but collide
nevertheless. To avoid the moving vehicles, Fly and Ah-Site run back to the sidewalk, where the
dense urban population blocks the characters. Because of the impenetrable crowds, the thugs
corner Fly and Ah-Site and capture them. Lisa Odham and Michael Hoovers argument about
the strategic usage of chase scenes in John Woos films is also applicable to As Tears Go by.
They state that


The rootlessness of the characters . . . is emphasized by shooting many scenes in Hong

Kong streets, with groups of youths, either the handful of featured Hung Hing boys or en
masse, several hundreds together, always in motion, moving through and moving on. (82)
In Wongs chase scene, Fly and Ah-Site are driven around by crowds and traffic like leaves
swept around by currents. Activities within urban spaces present the city as a complex and
dynamic entity.
The crowd itself constitutes part of the shifting landscape, and its unpredictability works
against Fly and Ah-Site. When Fly and Ah-Site run through the streets, people are everywhere,
forming an emotionless and impenetrable wall. Onlookers seem complicit with the rest of the
oppressive night world to foil the characters plan to escape. The crowd further impedes the
central characters advancement, traps them, and at the end devours them. As the billiard parlor
thugs brutally beat up Fly and Ah-Site, the crowd remains unruly and indifferent.
To make the situation worse, law enforcement serves as another force of disruption and
causes no less chaos than outlaws. To keep Fly out of trouble, Wah forces Fly to sell fish balls in
the street. However, what Wah considers legal business turns out to be illegal. Without any
money to start his business, Fly starts from scratch and becomes an unlicensed street vendor.
Every time he sells fish balls, the policemen confiscate his cart. In one sequence, following a
close-up of an old lady yelling that the police is coming, the whole street descends into chaos.
As all the unlicensed street vendors push their carts toward the camera, which also moves toward
them to enhance the tension, policemen run after the street hawkers, shouting stop! A close-up
of the policeman who approaches Fly shows the mans face from a low angle. Through the
wide-angle lens, the officers face appears distorted and threatening. Manipulated by the


cameras point of view, the audiences sympathy is directed to Fly, whose working- class
background offers little chance for advancement in Hong Kong society.
Wahs impoverished residence also articulates a lack of faith for the future. His dwelling
is anything but home. Unlike the crowded and dark enclosed spaces that prevail in the 1960s
films, Wahs residence is quite spacious and well lit with large windows in addition to a balcony.
However, it only has one bedroom and a living room. The place is rather poorly furnished,
indicating a strong sense of temporality. Wah only has a bed, a sofa, a refrigerator, a dinner
table, two chairs, and a broken television. Ngor cannot find water or a glass and has to drink
liquor to swallow her pills. A tracking shot of her in the kitchen shows piles of unwashed dishes,
and everything is misplaced. When she opens a cabinet, plates fall out and almost hit her.
Finally, she finds a glass in the sink, picks it up, and only discovers that it has no bottom.
Sunlight comes in through big windows to provide a clear view of the messy apartment, which
does not meet basic living conditions. Throughout the kitchen scene, Ngor is out of the frame,
and her presence is indicated by her shadow on the kitchen floor, whereas the room itself
becomes the focus of the shot.
While Wongs cinematic city is centered on the political tensions between Hong Kong
and mainland China, he also emphasizes conflicts within Hong Kong society, which manifests
through the gangsters struggles with the materialist modern world, traditional codes and values,
and their own desires to belong. Hong Kongs domestic conflicts arise mostly from problems
generated by a culture that places capital accumulation above other concerns. In addition to
increasing influence of consumerism, Hong Kong, as a society comprised primarily of
immigrants, plays a significant role in the formation of a materialistic culture. The desire to
make as much money as possible prevailed in Hong Kong, especially during the 1980s when its


future was at stake prior to the handover. For a long time, the immigrant mentality and the
resulting sense of insecurity have profoundly affected the culture of Hong Kong. As subjects of
Britain, the colonized were not allowed to participate in politics; therefore, money seemed to be
the only thing worth striving for in this foreign enclave. This sense of insecurity helped foster
the entrepreneurial spirit among the immigrants and pushed them work hard in order to survive,
which contributed to the rapid industrialization of the city. However, this development also
caused problems by giving rise to a materialistic culture in which everything was centered on
economic gain. In his discussion of Hong Kong, Lau employed utilitarian to describe the
passivity of the populace in politics, stating that: [T]hings and persons were important to the
Hong Kong people only when they brought about direct material benefits to them and their
families (Lam 18).
To reflect this materialistic culture, the opening of As Tears Go by introduces the
audience directly to a commercial city that never sleeps. In a late night scene of Mongkok,
traffics never come to a stop, and the department-store sign still beckons to people at this late
hour. Pedestrians are walking in the streets, and buses are still running. A large visual
installation comprised of several television screens, a symbol of modernization, occupies two
thirds of the picture and squeezes the streets, pedestrians, and a department store into the left
corner of the shot. The screens flicker nonstop with fast-moving clouds in a blue sky.
Commercialism, consumerism and materialism enter the Triad society, which was
established on the traditional code of warriors and family relationships. Although the foundation
of Triad society is the code of yi, brotherhood and loyalty, commercial exploitation of these
traditional values is commonplace among Triad members. In City on Fire, Lisa Odham Stokes
and Michael Hoover comment on the relationship among Triad members, observing that the


traditional bonds of respect and royalty of the older affiliations are loosened by the pervasive
conditions of capitalismpeople are valuable only as long as they can be usedso they are
easily discarded (80). Senior members exploit younger ones by assigning them dangerous
tasks, such as assassinations. Assignments might appear to test ones loyalty and bravery, yet
they are exploitive in nature. This exploitation of male bonding and brotherhood is best
illustrated when the godfather tries to talk a young man into committing a murder. A medium
shot shows the godfathers face covered in the darkness. The terrified young man sits across
from him, covering his head with both hands and sitting with his back to the camera. The
godfather states that Firing a gun in a police station doesnt necessarily mean death penalty.
Might be locked up in jail for a few years. But when you come out you will be a big shot!
When the young man is too afraid to commit the crime, the old man strikes the young mans
head and says, Chicken-hearted!
The corrupting force of materialist culture is best demonstrated in Wongs portrait of
Tony, Wahs opponent, whose obsession with money indicates the decadence of the modern
Triad world as well as the lower class desire for financial success. Tony has no morals at all,
and the space that he occupies is always linked to money. In contrast to Wah, who upholds
traditional values such as filial piety, loyalty, fidelity, and righteousness, Tony is all about
money. His flamboyant appearance brings home this point as he always wears a big gold ring, a
sparkling gold watch, a gold bracelet, and a long gold necklace. His hair is always spiked and
shiny, and he drives a BMW. In one scene, Tony laughs at Wah and asks, How can you be a
Big Brother if you dont have any money at hand? For Tony, being a big brother means taking
care of his followers financially. When taunting Fly about his new job as a street hawker, Tony
says, You should leave your Big Brother. Look at my followers, all dressed up! Using wireless


telephones. Tony is almost always seen in the mahjong joint where everyone is determined to
make big money.
Wongs criticism of Hong Kongs relentless commercialism continues in the scene of
Ah-Sites wedding banquet on the roof. A roof is not the typical setting for a Chinese wedding
banquet, especially in a subtropical place like Hong Kong. In the daytime, roofs soak up the heat
from the sun and emanate it at night. A long shot shows four big tables on the roof surrounded
by the darkness. Although the chains of bulbs light up the whole place and link it with the rest of
the city, the guests at the banquet only see what is lacking and cannot stop complaining about it.
Instead of celebrating Ah-Sites marriage, they are more concerned with getting their moneys
worth. In a medium shot, one senior couple quarrels about the money they give to Ah-Site as a
present. The old man says, Ive told you two hundred dollars were too much. You wouldnt
listen to me! Fanning herself with folded newspaper, the wife responds, How do I know they
are so stingy and have the banquet here on the roof? The father-in-law is especially upset and
refuses to eat. When asked to take a photo with his own daughter, he says, Take a photograph
for what? This is a shame! . . . If you dont have money, do not have a banquet then. Holding a
banquet on the roof is ridiculous! In a materialistic culture, being poor is humiliating, and
dignity is a commodity that only money can buy.
In As Tears Go by, drama also stems from the differences between the novices like Fly
and the more established residents, such as Tony, who have just obtained their middle-class
lifestyles in the most recent economic expansion. Wah and Fly originally come from the
country, and they are members of low-level Triad society. In the city, they are prejudiced
against for their provincial origins, and they are therefore viewed as outsiders. Tony has to
repeatedly remind them of their identities as outsiders. In one sequence, after he and his men


beat the two to a pulp, Tony says, Go back to the country and farm with your big brother.
Urban road is not suitable for you! Where Wah and Fly originally come from defines who they
are in the city, and their old identities follow them wherever they go despite their desire to
assimilate into the mainstream.
The protagonists peripheral status is reaffirmed by the depiction of the menacing urban
space. Trapped in the degraded industrial environment, Fly and Wah have no control over their
environment, and they are constantly outnumbered and outsmarted by their opponents, who keep
driving them off the streets. As the story develops, the urban space becomes increasingly hostile
to these characters, which culminates when Tony has them ambushed and brutally beaten. Tony
has his hit men break Wahs and Flys legs, literally immobilizing the two characters, and
banishes them from the urban territory.
In contrast to the hostile urban environment, which is more of a nightmare for the main
characters, the countryside for Wah is a familiar, pleasant, and healing place that registers a
strong sense of home. The alternative geography of the Lantau Island plays an important role by
highlighting the unfavorable living conditions of the city. The urban environment, often seen in
the night scenes, is dominated by a murky atmosphere, whereas Lantau Island, where Ngor lives,
is a source of peace, sunshine, and cheerfulness. It is represented visually with bright colors,
bright sunlight, slow camera movements, and long shots of nature. As Wah reads the letter that
Ngor leaves him, the scene cuts to Lantau Island. A long shot of the highway to Lantau Island
echoes similar shots of a train running across the screen in Days of Being Wild in an equally
dreamy atmosphere. The difference is that the train in Days of Being Wild runs to an unknown
destination and indicates a strong sense of uncertainty, whereas the sight of the highway on
Lantau Island is pleasant. With a green mountain as the background, two orange buses go their


separate ways. The next shot shows a green forest waving in wind. In the restaurant where Ngor
works, an old man is mopping the floor. Inside the house, there are tables covered by dotted red
cloths and Ngor, for the first time in the film, is dressed in a white top and light purple skirt with
her hair tied up.
While Wong criticizes commercialism and materialism, he does not provide a solution
for the social problems that he shows through the struggles of Wah and Fly. Abbas points out
that this moral ambiguity is reflected in Wongs spatial arrangement in the film. Abbas posits:
In Wongs gangster film then, the moral ambiguity of classic film noir is reconstructed as a
spatial and epistemological ambiguity (The Erotics of Disappointment 53). For Abbas,
Wongs use of unnatural color scheme, the juxtaposition of country and city, and even Ngors
medical gauze mask all work to achieve this sense of ambiguity in As Tears Go by.
The ambiguity, in my opinion, is best demonstrated in the closure of the film. At the end
of the film, Wah and Fly die in despair, unable to fulfill their dreams of living the good life, and
they have no chance for redemption. Unlike other gangster films, Wongs story does not
provide a myth of survival. Wong leaves the audience with an apocalyptic attitude toward an
uncertain future, visualized in the last few minutes of the unsettling death scene. Regarding this
typical sense of despair and horror, Teo observes, A Hong Kong gangster movie can makes
viewers feel that civilization is indeed at risk and that Hong Kong is the last place on earth they
want to be (Hong Kong Cinema 233).
The final scene of Flys and Wahs violent deaths is disturbing. To emphasize their
desperation and to dramatize their tragic moment, Wong filmed the scene in slow motion with a
tracking camera, which gives a realistic portrait of the characters last moments. Right after a
long shot of the group walking toward a police van in which armed cops are waiting, a close-up


shows Flys sweaty face. He walks out of the shadows into the broad daylight and starts
shooting at his victims. From Flys point of view, the camera is relatively steady to show that he
is calm and determined to succeed. The camera pans to the informant and the policemen. The
policemen around him fall to the ground one by one, but the informant stays alive. Fly soon runs
out of bullets and is shot on the spot. Wah walks in and kills the informant, but a policeman
behind him guns him down. Compared with Flys quick death, Wahs severe injury is an
unnerving scene to watch as his body twitches on the ground and his eyes stare blankly into the
Wahs painful death creates a sense of despair, which works seamlessly with the social
and political issues Wong tackles in the film. Whether the ending is cautionary or simply
follows a formulaic genre exercise does not seem to matter. What is important here is that the
ending conveys a strong sense of helplessness and powerless-ness, which the local audience can
probably best identify with. Wah, seemingly the only honest person in the film, dies at the end.
Wongs closure neither rewards the good nor punishes the evil. It is not difficult for the local
audience who lived through this phase of Hong Kongs history to recognize from Wahs and
Flys failures that life was complex and ruled by uncertainty since most Hong Kongers had to
cope with the same insecurity and unpredictability everyday.
To reiterate, the cinematic city in As Tears Go by is dangerous and chaotic, a space
characterized by instability and uncertainty. For powerless outsiders like Fly, the urban space is
an arena, dictated by capital and other arbitrary forces. In spite of their efforts to assimilate,
Wahs and Flys negotiation of city space is a failure when they are first exploited by the Triad
society and later brought down by law enforcement. Their experience of the place brings out the
tension between country and city, fear and courage, love and hatred, power and incompetence,


which further defines Hong Kong as a place of contradictions. In the next chapter the Global
CityChungking Express, I shall investigate Wongs cinematic construction of Hong Kong as
a global city and examine the impact of globalization on the formation of local identity. My
analysis will mainly focus on the spaces of placeless and non-place, the changes in racial
hierarchy and new gender order in Wongs Chungking Express.


Released ten years after the Joint Declaration was signed by the Prime Ministers of China
and Britain, Chungking Express (1994) shows that Hong Kongs search for local identity
coincides with the experience of global urbanity. Shaped by both the integration of the colonial
state and the process of globalization, Chungking Express is defined by the fear of losing a
familiar environment and the impetus to preserve an image of the city before it vanishes. This
chapter examines the effects of globalization on the lives of local people, most notably in terms
of their relationships with spatial transformation in addition to the altered racial and gendered
structure of the cityscape in Chungking Express.
Many critics have attempted to interpret Chungking Express. Some scholars point out the
filmmakers obsession with time and indicate that the film serves as a political allegory for the
1997 handover of Hong Kong. For instance, Gina Marchetti compares Hong Kongs lack of
self-determination with the passive role of Cop #663 and argues that Hong Kong was abandoned
by the British government: there is also a sense that Hong Kong has been abandoned and,
worse, that, like the jilted lover, it has no power or say in this decision (291). However, David
Bordwell objects this political reading of the film and suggests taking it as a simple love story
(280). Nicholas Wong also examines the film as a narrative of romance; however, he analyzes
the love story in terms of postmodern concepts of love and investigates the themes of alienation
in Chungking Express.


While some critics focus on Wongs depiction of love in Chungking Express, others
emphasize his representations of space and time. Stephen Teo argues that the relationship
between time and space in Chungking Express resembles a tango in which abstract movement
(time) dances a compact with space (Wong Kar-wai 53). He contends that Wongs lived space
in the film is inscribed with time, consciousness, and memory. Tsung-Yi Huang takes a different
approach, adopting Baudelaires view of walking as a symbol of freedom and arguing that the
main characters walking journeys in the global city reflects how they project their desires on to
the landscape.
My analysis of Chungking Express will also concentrate on Wongs depiction of Hong
Kong as a global city, but this examination will differ from Huangs by focusing mainly on the
placeless and the non-place in addition to investigating how the process of globalization changes
perceptions of racial hierarchy and gender relationships. The comprehension of these major
issues is crucial to the broader discussion of space and identity in Chungking Express because
these transformations have shaped Hong Kongs local identity under globalization.
Fear of change dominated the psychic landscape of Hong Kong locals prior to 1997.
Since they were used to British colonial order and regularity, the majority of Hong Kongs
population feared that the handover would jeopardize their economic prosperity. While people
in the lower class economic foresaw the potential disruption of their livelihoods, those from the
middle class feared losing the status quo, their current lifestyles, and their property. Intellectuals
and artists were concerned about losing local identity and culture. In Hong Kong: Culture and
the Politics of Disappearance, Ackbar Abbas posits that the 1997 handover and acceleration of
globalization produced a culture of disappearance, the awakening of local consciousness, and a
growing concern about local identity in Hong Kong. Rey Chow endorses this observation of


fear, and she notes that these fears are manifested in the collective wish for everything to remain
the same (King Kong in Hong Kong Watching the Handover from the U.S.A. 103).
As a result of globalization, the local culture has disappeared, and the local environment
has been decimated. Wongs Chungking Express, therefore, is an effort to preserve a local
identity amid globalization. Wong says, things change very fast in Hong Kong. The locations
for my first two films have disappeared already Im trying to preserve [the lifestyle of Hong
Kong in certain periods] on film (Brunette 118). In this preservationist spirit, Wong inventories
the once-familiar urban space and investigates the changing relationship of the vanishing city
with its inhabitants.
This chapter focuses on a sense of loss that also characterizes the transition of Hong
Kong from British to Chinese control. In explaining this sense of loss and how it affects local
life, I shall use two termsplacelessness and non-placeto offer a new approach to the
interaction between the global and the local and to highlight the impact of globalization on the
sense of place and the formation of local identity. This chapter will show how the interactions
between the global and the local in the film unsettle the fixity of place and identity in Hong
Kong, a development that has significant implications for local identity.
Placelessness and non-place do not suggest a lack of identity or a preoccupation with a
global identity in Chungking Express. The former refers to a space that lacks a relationship with
local inhabitants, such as skyscrapers owned by transnational corporations. Although the
placeless plays an important role in global conditions, the total absence of it in Chungking
Express reveals Wongs resistance to the grand narrative of Hong Kongs success story, which
has been promoted by the British colonial administration in the wake of globalization. The term
non-place was proposed by Marc Aug, who defines it as a transitory space for consumption and


communication. In Chungking Express, these places are the Mid-night Express, the Chungking
Mansion, and McDonalds. Placeless and non-place are different. The former is defined by the
absence of meaning, history, and identity. One prime example is Disneyworld, a place that does
not foster an attachment to the place. Non-places are often freeways, bars, bridges, and parking
lots, which are devoid of emotional or cultural context and hence are characterized by solitude
and transition.
Although Wongs main settings can be described as non-places, he subversively turns
such spaces, which are supposedly barren of meaningful human interactions, into locations in
which his characters create communities and establish intimate relationships. Therefore, Wongs
construction of Hong Kong as a global city is not a passive representation of the city but a
strategic move to counteract the rapid disappearance of Hong Kong and the frenetic pace of
globalization. Put differently, Chungking Express demonstrates Wongs efforts to counteract
trends toward non-place and placelessness, thwart the onslaught of globalization, and pay
nostalgic tribute to Hong Kong, by transforming the non-places such as fast food restaurants and
hotels into spaces that allow friendship and blossoming love, while repressing or shunning
placelessness altogether.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Hong Kong was under the influence of postcolonialism,
postmodernism, and globalization, all of which are critical to the formation of local identity. The
postcoloniality of Hong Kong is very complicated. Postcolonial literally means after colonialism
and thereby refers to political independence after the departure of the colonial power. Under this
definition, the postcolonial period for Hong Kong started from midnight of 1 July 1997 when the
British government formally retreated from its former territory.


However, critics also argue that this idea of post-colonialism is simplistic in that it
indicates a clear-cut closure of colonial domination, which is problematic since the colonized
continue to be affected by neo-colonialism. In The Empire Writes Back, Bill Ashcroft, Gareth
Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin define post-colonial as a term that covers all the cultures affected
by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present (2). Following this
definition, some critics contend that postcolonial Hong Kong began in 1984, the year when the
Sino-British agreement was signed, and this agreement provoked anxiety and fear in addition to
a sense of uncertainty. The declaration also engendered different cultural responses in Hong
Kong. Therefore, although the formal takeover took place thirteen years later, the decision that
led to the handover already affected the residents of Hong Kong economically, politically,
psychologically, and culturally. According to Dimitris Eleftheriotis and Gary Needham, The
term post-colonial in relation to Hong Kong cinema appears to have been employed rather
unproblematically to cover all post-1980s Hong Kong cinema, right after the earliest stages of
the British-Chinese negotiations (63). The films of the postcolonial period articulate cultural
responses to political events and employ allegories of the transition, which demonstrate
postcolonial awareness.
The influence of postmodern culture intensified the complexity of Hong Kongs
postcolonial condition. Both Stephen Teo and Natalia Chan Sui Hung acknowledge postmodern
culture in Hong Kong. Teo argues that Hong Kong lost its sense of future because it lacked selfdetermination in the negotiations during 1984. This lack of agency combined with rapid
economic development produced the pastiche, which gave rise to the postmodern spirit of the
city (Turner 174). Hong Kong cinema as a cultural product was also influenced by
postmodernism. Hung made the same observation by arguing that the new trend of filmmaking


in Hong Kong cinema, starting with Stanley Kwans Rouge in 1987, fits into Fredric Jamesons
description of nostalgia cinema in postmodern culture as depthless, imitative, and schizophrenic.
Further, Hong Kong was integrated into the global network, and overwhelming socioeconomic changes occurred as a result of rapid globalization. While shifting from manufacturing
to a service-oriented economy, Hong Kong became a financial center characterized by rapid
economic growth, which accelerated its integration into international markets. Ronald Skeldon
notes that since the economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping in 1979, Hong Kong has provided a
linkage between the Pearl River delta in the Mainland and the international market, a
development that made Hong Kong into a global city (216). While Hong Kongs cooperation
with the world is strengthened, its role in the world economy becomes increasingly crucial.
Hong Kong is the international Home Page of a city, Asias world city (Susan Ingram), and
a central location in a vast network of transnational capital, all of which point to the critical role
that Hong Kong plays in the global village.

Wongs global Hong Kong

In Chungking Express, Hong Kongs status as a global city is made evident through the
representation of the Chungking Mansion, which accommodates tourists, immigrants, and guest
workers from all over the world. Surrounding the Chungking Mansion are the Asian female
smuggler, her Indian associates, the Caucasian boss, and Cop #223, who speaks Japanese,
English, Cantonese, and Mandarin. Reflecting on this multicultural environment, Wong
mentions that the Chungking Mansion mirrors Hong Kong because it is a mix of different
cultures... That mass-populated and hyperactive place is a great metaphor for the town herself


As a multicultural and a pluralistic society, Hong Kong quickly adapted to foreign

cultures. One example of this adaptation is the process that many people refer to as
McDonaldization. This American fast-food chain has spread all over the world, and the
companys influence has reached almost every corner of the world. McDonalds became an
integral part of local culture in Hong Kong and in the collective memories of its residents. In
Chungking Express, the female smuggler takes the kidnapped Indian girl to McDonalds for an
ice cream, which shows how the locals embrace American fast food. The entire scene has a
homey feel to it as the girl casually enjoys her sundae sitting next to her kidnapper as if she is
going out with her aunt. Also, in Chungking Expresss twin film Fallen Angels, the killer and his
ex-girlfriend run into each other at McDonalds. Wong is not alone in his inclusion of
McDonalds in his memories of Hong Kong. Similarly, in Autumn Moon (1996) by Clara Law, a
McDonalds becomes an important landmark. In one scene, the heroine, Pui Wei, takes her
friend, Tokio, to a McDonalds when he asks to visit a traditional restaurant. To Tokio,
McDonalds is a symbol of American imperialism, but Pui Wei, a native Hong Konger,
associates the restaurant with her favorite memories of growing up in Hong Kong, which
illustrates that McDonalds has become part of Hong Kongs culture.

Threat of homogenizing force of globalization

While globalization has resulted in modern technology, ease of movement, and
economic success for Hong Kong, this process has also been responsible for homogenizing local
culture. The uniformity imposed on Hong Kong by globalization accounts for the rapid
disappearance of old Hong Kong. Robert Holton points out that the global economy will
eventually erase cultural diversity and replace it with a convergence toward a common set of


cultural traits and practices (142). Holton fears that regional differences will disappear, and the
world will have only one uniform culture. Many residents of Hong Kong have resisted the
homogenizing power of globalization in order to maintain local culture, which makes the task of
continuously seeking local identity more complex and challenging.
Along with these socio-economic alterations, Hong Kongs physical appearance has also
changed due to constant construction and demolition. The destruction of older buildings and the
process of the commodification have given rise to the emergence of placelessness, which
indicates the absence of attachment with the local physical setting. Yingjin Zhang remarks:
[T]he world of places is increasingly superseded by spaces characterized by circulation,
velocity, and flow, and this tendency is visually reflectedin the widespread demolition
of old neighborhoodsandin the proliferation of serialized, ahisorical, and acultural
architectural projects like international hotels, airports, and supermarkets in world cities.
(Cinema, Space, and Polylocality in a Globalizing China 5)
Old structures were knocked down in favor of new high rises for residential and commercial use,
and this process has forced the sense of place to succumb to market power. As a result, many
local landmarks that have strong sentimental value in the collective memories of residents have
Hong Kong suddenly became a worthy subject in the face of the danger of losing its
history and memories, and many filmmakers attempted to preserve the present in the search of
local identity by filming the citys urban landscape. Chungking Express originates within this
socio-historical milieu and follows the trend to preserve Hong Kong. Hong Kong is so important
to Wong that the city becomes the focus instead of the human characters. Wong states: The
main characters of Chungking Express are not Fay Wang or Takashi Kaneshiro, but the city


itself, the night and day of Hong Kong (Ong). The desire to capture and to preserve the fleeting
image of colonial Hong Kong drove Wong to depict the city before it disappeared for good.
Accordingly, Chungking Express is an aesthetic response to this disappearing cityscape
and an attempt to preserve a visual record of it. For instance, the Kai Tak airport, once one of
the busiest airports in the world, was about to be closed due to an inability to deal with
increasing traffic when Wong was making the film. A few shots of the interior of the airport
show the female smuggler taking her Indian associates to the entrance, while airplanes are visible
outside Cop #663s apartment windows in other shots. For a long time, Kai Tak was Hong
Kongs major linkage to the world, which made the structure an integral part of the local
memories of old Hong Kong.

The Placeless
Placelessness is a transformation that results from globalization. As both an attitude and
a new spatial form, an awareness of placelessness is necessary in order to understand the
profound influence of global compression on Hong Kong during the 1970s. Canadian
geographer Edward Relph defines placelessness as the casual eradication of distinctive places
and the making of standardized landscapes that results from an insensitivity to the significance of
place. By contrast, placeness is an authentic attitude toward place and the unselfconscious state
of belonging to a locality. As placeness connotes community, rootedness, and belonging,
placelessness indicates the loss of these elements. Although Relphs observations predate
globalization, his ideas shed light on our relation to place in the context of globalization.
The placeless is a key spatial form in global Hong Kong. In his analysis of Hong Kong,
Abbas summaries three types of built spaces that exist simultaneously in the city: the merely


local, the placeless, and the anonymous (Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of disappearance
161). The merely local refers to buildings from the past, the placeless are the multinational
buildings, and the anonymous encompasses the buildings left out of the previous two categories.
Abbas further elaborates on Relphs notion of placeless by observing that all those impressive
multinational hotels and office buildings with no local memories could be found almost
anywhere in the world, and they seem to have just landed on their sites out of nowhere (161).
For Abbas, these impressive high-rise buildings are built out of context and do not establish any
ties to the locality. Therefore, such structures cannot produce human attachment.
Wongs Fallen Angels features a few shots of towering high-rise buildings against the
night sky which fit into Abbass category of the placeless. Since Chungking Express and
Fallen Angels, according to Wong, represent the bright and dark sides of Hong Kong, elements
of the latter film help to illustrate Wongs representation of global Hong Kong in Chungking
Express. In Fallen Angels, at the end of the characters motorbike ride through a tunnel, the
camera moves up to show the view above the tunnel. A low-angle shot with low-key lighting
shows a bleak urban setting with a group of anonymous skyscrapers rising up against the dark
sky at dawn. The immense buildings tower over the tunnel, staring down indifferently at the
world below. These placeless buildings are opaque, and they have a uniform appearance with
glass and metal surfaces reflecting cold blue lights. Separated from the rest of the world, they
appear distant and totally out of context.
This bleak picture of the placeless in Wongs global Hong Kong is subversive because it
resists the grand narrative of globalization. While attempting to preserve an image of the
changing city, Wong prioritizes areas more familiar to residents over those spaces promoted by
official accounts. In the grand narrative, Hong Kong is often depicted as a dynamic global city


characterized by economic success that manifests through monumental spaces. Saskia Sassen
observes that For international businesspeople: it is a city whose space consists of airports, toplevel business districts, top of the line hotels and restaurants, a sort of urban glamour zone
(Whose City is It?). From this perspective, the global city is a site of opportunity that connotes
profits, prosperity, and development.
However, while the official accounts celebrate the placeless as the symbol of the
integration of the local economy into the global one and forget about working class residents,
Wong refuses to take a godlike position to look at Hong Kong. In Fallen Angels, Wong is
reluctant to show the placeless, whereas the placeless is largely absent in Chungking Express.
Chungking Express excludes the urban glamorous zone and focuses primarily on spaces
associated with the lower-middle class. For Wong, the lifestyle of the lower-middle class
represents the way of Hong Kong as he states that Chungking Express, to me, is like a postcard
of Hong Kong (Pomeranz). Instead of celebrating the macro-narrative of economic progress
and prosperity through the image of Hong Kong as a global city, Wong is more interested in
presenting a melancholy narrative of struggle and loss. His decision to take this perspective
coincides with Michel de Certeaus idea of walking through the city, which serves as a metaphor
for taking different approaches toward mapping the city and suggests following another path
as a tactic against the repressive urban administration (96). Chungking Express provides an
alternative path by presenting a heterogeneous space and creating its own version of Hong Kong
The placeless also highlights economic inequality and the polarization of Hong Kong.
Relatively few people have full access to the spaces of the placeless. In her examination of the
global city, Sassen divides those within urban spaces into two groups: corporate power and the


others, such as Third World immigrants, women, and African Americans. She argues that the
same space means different things for different users. Individuals within the corporate power
structure view the global city in terms of profits, whereas the marginalized view the global city
as a site for struggle (Sloan 279). This is true in the case of Hong Kong. According to Tsung-Yi
Michelle Huang, Hong Kong is the polarized global city with a minority of high-paid white
collars opposing the majority of ordinary walkers (55). The main characters in Chungking
Express belong to the majority of ordinary walkers, who are never seen within and lack any
association with the placeless. To these people, the placeless is a site of struggle and exploitation
in the late capitalist society. Huang explains that the
high-rise skyscrapers with corporate names in Central in a sense are built not with glass
and metal but with the space taken from the anonymous high-rise buildings whose
majority inhabitants have no easy access to the global monumental space or the
information flow. The conflicting functions of these two type of high-rise buildings
signify the segregated social space, a reality that might de-mystify the narrative of the
global city as a space open to all of its users (28-29).
Huang argues that Hong Kong is not an open city but rather an environment predicated on
exploitation and unequal opportunities. The placeless, lacking any association with the local,
remains closed to the majority of those who live in Hong Kong.

Non-place in Chungking Express

The non-place is also an important spatial form that expresses global compression. The
difference between placeless and non-places lies in that the former describes spaces such as
multinational buildings in the third world that lack strong identities felt by local residents,


whereas the latter refers to public spaces of consumption that prevail in our daily lives. In Non
PlacesIntroduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, Aug asserts that the non-place
is produced by accelerated flows of capital and people in addition to the compression of time and
space in capitalist society. Unlike anthropological places, which are characterized by a slow
pace and a greater sense of community intimacy, non-places are spaces of circulation,
consumption and communication, such as supermarkets, railway stations, airports, bars, and
hotel chains (Non-Places 110). These spaces are distinguished by their lack of historical
associations or identities. Aug asserts that a space which cannot be defined as relational, or
historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place (78). The conventional experience of
a place is often tied to a shared history and culture, but non-places are devoid of these
associations. David E. Staples explains that in these non-places, many of [the anthropological]
identifiers lose significance or actively disappearthe palpably marked places that previously
contained peoples identities now contain only movement, flows, and endless circulation of
bodies (57). Those within non-places are caught in limbo, and the sites of such non-places are
characterized by transience. Within these spaces, people are temporarily relieved from their
usual identities, and their roles are reduced to those of consumers or passengers. Further, the
non-place is marked by solitude. The transitory occupant might rub shoulders with millions of
other people, yet he is still alone.
Non-places constitute the major settings of Chungking Express: the Chungking Mansion,
the Midnight Express, and the Mid-levels escalator. Revolving around these places, the film is
divided into two parts that involve two lovelorn male characters: Cop #223 and Cop #633. The
first half of the film takes place in the Chungking Mansion and the surrounding area, centering
on a chance encounter between Cop #223 and the female drug smuggler, and the second focuses


on the romance between Cop # 633 and Faye, which starts in the Midnight Express. These
locations manifest in the films title as Chungking refers to the Chungking Mansion and
Express the Midnight Express.
The Chungking Mansion and the Midnight Express are both non-places: they connect
different places and enable mobility. Ginette Verstraete and Tim Cresswell observe that nonplaces are essentially unrooted places marked by mobility and travel. Non-place is essentially
the space of travelers (17). The Chungking Mansion houses tourists from various places who
come there for a brief stay and quickly move on to their next destination. It is devoid of any
distinct identity or history. Similar to the Chungking Mansion, the Midnight Express also
connects places and provides a space for consumption and communication. This location, a
popular fast-food stand in Lan Kwai Fong, is the setting of the second story in which both Cop
#223 and Cop # 633 take their breaks. It is a place where strangers congregate for food and then
disperse in all directions. Cop 223 works in Tsimshatsui but lives in the Central area. When he
is off duty, he spends his time calling former girlfriends on the public phone in front of the snack
stand. The owner of the take-out store befriends the officers and gives them advice about their
love lives. After these brief exchanges, the officers both move on with their lives separately.
Additionally, the Mid-levels Escalator right outside 663s apartment windows presents an
extreme example of non-place due to its capacity to accommodate large crowds. Everyday, the
escalator takes approximately 35,000 commuters, including tourists and locals, up and down the
slopes. The ride covers 135 vertical meters in 20 minutes. The escalator is a public space where
people can come and go freely. It is the longest outdoor covered escalator in the world,
extending 800 meters from the Central Market area up to the Mid-Levels in order to ease the
traffic in the commercial and residential areas. The moving escalator is often visible during


interior shots of the policemans apartment, which seems to make the escalator part of the
In line with these concepts of placeless and non-places, Wongs characters lack roots or
attachments: their lives are characterized by mobility, which is the most valued commodity in the
era of globalization. Every character in Chungking Express is constantly on the move. The
female smuggler and Cop #223 are almost always seen running around the vicinity of the
Chungking Mansion. The smuggler runs between the Indians and her boss, while Cop #223 runs
to catch criminals. Cop #663 is also seen patrolling the streets. His ex-girlfriend is a flight
attendant who is always on the move due to the requirement of her profession. Before Faye
becomes a flight attendant, she dreams of traveling to California.
The best illustration of mobility manifests through the experiences of Christopher Doyle,
a cinematographer who owns Cop #663s apartment and embodies global deterritorialization.
Doyles experiences reflect the rootless lives within the global village of this epoch. He was
born in Sydney, Australia, and he speaks English, Mandarin, and French. He has traveled to
various places, such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, India, Israel, Thailand, and he has worked as a
doctor of Chinese medicine, a shepherd, an oil driller, and a photographer until he started to
work as a cinematographer in Hong Kong during the late 1970s. He is, at heart, the global
Nevertheless, although Wong focuses on the non-places in Hong Kong, he does not
necessarily take on the same pessimistic view on globalization and urbanization as Aug, who
argues that contractual relations dictate non-places and lead to solitude. Since globalization
produces more non-places, and we spend more of our time in non-places, Aug argues that the
solitude, which stems from non-places, will soon become a subject of its own. As he concludes


in Non-places, there will soon be a needperhaps there is already a needfor something that
may seem a contradiction in terms: an ethnology of solitude (120). However, Wongs film
suggests a more ambiguous relationship between anthropological places and non-places by
showing that people in non-places go beyond contractual relations to have cultural interactions.
For instance, in the Midnight Express, Cop #223 and the shop owner chat, and he acts like a
friend by giving the policeman advice on dating. Further, Faye, who works in the restaurant,
falls in love with Cop #663. In these examples, people transcend contractual relations and
become friends or lovers.
In Chungking Express, the sense of detachment and unrootedness is apparent through the
characters indifference to their surroundings. For instance, Cop #663 is so absorbed by his
internal turmoil that he does not notice when Faye sneaks into his apartment and renovates the
whole place. He is cut loose from his physical surroundings and exists in a different dimension.
Also, the female smuggler is not related to any person or any place. She lives in a small hotel
room, and before the story ends, she already plans to leave and buys an airline ticket. Nobody
knows her true identity, her origins, or where she is going.
Wongs handheld camera and low-key lighting capture this sense of detachment,
presenting Hong Kong as a fast-paced world that prevents any confident identification. During
the chase scenes, 223s pursuit of criminals and the Indians hunting for the female smuggler are
underlit, and the streets are dominated by darkness. As the eerie music swells in the background
after 223 introduces himself, the chase begins. The camera eye follows the policemans point of
view as he runs after the criminal, whose face is covered by a paper bag. Everyone and
everything is moving so fast that the world appears to be a blur. While following either the
smuggler or the policeman through the crowds in Tsimshatsui, the shaky camera draws attention


to itself through generating a series of moving images at blinding speed that viewers have no
time to process.
Additionally, Wong also separates his characters from their physical surroundings
through the introduction of a new filmic technique. In some scenes, Wong had the actors move
slowly, filmed them with the background moving at a normal speed, and then had the scenes
played at a faster speed. This technique results in the actors moving at a normal speed in the
foreground against a blurred background. It visually sets the actors apart from the background
and emphasizes their detachment. For instance, in one scene when 663 is waiting for Faye in a
bar, he leans toward the jukebox and inserts a coin, while the crowd walking past him appears in
a blur. In this scene, only 663 is in clear focus, and everything else seems distant and hence
Chungking Express demonstrates that it is not easy to define an identity because its
formation is not only influenced by new spatial forms and peoples relationships with them but
also by racial and gender relations. The following section will examine the categories of race
and gender depicted in the film to further explore the issue of identity.

New Racial Hierarchy

Prior to Chungking Express, Wong had not focused on non-Chinese minorities in Hong
Kong except for a few shots of the Indian servants in Days of Being Wild. Even in Days of Being
Wild, the Indian servants are never really seen or heard, and they are filmed with their backs
facing the camera. However, the presence of non-Chinese minorities cannot be overlooked
because they make up 5 percent of Hong Kongs population. Given this fact, it is curious to see
how Wong disregards their existence and make them invisible in most of his films. However,


Wong is not alone in this treatment of racial minorities in Hong Kong. According to KwaiCheung Lo, the practice of turning a blind eye to the existence of other ethnics is an unconscious
psychological strategy of the Chinese to protect their Chinese communities (Invisible
Neighbors 63). After all, the presence of white Europeans, embodiments of both the colonizer
and the Western imperial power, is threatening to the Chinese. Making these ethnic others
invisible is a mechanism to deal with this reality and to generate harmony within the Chinese
community (Invisible Neighbors 64).
In Chungking Express, however, on the eve of the white colonizers departure from Hong
Kong, Wong deals explicitly with racial tensions and creates an interesting racial hierarchy. In
order to represent a multi-racial Hong Kong, Chungking Express gives minority characters
significant roles and also shows how racial tensions have turned global Hong Kong into a
contested space. As the film unfolds, Wong immediately shows the female smuggler, who is
disguised as a Western woman and adopts Western notions of racial hierarchy by exploiting the
Indian residents of the Chungking Mansion for her trafficking business. Despite also being a
colonized subject, she treats the Indians as inferiors while submissively serving a Caucasian boss
before they gang up and steal from her. For the smuggler, her Indian associates are exotic, childlike, and irrational. In her dealing with the Indians, she adopts the mentality of the colonizer,
internalizing the idea that whites belong at the top of the racial/ethnic hierarchy and people of
color belong at the bottom, which becomes evident in her treatment of the Indians. When she
takes them to stores, the camera catches the Indians cheating and stealing, which justifies her
hitting some of them to stop them from touching items in stores as if she is disciplining a group
of children.


The female smugglers ambiguous racial position is reflected through the fact that the
film provides no explanation regarding why the Indians and the white boss conspire against her
so that she has to kill every one of them. In Walking between Slums and Skyscrapers, Tsung-yi
Michelle Huang comments,
Obviously, [the female smuggler] visits the squalid corners of the global city with an outdated mental version generated from nineteenth-century European cities, identifying
these Indians with a stereotype of slum-dwellers, abject and thus docile enough to carry
out her criminal scheme. (35)
The smugglers plan backfires when the Indians suddenly disappear in the airport with her drugs.
As she hunts them down and shoots them in the market, she acts with remarkable precision in her
determination to take revenge.
The Chinese smugglers stereotypical perception of the Indians as exotic, untrustworthy,
and mysterious is further reinforced visually by her trip to the Chungking Mansion. The camera
presents the place as a site of mystery, poverty, and chaos. Following her into the Chungking
Mansion, the camera presents an exotic spectacle of a city within a city. Shots taken inside the
Chungking Mansion show a voyeuristic gaze through the camera eye peeking into open doors or
through the windows of private rooms. The topless dark-skinned residents of the building appear
threatening as they stare in the smugglers direction. The unfriendly surroundings are all dark,
calling further attention to the camera as an intruder into their territory. Additionally, the camera
quickly pans from left to right, right to left, tilts up and down in imitation of a struggle to see, but
it cannot see. As its swift movement stirs up the place, the camera also brings a mysterious and
dangerous space to the forefront. When the smuggler steps into a room, a door curtain is closed


right after her and creates imagery of concealment, which indicates the secrecy and dishonesty
often associated with the Other in the discourse of Orientalism.
While the smuggler views the Indians as inferiors in accordance with Western notions of
racial hierarchies, her relationship with the white master is more ambiguous and complicated
than her relationships with the Indians. When she makes her first appearance, the smuggler
dresses up like Marilyn Monroe with blonde wig and a trench coat. Later in the film, it turns out
her white boss has a fetish for Asian women who wear blonde wigs, which suggests that her look
is probably the bosss idea and that her identity seems to be imposed by the white man. Even
though she has been submissive to her white boss, she has been suspicious about his credibility.
We do not know how and when she finds out that the boss and the Indian associates have plotted
against her. The ambiguous relationship between the smuggler and her boss provides an allegory
of the relationship between the colonized and the colonizer: the former works for the latter
without completely trusting him. This distrust is often seen in Hong Kong cinema in which
corrupt white men in positions of power exploit the Asian subjects. In this light, there is a
symbolic value when she kills the white man, removes her blonde wig, and reveals her black
hair, which represents her rediscovery of her true identity. As Evans Chan notes, the Chinese
gun moll is fighting150 years lateran opium war of her own (Postmodernism and Hong
Kong cinema).
As the end of the British colonial rule approached, Wongs portrait of a Chinese woman
in a blonde working for a white master while exploiting people with darker skin offers an
interesting interpretation of the changes in popular attitudes toward the relationship between the
white colonizer and people of color. The female smugglers removal of her disguise reveals her


true identity as a Chinese woman, which unmistakably reflects the ongoing process of
decolonization in Hong Kong.

New Gender Order

Chungking Express is also the first film in which Wong shows changing gender dynamics
in Hong Kong. In his previous films, Wongs female characters are one-dimensional. They are
either good women, who are virtuous, docile, and caring, or bad women, who are self-centered
and destructive. However, in Chungking Express, women are assertive and independent. In the
first half of the film, the female smuggler works with men but not as a woman with a pretty face
but as partners and equals. When she discovers that her male partners have cheated her, she kills
them all and walks free. In the second half of the film, Cop #663s ex-girlfriend and Faye are
both flight attendants. The resulting mobility has set them free from the domestic sphere and
further empowers them to take the dominant roles in their romantic relationships with men. The
ex-girlfriend is seductive and playful in her relationship with #663, whereas Faye initiates her
relationship with the man she secretly loves. Faye even inverts the conventional male
voyeuristic gaze by sneaking into #663s apartment and rearranging his furniture.
In contrast to their female counterparts, the men in Chungking Express are vulnerable,
childish, and maternal. As the story progresses, both Cop #223 and Cop #663 are dumped by
their girlfriends. Contrary to conventional representations of policemen as unemotional and
manly, these characters wallow in self-pity as they continuously mourn the loss of their
girlfriends. In Masculinity and Hong Kong Cinema, Laikwan Pang and Day Wong describe the
lack of the traditional masculine attributes in some male characters in Hong Kong films,
observing that Men were no longer caught in traps because they were already depraved,


hopeless, or dead. These new films no longer mourned the vulnerability and impotence of the
male characters because they had all turned into comical figuresWomen now embodied the
future of Hong Kong (36).
In Chungking Express, the two policemen are reduced to comical figures. After Cop
#663s girlfriend leaves him, he acts like a little girl, venting his frustration to the stuffed animals
in his apartment and asking for medical leave after he hurts himself with a safety pin. Cop #223
eats canned pineapple when dumped by his girlfriend, spends a night with the wigged women
alone in a hotel room watching Chinese opera, and uses his tie to clean her shoes.

The Optimistic Ending

As a process of deterritorialization, globalization presents a bleak future because it risks
annihilating traditional ideas of space, creating tensions between local and global forces,
widening social inequalities, and restructuring racial and gender orders (Westerfield). However,
the happy ending of Chungking Express seems to trace different implications of globalization.
Although Cop #233 loses his girlfriend, a new relationship appears to bloom when the smuggler
sends him a message to celebrate his birthday. Similarly, in the second story, although Faye
leaves for California after Cop #663 asks her out, Faye sends him an airline ticket a year later
and asks him to join her. The Midnight Express changes hands at the end of the film as the
former owner sells it to Cop #663, who seems happy to take it over. The use of the song Things
in Life by the Jamaican reggae singer Dennis Brown on the soundtrack also expresses Wongs
optimistic view of the changes. The song advances the need to face changes directly and to
embrace uncertainty in life: It is not everyday were gonna be the same way. There must be a


change somehow. There are bad times and good times too. So have a little faith in what you
This optimistic attitude toward an uncertain future provides a strategy for survival by
showing, paradoxically, that global processes provoke responses that reinforce local identities.
Although globalization produces homogenizing forces that threaten to erase cultural differences,
it also fosters a sense of localization that resists the potential of uniformity. For Wong,
embracing the outside world does not necessarily mean losing what makes the place unique: on
the contrary, it may reinforce the sense of locality. After all, many residents engage in the
discourse of preserving their culture under the threat of penetration of distant forces. In the film,
Faye returns to Hong Kong after her trip to California. When Cop # 663 asks her about her
travels, she says in a careless manner, California is nothing special. Fayes international
journey brings her closer to home, to what she did not value before, and, most importantly, to
Cop #663. Her experiences outside the region help her return. While Faye had been attracted to
the opportunity for world travel provided by globalization, her return to Hong Kong indicates the
resilience of locality in this era.
In its investigation of the placeless, or rather the absence of it, and non-places in addition
to changes to the hierarchies of race and gender in Hong Kong, Chungking Express creates a
critical space for exploration of global compression in the urban environment. Through the
characters daily experiences, the film shows that the global Hong Kong is a city of both
opportunities and limitations. While the global space promises prosperity and more profits for
some people, most individuals are kept out of the space of the placeless and find that such
progress is out of reach. As globalization transcends borders and boundaries, it also widens class
inequalities, creates new racial problems, and threatens to undermine local cultures. The next


chapter will analyze the postmodern aspects of Hong Kong in Fallen Angels, investigate how
Wong creates an ambiguous image of Hong Kong, and examine how Wongs imagery of Hong
Kong reflects the formation of identity. Chungking Express and Fallen Angels present the bright
and dark sides of Hong Kong, and both films are meant to preserve Hong Kong that is rapidly
disappearing. Fallen Angels employs distinctive landmarks, such as the football stadium, the
GuanTang railway station, and the three Six Nine restaurants, that locate the film unmistakably
in Hong Kong while also presenting a gloomy picture of a Hong Kong in which criminals
dominate the city space.


Fallen Angels (1995), the sequel to Chungking Express, is set in contemporary Hong
Kong. It has two parts: the first centers on the relationship between the killer (Leon Lai) and his
female partner (Michele Reis), while the second focuses on the mute (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and
the girl (Charlie Young) on whom he has a crush. The only connection between these two
stories is the Chungking Mansion, where both the female partner and the mute live. Huang
Zhiming is a professional hit man, and his female partner manages everything for him from
scouting the murder sites to cleaning his apartment. Although the two never meet, she falls in
love with the killer. When he decides to terminate their partnership, the female assistant sets him
up and has him killed on his last job. In the second story, the mute, He Zhiwu, is a petty criminal
who breaks into stores late at night and forces strangers into business with him. He helps Charlie
in her hunt for the rival Blondie. When he falls in love with Charlie, she leaves him to become a
flight attendant. At the end of the film, the female partner and the mute meet and ride off on a
motorcycle into an unknown future.
Fallen Angels invites varying interpretations. Dominic Pettman focuses on the liminality
in the film by examining the characters positions as exiles. He argues that the characters are
similar to the fallen angels of Cacciari in that they inhabit the spaces between Hong Kongs
shifting identity (70). Christoph Lindner analyzes Fallen Angels in the context of Wongs
treatment of Hong Kong as a global city. Drawing upon the notions of the blas metropolitan


attitude and postmetropolis from Georg Simmel and Edward Soja respectively, Lindner
examines the relationship between globalization and violence in Fallen Angels.
The representation of Hong Kong in Fallen Angels is the opposite of that in Chungking
Express: Hong Kong in Fallen Angels is dominated by criminals and ruled by uncertainty.
Wong says, these two films should be seen together as a double bill. Chungking Express and
Fallen Angels together are the bright and dark of Hong Kong (Ong). In contrast to the urban
environment in Chungking Express, which ends with hope and love, Fallen Angels presents a
dystopia, a city of dark shadows, death, and despair that threatens to overwhelm the metropolis
in Chungking Express. Generally speaking, policemen control the urban space in Chungking
Express. Although there are bursts of violence, the officers always restore order, and the topdown vantage point of the protagonists, #223 and #663, highlights the stability of the cityscape.
Fallen Angels adopts a perspective from below, where social practice is observed at street level.
While there are also night scenes in Chungking Express, the film is suffused with daytime
lighting and relatively bright colors. However, in Fallen Angels, the city is foreboding with
enveloping darkness and oppressive skylines pressing down toward the characters.
Apart from this emphasis on the dark side of the city, Fallen Angels also provides a
glimpse of a nocturnal city that moves at a faster pace than the one in Chungking Express.
While the characters in the latter walk or run occasionally in the city, the characters in the former
are transported mechanically throughout the city, and they travel in fast-moving vehicles
between home and work. The characters frequently and rapidly travel across the urban space,
which is manifested in the recurring images of the MTR, the minibus, and the mutes motorbike.
The characters travels illustrate the compression of time and space. In Fallen Angels, capital,
information, and people are traveling at a much faster speed than ever before.


The ubiquitous presence of communication technologies, such as televisions, pagers, fax

machines, and camcorders in Fallen Angels, also indicate that the city is characterized by a rapid
flow of information, which further collapses distance. For instance, every household in the film
has televisions, and these devices play important roles in the characters lives. In Fallen Angels,
television is humans best friend. The central characters spend most of their time in front of
television when they are at home. Right after the opening scene of the film, after the female
agent steps into the killers apartment, we hear the television at the same time when the light is
turned on. This sequence lasts a minute and a half, while Wongs fast cutting shows the female
agent doing all kinds of chores, mopping the floor, feeding paper to the fax machine, fixing the
clock, and more, yet the killers television never stops flashing images. In fact, the changes in
programming express the passage of time throughout the scene.
More importantly, the lack of human contact reaches its extreme in Fallen Angels. The
characters do not interact with one another in person but instead rely on technology to
communicate. The killer does not meet his female until the end of their relationship, which is
155 weeks after the first day they worked together. When they are partners, they only exchange
information by pagers and fax machines. The mute simply does not talk. He communicates his
feelings for his father by videotaping him and playing it for him. Without the excessive voiceovers, the entire film could have been almost a silent film. Instead of conversing with one
another, the characters talk to themselves and the audience through voice-overs in order to
convey their private thoughts.
Furthermore, the bombardment of over-stimulating signs and spectacles also defines
Wongs nocturnal city in Fallen Angels. The killers bus ride across the city illustrates this point.
In this sequence, as he leaves his apartment to complete his next murder, a tracking shot shows


him walking past heavy traffic to take a bus across the town, yet the shot inside the bus only
shows the killer. On the screen, we see the street scene from a passengers perspective with the
rearview mirror reflecting the image of the killer. While the bus moves forward, Wong uses fast
motion to show a fast-moving cityscape. Streams of neon lights of various colors and forms
swim toward the viewer and then fall rapidly out of view only to be succeeded by the next
image. On the right side, oncoming vehicles pass by like shooting stars. The blinding headlights
of these vehicles highlight the chaos and disorientation of the scene. The rain-soaked street
reflects the neon lights, which doubles the existing lights and produces a world of mirage. In the
rearview mirror, the killer grows tired of the scene and is ready to take a nap. The street scene is
just one example of Jean-Marc Lalannes claim that the film produces overwhelming images that
make Wongs cinematic space a land of images where cinemas mystique, as an art of
registering, would cease to have any meaning, where images would seem self-engendered,
deploying themselves without any reference to the real (14).
The attributes that distinguish Fallen Angels from Wongs other films link it to
postmodernism. Fallen Angels shares some key features of postmodernism in terms of its
obsession with spectacular images and Wongs playful treatment of the underworld. Fallen
Angels emphasizes the surface of experience through the representation of the killer, who looks
like a rock star. He has greased hair and wears a thick silver necklace, a black suit, and a white
shirt. While he fires two guns, the slow-motion, low-camera angle, and the non-diegetic music
make him look dangerous yet cool and glamorous. The use of Robison Randriaharimalalas
song Because I'm Cool when the killer murders his victims self-consciously points out the
effects that the filmmaker tries to achieve. Also, the female agents huge cocktail ring, black
fishnet leggings, glittering black leather dress, and her floral cheongsam covered up by


transparent vinyl offer the audience a spectacle that keeps them staring. Clearly, Wongs goal is
to impress the audience with spectacles, images, and visual effects. On the first day of shooting
Fallen Angels, Wong picked the most unusual lensan extra-wide camera lensto film a small
noodle house in order to produce extraordinary visual images. He states: I felt that a wide-angle
lens was quite ordinary. So I asked my cameraman, Do we have an extra-wide-angle? Yes,
he said, We have a 6.8. But that will make your actress look terrible. I said, Lets try it
(Brunette 116).
Wongs playfulness is evident throughout Fallen Angels. Discussing the film, Wong says,
Like playing with genres, its like a game for us, just a joke (Brunette 118). His playfulness
also lies in his ambivalent attitude toward morality. As the title of the film suggests, every
character in the film is a fallen angel, who has sinned in some way. However, immorality is
inconsequential in the film. Although the killers death might appear to be a punishment for his
crimes, it is more of a punishment for his inability to love because his female agent plots his
murder for revenge. Other characters simply move on with their respective lives. In the
dystopian world of Fallen Angels, there is not a moral compass to guide his characters. The
mute is another example of the playfulness in the film. After his arrest when the police attempt
to take his mug shot, the mute responds to the sound of camera shutter by making faces and
posing like a model. Even when he is heartbroken, he acts it out in a pastiche of a mime. To
suggest that he is bleeding because his heart is broken, he grabs a bottle of ketchup and smears
the sauce on his white shirt.
Since the postmodern is crucial to the understanding of this film, it is necessary to define
its major characteristics. Due to the complexity of the postmodern, there is not a straightforward,
uncontroversial, and unified definition. This inability to identify a stable meaning reflects a


central component of the postmodern, which celebrates playfulness, plurality, and relativism.
Although both postmodernity and postmodernism are meant to describe the postmodern, they
have different implications. The former refers to the historical time that follows modernity,
whereas the latter is a cultural movement or practice that can be distinguished from modernism.
In Symbolic Exchange and Death, Jean Baudrillard announces the end of modernity and the
arrival of the new epoch of postmodernity in Western contemporary society. However, JeanFranois Lyotard asserts that the postmodern is a continuation or an extension of its preceding
epoch (Lyotard 79). With this in mind, postmodernism provides more insight for an analysis of
Fallen Angels as this term denotes changing aesthetic styles or cultural transformations.
Postmodernism captures the essence of the new social phenomenon produced by the growth of
the mass media, computers, and other communication technologies.
However, theorists cannot agree on the meaning of postmodernism. For instance,
Lyotard views postmodernism as a cultural production of postindustrial society and characterizes
it as incredulity toward master narratives (xxiv). David Harvey focuses on time-space
compression as the key figure of postmodernism and posits that it is a fundamental
rearrangement of the relationship between time and space (1989). In Postmodernism, or The
Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson asserts that postmodernism is a cultural
dominant among various subordinate cultures (4). Postmodernism, for Jameson, is not the only
cultural form but the dominant one in the transition period from the modern to the postmodern.
Of these interpretations, I shall accept Jamesons definition and use some of the postmodern
symptoms he has diagnosed to discuss Fallen Angels.
Given the definition, Hong Kong certainly has witnessed some of the key postmodern
attributes, which are reflected in the works of local artists. For instance, Stephen Teo asserts that


Hong Kongnese actor Stephen Chiau Sing-chi is an embodiment of postmodernism because he

subverts distinctions between low and high culture and turns vulgarity into his mou lei-tau
(nonsense) humor (Postmodernism and the End of Hong Kong Cinema 176). Alexander
Cuthbert also contends that Hong Kong is a postmodern city because it is characterized by
flexibility, deregulation, and dispersal. Mee-Kau Nyaw endorses the view that Hong Kong is
postmodern due to the popular attitude which rejects any grand narrativesof society and
which is celebrated in the diversity of beliefs and meanings (pluralism), an attitude which rejects
any form of totalization and embraces the fragmenting or the decentering of the self (479).
Some of the major postmodern conditions in Fallen Angels include fragmentation of the
self, schizophrenia, and waning of affect. These symptoms help delineate the characters
identities as well as their relationships with the urban space. Further, these symptoms enable
Wong to visually map out a psychological landscape of Hong Kong through mise-en-scne,
camera angles, and characterization.
Between modernity and postmodernity, the idea of identity has gone through many
changes. In modern society, questions of identity first result from the separation between private
and public realms under the influence of social transformations, such as rising individualism and
modernization in addition to the disintegration of traditional society (Dunn 10). Identity, tied to
geography, origin, birth, cultural heritage, politics, and power, is believed to be fixed and
coherent. However, this split of private and public lives not only gives rise to the individual
search for the self but also leads to an identity crisis in advanced capitalist society. As a result of
privatization and social disintegration, individuals become gradually disconnected from their
communities. This significantly destabilizes and changes the way identity is formed.


As modernity marches onward to postmodern, traditional notions of identity are further

questioned and reworked. The development of technology complicates human relationships and
challenges the accepted modern notions of identity. Overwhelmed by the excess of things in
consumer society, individuals are now defined by their choices of commodities and patterns of
consumption. Robert G. Dunn claims that the formation of identity no longer depends on
history, culture, geography alone; instead, he asserts that identity now is more a matter of
personal choice, and human relationships are mediated in relation to products (9). Consumption
characterizes us as we consume for sensation and pleasure. Brian Massumi also concludes that
postmodern identity is defined through the purchase of material objects (7).
These changes in subjectivity invite a new reading of both personal identity and
collective identity as alienated individuals continue to disengage themselves from public life and
politics. When individuals further withdraw from the public realm and stop engaging themselves
in collective activities, the communities on which national or regional identities so heavily
depend will eventually disappear. Globalization and the development of cyberspace also pose a
challenge to beliefs that identities are fixed and tied to geographical boundaries. Due to these
complexities, postmodernist scholars predict that the fragmentation and plurality of subjectivity
will eventually cause the dissolution of collective identity and make nation-states outdated.
Hong Kong society in 1995 shared the identity crisis articulated in postmodern discourse.
In contemporary Hong Kong, commodification has displaced community, weakened traditions,
and produced isolated individuals who are unsure of their identities. These changes have called
old concepts of local identity into question, manifested in the connection that many residents
imagine they have had with the land of Hong Kong. To investigate the attachment to Hong
Kong, Pui-tak Lee and Choi Po-king conducted a survey of residents about their sense of place.


Their research reveals that although the majority of locals identify themselves as Hong
Kongnese, their relationship with the place is an instrumental one. In Hong Kong Reintegrating
with China, the two researchers note:
In the words of [the] researcher, Wong Sui-lun, the sense of belonging of Hong Kong
people was not an expression of community solidarity and collective allegiance to a
locality. It was merely an attachment to something mobile and intangible: a way of life
or an ethos that transcends geographical boundaries. Another sociologist, Lui Tailoklamented that the so-called Hong Kong consciousness is nothing but the Hong Kong
style of life. (219)
These findings raise questions regarding the fate of collective identity in Hong Kong: will the
nation-state eventually disappear? How will these changes impact our lives in the future? What
will the declining importance of nation-states do to the sense of self? Since globalization,
technology, and computerization further blur national borders and since identity is more of a
choice than a constraint imposed by the external world, nation-states in our lives are likely to
play a less relevant role. In the future, identity, individual or collective, will probably be
constituted as a personal choice.
Individuals in Fallen Angels share this identity crisis as they are reduced to numbers,
which perfectly describe the characters anonymous existences. Most of the characters remain
anonymous throughout the film, while some names are casually mentioned but are soon
forgotten. The characters names do not adequately represent who they are in their marginalized
social space, and they feel alienated from their names. For instance, the audience never learns
the female agents name or anything about her except for her partnership and obsession with the
killer, who gets used to his present identity as the number that his partner assigns him. His


present existence is distant from his former identity as Huang Zhiming, and this manifests when
he does not immediately respond to an old classmate who addresses the killer by his old name.
The killer calls his ex-girlfriend (Karen Mok) Baby, a term of endearment to address someone
with whom the addresser has an intimate relationship. In the second half of the story, the mute
only mentions his name when he introduces himself to the audience. However, he gives his
name along with his prison identification number as if it also defines his identity.
Fallen Angels involves not only the characters anonymous existences but also the failure
of their memories, which draws attention to another important symptom of the postmodern. The
loss of historical consciousness is an important theme of the film. Theorists such as Jameson,
Lyotard, and Baudrillard, agree that postmodernism is characterized by historical amnesia. To
describe this loss of historical consciousness, Jameson uses the term schizophrenic, which he
borrows from Jacques Lacans account of schizophrenia and Saussurean structuralism. The
victims of schizophrenia cannot experience temporal continuity; they are not able to retain the
historical past, and they are left instead with a perpetual present. For Jameson, the postmodern
subjects suffer from schizophrenic experience because in late capitalist society, the past reality is
forever lost, and now we live only with imitations of the past: schizophrenic experience is an
experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link into a
coherent sequence (Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism 119).
In Fallen Angels, the characters are condemned to live at the perpetual present since they
are cut off from the past and have no promise for the future. The killer does not seem want to be
associated with the past. When invited to his classmates wedding, he throws the invitation away
after his classmate leaves the bus. His state of living at the present is best demonstrated when he
tells Baby, I didnt say I love you. I just need a company only for tonight. The female


agent enjoys her days as much as she can and lives as if her days are numbered. As she is aware
that her passion for the killer is forbidden, she wastes no time in gaining pleasure from autoeroticism in the absence of her lover. Additionally, the mute refuses to grow up when his father
is around, which suggests a reluctance to engage the future. His connection with the past seems
lost along with his deceased mother. Whatever he tells us about the past comes from the father.
The killers clock that does not tell time signifies his marginalized status and
schizophrenic condition. In the opening of the film, the female agent has to reset the clock
before she finishes cleaning the killers apartment. Without a clock in proper working order, the
killers world will not be synchronized with the outside world and will operate under its own
temporal rules without moving on into the future. This seems odd since time has always been
important in Wongs films. For instance, in Days of Being Wild, Yuddy is obsessed with time.
He keeps track of time when he first meets Su and when he first visits his mother in the
Philippines. The narrators in In the Mood for Love and 2046 keep talking about time. In
Chungking Express, Cop #223 counts the days until he can leave his girlfriend, and Wongs
close-ups constantly show a ticking clock to emphasize the passage of time. However, in Fallen
Angels, time does not work in the same way for Wongs marginalized characters, who live
according to a different timeline. They are nocturnal, and they leave their dwellings to work
when the majority of the population returns home. The female agent explains: Normal people
go to work at nine am and come home at five pm. My schedule is opposite to everyone else.
This alternate temporal scheme underlines the marginalized roles of the characters, who live in a
different world from the one in Chungking Express and follow different rules from those in
Chungking Express. Wongs different treatment of time might indicate the possibility that
people from the lower spectrum of Hong Kong society might feel the least negative impact from


the 1997 handover. The characters in Fallen Angels, deprived of social status and property, do
not seem to feel the pressure of time and the anxiety toward change since they have no stake in
the present social order. They already deal with stress and fear every day, and they are already
condemned to live at perpetual present.
Schizophrenia is especially evident in the most expressive characters: Baby and Charlie.
In contrast to the other characters, who do not express themselves in their encounters with others,
these women simply cannot stop talking. While the killer, the female agent, and the mute only
share their feelings through voice-overs, Baby and Charlie talk to clothes, an inflatable sex doll,
and imaginary listeners, vocalizing every thought that comes to their minds. Baby and Charlie
provide extreme examples of expressiveness. When they talk, they do not seem to address
anyone in particular since their gazes are not fixed upon the listeners but on random objects,
which makes them appear to be thinking out loud all the time.
Although Baby is verbally expressive, there is a lack of congruence between her
emotions and the expressions she gives to the emotions. Baby has lost the referential relation
between signified and signifier, and she cannot find the proper expression for her feelings as she
reveals her interior world through either screaming or laughing. Baby screams from the moment
when she runs off with the killer in the rain until the minute they break up. When she is happy,
she screams; when she is sad, she also screams. She often laughs and smiles for no reason. In
one sequence when she delivers a message from the female agent to the killer, she is jealous and
implies that the killer should not go to meet the agent. We do not see the killer but only Baby,
who is talking, laughing, and playing with a roll of toilet paper as if she is delivering a
monologue. She behaves so strangely that one cannot help questioning her sanity and the
credibility of her claim that she used to date the killer.


Charlie obviously hallucinates, thinking that everyone is, or at least related to, her
opponent Blondie. Intense emotions bordering on hysteria characterize Charlie as she always
yells and threatens to turn to violent means. As the story unfolds, we learn that she does not
even know what Blondie looks like, although her phone conversation reveals that Blondie and
Charlie used to be friends and that Blondie stole Charlies boyfriend. She confuses the inflatable
sex doll for Blondie and destroys it. However, the hunt for Blondie continues until one day in a
restaurant everyone turns out to be Blondie and a fight breaks out. Later, when the mutes dad
asks for her name on the phone, Charlie answers, Blondie. This is another example of the loss
of the relationship between the signified and the signifier, which is an essential component of
schizophrenia. The signified, the girl who steals Charlies boyfriend, and the signifier, the name
Blondie, lose connection. As a result, in Charlies eyes, everyone becomes Blondie.
Amnesia is another important symptom that prevails among Wongs characters. In
Fallen Angels, the killers memory loss reminds us of Rick Deckard in Blade Runner (1988),
which David Harvey uses in his discussion of postmodernism. In Blade Runner, ones identity
as a human or a cyborg depends on ones memory. In Deckards fictional world, replicants are
almost the same as human beings, and the only thing that distinguishes one from the other is the
fact that cyborgs, unlike humans, do not have memories. Having a memory of the past can save
one from being executed as a retired cyborg.
However, in Fallen Angels, erasing memories seems to be a way of survival. Without the
emotional baggage of the past, one can take better advantage of today, so voluntary amnesia
could be beneficial. The killer doesnt remember his old name, his ex-girlfriend, his classmate,
or the location of his work. As a matter of fact, he is so forgetful that when he leaves his exgirlfriend, she bites him to leave a mark on his body so that he will remember her. When the


killer walks away, in voice-over he says, Whether I remember her or not isnt important. To
her, I am only a phase. Charlie also has amnesia in that she does not remember where exactly
her rival lives. Instead of taking the mute to the right place, he and Charlie wonder from house
to house and search each floor in a hopeless search to locate Blondie. Finally, the mute
comments, That night we went to many places. I start to wonder whether she knows where the
girl lives. The last time the mute runs into the girl, she sees him but does not recognize him.
The mute says in voice-over, On August 29th in 1995, I ran into my first love. But it seems that
she has already forgotten me. If memory defines ones identity, these two characters obviously
have fragmented identities due to their inability to experience temporal continuity.
The characters schizophrenic perceptions of the world and their sense of incoherence are
reinforced through Wongs editing, which is reminiscent of the techniques employed on MTV.
Wongs narrative is already chopped up as the narratives of the killer and the mute often intersect.
This arrangement disrupts the sense of wholeness and presents a fragmented experience of the
world. However, Wong foregrounds a further sense of discontinuity through speeding up and
slowing down the action, shifting from color to black and white and back, using a hand-held
camera, and employing numerous crosscuts. In his discussion of postmodern culture, Jameson
observes that MTV offers an example of fragmentation by presenting an amalgam of images
without generating any coherent meaning. MTV deemphasizes the development of narrative in
favor of combining music and images in order to create a desirable mood instead of meaning.
More often, images are linked together randomly to catch up with rhythm of music, producing a
strong sense of fragmentation and incoherence.
Wong cuts between two distinct lines of action even when two scenes do not occur
simultaneously. In one sequence, when the killer goes to his second job in the film, his walk


through a hair salon is juxtaposed against the female partner scouting the same place at an earlier
time. The scene is presented in slow motion and involves crosscutting, which matches the
rhythm of the non-diegetic music. Furthermore, Wong highlights the fragmented nature of the
scene through chopping up the trip of the female agent and playing it backwards. Therefore,
when the killer walks into the salon, the female agent is about to finish her field trip; when the
killer ends his tour and starts firing at his victims, the female agent has just opened the door and
entered the room. It takes a minute for the audience to realize that the two could not possibly
have happened at the same time, and the crosscutting between the two lines of action does not
even make much sense or serve any obvious purpose.
Wong often switches from black and white to color without any warning, which also
creates discontinuity and incoherence. For instance, the film begins at present time in black and
white but next scene in flashback is in color. Similarly, when the agent plays the killers song,
the first shot is in color as she slips a coin to the jukebox, but when the jukebox starts to play, the
screen turns black and white. The same happens in the story of the mute. The first shot in color
shows the mute and Charlie run out of a room where a riot takes place. In following shot, we see
the two back in the room sitting as the whole scene turns black and white.
One might argue that in the dialectics of forgetting and remembering, Baby and the mute,
who are obsessed with remembering, seem to represent a counter-narrative of dissolution of
history. Baby desperately wants the killer to remember their past, and she frequently reminds
him of the time they spent together. She keeps his old T-shirt and tells him that he used to call
her Baby. She also tells the killer that she dyes her hair so that people will not forget her.
When he is leaving her, she bites him and says, I want to leave a mark. Even if one day you no
longer remember me, you will remember that I bit you. Actually, you can easily remember my


look. I have a mole on my face. Any woman with a mole on her face walking to you in streets
could be me.
Similarly, the mute has a very good memory of what his dad told him, and he is
determined to preserve the past as well as the present. He uses a camcorder to record everything
his father does. After the father dies, the tape becomes the mutes only memory of him. While
watching the tape over and over again, the mute says in voice-over, Seeing my dad cooking, I
feel happy. Although I know I will never have a chance to have a steak cooked by him, I will
forever remember the flavor.
However, this effort to preserve the memory of his father on a tape, which parallels
Wong Kar-wais efforts to preserve Hong Kong in his films, paradoxically reflects the demise of
history. Wong says, So in Fallen Angels, I was trying to include a location which I thought
would disappear within a year or two, like the teahouse and restaurants where the killers went,
and the place where he lives (Brunette 118). The threat of loss of history invokes passion for
historicity, but returning to the past is simply rendered impossible. Preservation is problematic
because what is preserved is always selective, and it is impossible to represent the whole truth.
In Fallen Angels, mise-en-scne also constructs an image of Hong Kong that is devoid of
history and memory. For instance, the characters dwellings show no traces of the past. All the
places seem transitory and temporary. The female agents small room in the Chungking
Mansion only has enough space for a bed. It is depressingly small and dark like a cave.
Everything she does takes place in bed: counting money, looking through the killers garbage,
and watching TV. This room reflects a broader history of disappearance since all traces of
former guests have been erased before she takes residence. The killers small and poorlyfurnished apartment also shows no signs of memories or history: it is apparently a temporary


dwelling place and nothing more. His refrigerator has nothing in it except for a dozen beers.
When we are first introduced to his place, the clock on the wall does not even tell time.
In addition to the experiences of fragmentation, Wongs postmodern protagonists also
suffer from the waning of affect. Cut off from the outside world, they are desocialized subjects,
who are desperately lonely but not unhappy. In this sense, Fallen Angels reflects Jamesons
argument about the waning of affect. According to Jameson, this decline does not mean the end
of all human feelings but instead expresses the anxiety and alienation, the major characteristics
of modern society, demonstrated in Edvard Munchs painting The Scream. Jameson explains:
This is not to say that the cultural products of the postmodern era are utterly devoid of
feeling, but rather that such feelingsare now free-floating and impersonal, and tend to
be dominated by a peculiar kind of euphoria. (Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of
Late Capitalism 72)
The killer and the female agent distance themselves from one another and avoid any emotional
involvement. When this becomes impossible, they have to terminate the partnership.
This waning of affect is made prominent by the two characters appearances. The hit
man always wears black suits and white shirts. He has slick, black hair with long bangs hanging
over his forehead, so it is difficult to see his eyes. The female agent wears fishnet stockings and
shiny, patent-leather dresses. She also hides herself behind these tight, shiny dresses, which,
according to the filmmaker, reminds one of condoms and self-protection (Zhang). She has long,
straight hair, and, like the killer, she also looks at the world from behind long bangs that cover
her eyes, which signifies her lack of communication with the outside world. Both characters
seem to have just walked out from a film noir.


In Fallen Angels, there are no meaningful, spontaneous relationships among the

characters, and human activities revolve solely around money. The killer and the agent
deliberately keep their distance from one another to stop their relationship from being
contaminated by emotions. The killer needs his agent to scout murder sites in addition to
managing information and financial transactions for him. In return, the female partner counts on
his efficiency to have customers. They are good partners until the agent starts developing
emotions toward him, which results in the end of their relationship. Also, the female agent
ironically refers to scouting locations for the hit mans jobs as visiting friends. However, the
friends who are about to be murdered know nothing about her, and she knows nothing about
them. In a voice-over, she states, I know none of these [friends], neither am I interested.
Because they will disappear very soon. This cold, impersonal attitude dominates Wongs
modern urban narratives. Furthermore, the relationship between the mute and Charlie also starts
with money. When they first meet, Charlie borrows money from the mute to make phone calls
and also borrows his shoulder to cry on in the moment of fragility. When her crisis is over and
she no longer needs the mute, she forgets him and starts a new relationship with someone else.
To map out the psychological impact of this waning of affect on the characters and their
desocialization, Wong often films these characters in empty spaces. Hong Kong is the most
densely populated place in the world. However, Wongs postmodern city in Fallen Angels often
appears to be a ghost town. The railway station where the killer and his agent are first seen is
empty. Their footsteps echo in the underground station, which not only foregrounds the
emptiness of the place, but also creates an eerie feeling. The Cross Harbor Tunnel is one of the
most congested places in the world, but when the mute rides his motorcycle through the tunnel,
there are rarely any other vehicles in sight. We see an empty space that extends endlessly.


Wongs use of extreme wide-angle lenses also enhances the waning of affect by
amplifying and distorting the space and anything inside it. The wide and extreme wide angles
give prominence to the sense of isolation by depicting a city in which people are physically close
to each other but mentally distant. While sharing his experiences with these lenses for filming
crowded spaces, cinematographer Christopher Doyle recalls:
It is about space, we use wide angle because these people look so close together but they
are so distant. The camera should be close to them; you feel so close to them but you
know they are very separated by great distance of incomprehensibility. They cant talk to
each other. (Rayns)
Generally speaking, wide angles accentuate the depth of field and show both the foreground and
background in focus. In Fallen Angels, there are two primary uses of this type of lenses. In each
case, these lenses isolate the characters from the indifferent cityscape and emphasize the
prevailing sense of solitude. First, when the camera has the cityscape in the foreground and the
characters in the background, these lenses make the city appear to be immense and menacing.
For instance, in the railway station from which the female assistant takes a train to the killers
apartment, wide-angle shots increase her speed as she walks away from the audience. This
technique highlights a sense of urgency as if she was escaping. They also maximize her tiny
figure as she ascends on the escalator. When she stands on the moving escalator, the shot shows
her being encompassed by the monstrous yellow columns of the station. This shot makes the
assistant seem like an insect drowning in a sea of cement and steel, which expresses her
vulnerability within the urban landscape.
Also, the wide-angle cinematography draws attention to the characters isolation by
amplifying empty spaces and squeezing humans into a corner of the foreground, a technique that


Wong also uses in another film 2046. These shots make the characters seem more distant from
their surroundings than they actually are. When the assistant visits a restaurant after the killer
dies, she sits in front of the camera, eating a bowl of noodles and complaining about the cold
weather. Her head and one hand occupy two-thirds of the screen. Through the wide-angle lens,
her face is distorted, and her forehead appears disproportionately large. As she is eating in the
foreground, the mute becomes involved in a fight in the background. She is only one table away
from the fight, but the space between her and the altercation is elongated to present a subjective
perception. In addition, it is difficult to tell from her facial expression whether she really hears
them. She continues to contemplate the weather and the killers demise. This scene conveys her
isolation from the outside world by contrasting her calmness with the violence behind her, in
addition to the collision between her subjective perception and reality.
To portray a city of fallen angels, Wong also uses unusual camera angles that give the
city a sinister feeling. For instance, the Dutch angle reflects the characters dislocation and
estrangement. When filming at such an angle, the shots defamiliarize the common aspects of
everyday life, impart a new energy to familiar objects, and make the city appear in a certain way
to convey desirable psychological implications. In the entire film, there are seldom any straight
shots of objects; instead, scenes are often filmed from a tilted angle in addition to a high or low
angle, which signify unusual perspectives. Also, the constant motion of the camera underscores
the schizophrenic condition of the central characters.
After all, Wongs cinematic space of postmodern Hong Kong in Fallen Angels is a
dystopia pervaded by struggle and despair, a noir city characterized by uncertainty and chaos.
Situated in Hong Kong are Wongs four fallen angelsthe killer, the agent, the mute, and
Charlieas suggested by the title of the film. In the Christian tradition, the fallen angels are


those who, along with Lucifer, were banished from Heaven for their rebellion against God. In
Wongs urban narrative, every character/angel has sinned: the contract killer commits murder for
money, the female agent has the killer slain after he rejects her love, the mute is a petty criminal,
and Charlie is preoccupied with revenge. Therefore, Wongs fallen angels are all banished from
the realm of normal lives and condemned to live in the perpetual present.
The dystopian elements of Fallen Angels are evident through its conclusion. In the end,
the four major characters are reduced to two as the killer is murdered and Charlie walks out of
the mutes life for good. While the female agent and the mute pair up and move on, the mute
indicates that there is no hope that they would ever be friends. After all, life continues. Riding
on the motorcycle behind the mute, the agent falls into meditation. In a voice-over, she says, I
havent been so close to anyone for a long time. Although I know this ride wont last long and
soon enough I will get off, at this moment I feel warm. This observation echoes with the mutes
and her own comments about the cold weather, which functions as a reference to the
dehumanizing world of isolation. As she slowly closes her eyes to enjoy the moment, the camera
moves to the mute. In the wide-angle shot, he tries to see the road with his squinting eyes
through thick cigarette smoke, while his face is distorted in front of the camera. However, the
mute does not look frightening or devilish. Instead, his distorted face draws the audience closer
to both characters to identify with them, to feel their pain, and to share their hope for survival.
As Stehphen Teo suggests, we are all fallen angels who live in the same city, psychologically
speaking (84-85).
By drawing on the key symptoms that plague Wongs characters, this chapter argues that
Wongs cinematic space and subjectivity mark a dramatic break from the previous films in
discussion. Wongs fallen angels register typical symptoms, such as negation of subjectivity,


schizophrenic experience, and waning of affect, that suggest the dissolution of history. Previous
chapters have demonstrated the transformation of identity in Hong Kong by looking at liminal
identity in Days of Being Wild, an all-pervasive diasporic identity in In the Mood for Love and
2046, a strong desire to belong in As Tears Go by, the tension between local and global in
Chungking Express, and an identity crisis in Fallen Angels. However, ending the analysis of
space and identity with Wongs Fallen Angels is not to suggest that this is the end of the struggle
with local identity in Hong Kong. The discussion of Hong Kong identity will remain a central
concern probably until 2046 when the policy of one country, two systems comes to its own
expiration date.


This dissertation has examined Wong Kar-wais representation of Hong Kong and its
relationship with the construction of local identity. This study traces changes in Wongs
treatment of the city and how his characters interactions with their surroundings convey their
identities in Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, 2046, As Tears Go by, Chungking
Express, and Fallen Angels. The first three films are set in the colonial period, whereas the
others take place after 1984 in which the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed by the Prime
Ministers of China and Britain. Wongs selection of location and his intricate mise-en-scne
respond to the formation and transformation of local identity: his spatial arrangements map out
the psychological landscape of the city and show the impact of colonialism, modernization,
decolonization, globalization, and postmodern culture on the residents of Hong Kong.
Scholars have examined Wongs treatment of space and time in addition to his distinctive
visual style and intriguing narrative structures; however, there has been little discussion about the
interaction between cinematic space and identity in Wongs films. The relationship between
space and identity is critical in the discussion of Hong Kong films made during the time period
shortly before and after the 1997 handover. This project aims to give a systematic and detailed
examination of Wongs films in order to demonstrate a strong connection between the perception
of space and the formation of identity and show how they shape and influence each other.
My emphasis on space in Wongs films is motivated by the spatial turn, a concept
inspired by the arguments of Henri Lefebvre, Michel Foucault, and Edward Soja that space


matters. This trend witnessed a shift from temporality to space in social sciences and the
humanities, and a large body of literature has examined space, location, geography, and
landscapes. In recent years, cinema studies have adopted this perspective as an analytical tool to
interpret human experience and social relations. For instance, in his analysis of Chineselanguage film, Fredric Jameson distinguishes the construction of landscape in the Fifth
Generation filmmaking in the Peoples Republic from that in Hong Kong cinema and Taiwanese
new wave cinema. Jameson argues that these different perspectives on national and ethnic
identity account for the portrayal of landscapes in films from these three regions (The
Geopolitical Aesthetic). My analysis of Wongs films takes advantage of this spatial turn by
following the argument that space is culturally constructed and reflects social concerns and the
ideology of the time.
Spatial studies have been valuable in film analysis. Architecture, geography, landscapes,
cityscapes, interior and public spaces have become the objects for spatial investigation in films.
They offer rich analytic materials to examine how space is constructed in films, what meanings it
conveys, and how it is related to the actual world. The representations of cinematic space call
attention to the artificiality of cinema and the power of interpretation. The study of space in film
helps to map out economic, political, and social geography.
This dissertation is a close reading of a variety of images of Hong Kong in Wongs
selected films. Wongs selection of locations, camera angles, camera position and movement,
composition, and lighting contribute to his cinematic representation of Hong Kong. In
examining Wongs cinematic Hong Kong, I have tried to answer the following questions: How
does Wongs cinematic space reflect the characters internal struggles? How do the characters
relationships with and perceptions of their surroundings reveal their identities? How does


Wongs cinematic space reveal the social tensions and conflicts that influence the formation of
local identity? How are space and identity in Wongs films intimately inter-related?
The intent for this dissertation is two-fold. First, this project has illustrated how Hong
Kongs history and culture have shaped Wongs construction of his cinematic city and how he
uses this urban space to portray changing political and social relations. Second, this study has
investigated how the changing relationships between the characters and their surroundings
embody shifting meanings of cultural identity in Hong Kong. J. Crary states that urban
landscapes in films not only mirror the social relations that are formed in the streets but also
record and change the social practices within the urban milieu (3). The spectacle of the
cinematic Hong Kong in Wongs films has the same function as Crary describes. In Wongs
films, the representations of urban landscapes not only reveal social reality but also influence the
formation of social and physical spaces.
Cinematic spectacles are not objective representations of reality. However, filmic
spectacles are creations in which different ideologies are tested, and social norms are subverted
or affirmed. Although we need to distinguish Hong Kong from Wongs artistic representations
of it, Wongs depictions provide a framework to investigate how individuals are influenced by
their changing surroundings. Wongs cinematic space traces the impact of colonialism,
imperialism, decolonization, and globalization on Hong Kong, whereas the characters changing
relationships with their surroundings indicate that identity is plural, negotiable, fluidic, and
Politics of space are politics of power relations. In Hong Kong, the relationship between
identity and power is significant in the communitys struggle to control and define its members
sense of themselves. The tension between the populace of Hong Kong and the British colonial


government in the 1960s led to the emergence of a distinct local identity in the 1970s, whereas
the power struggle between residents of Hong Kong and the Chinese government generated a
desire among locals to define themselves apart from their Chinese backgrounds. Wong started
making films during the time when Hong Kong confronted the 1997 handover. His works
present considerable anxiety over an unknown future, dread provoked by the impending
handover, and uneasiness regarding the 50 years of promise. From the colonial period to the
handover, people have attempted to forge their own identities by distancing themselves from the
colonizer(s) through social, political, and economic transformations. These crisis-ridden decades
fostered anxiety among Hong Kong residents yet also yielded rich artistic representations that
reflected the complexity of these transformations and their effects on Hong Kong.
Wongs work has always revealed geographical and spatial implications. His films have
examined both the claustrophobic spaces in colonial Hong Kong and the crowded streets of the
postcolonial city, taking the viewer from red-light district of Wan Chai in the 1960s to the highly
contested space of the Chungking Mansion in the 1990s. The significance of space in Wongs
films cannot be overstated. Talking about the central role that space plays in his films, Wong
says, Its about the place, not about the people (Brunette 119). Wongs understanding of Hong
Kong comes from his experiences in the city, and the cinematic space he creates on the screen
naturally echoes social practices in Hong Kong.
This dissertation examines Wongs six films made shortly before and after the 1997
takeover. These films are set primarily in the two time periods that are most crucial to the
formation of local identity in Hong Kongs. The three films set in the 1960s observe the
predominant diasporic identity and the emergence of local identity during this decade. The films
set in the 1990s witness a transitional moment as locals faced the threat of an imposed Chinese


as a result of the handover. Wongs representations of these periods express the characters
struggles and desires amid significant social transformations.
The trilogy set in the 1960s centers on spaces of transition and diasporic identity. Days
of Being Wild, 2046, and In the Mood for Love convey nostalgia for Hong Kongs colonial
history, and the main characters are associated primarily with liminal space as a result of
oppressive sociopolitical conditions. In these films, Hong Kong exists as an anonymous
backdrop for the narratives. Wong conveys the diasporic identity of 1960s Hong Kong through
the claustrophobic space that the characters inhabit, the nonstop rain, the enclosed spaces of the
dark alleys, and the deep-rooted sense of isolation. These elements produce a nostalgic image of
colonial Hong Kong as ambiguous and alien. In its description of new emigrants lives, Days of
Being Wild presents a liminal space and a liminal identity, demonstrated in Yuddys fruitless
search for his biological mother. In the Mood for Love replaces this sense of liminality with the
emergence of an exclusive Shanghainese community. To close the trilogy, 2046 shifts its
attention to a space of transition epitomized by the Oriental Hotel while also calling attention to
the emergence of local identity.
As Tears Go by, Chungking Express, and Fallen Angels focus on Hong Kong residents
struggle with local identity in face of decolonization, globalization, and postmodernism. The
cinematic space of these films is defined by greater tension and anxiety because of Hong Kongs
political transition from the British Empire to China. In As Tears Go by, the awakening of local
consciousness finds its expression in the gangsters turf battles and the characters endeavors to
belong somewhere. The homogenizing force of globalization manifested in the placeless and noplace in Chungking Express is counterbalanced by Wongs attempts to preserve and reinforce
local identity. In the interaction between the local and the global, Wong prioritizes the former by


having his characters firmly rooted in the environment, signified by Fayes return to Hong Kong
after her travels. In contrast to the optimistic attitude in Chungking Express, the postmodern
dystopia of Fallen Angels provides a glimpse of the dark side of Hong Kong, which is rampant
with criminals. In Fallen Angels, symptoms of amnesia, waning of affect, schizophrenia, and
negation of subjectivity create a problematic sense of identity. In general, these three films
present Hong Kong as caught in the simultaneous interplay of different forces.
The theoretical and methodological approach of this dissertation can be applied to
Wongs some other films, such as Happy Together (1997), Ashes of Time (1994), and My
Blueberry Nights (2007). For instance, the cinematic space in Happy Together suggests the
urban environment of Hong Kong, although the story takes place in Argentina. As is the case
with Wongs characters in the 1960s trilogy, Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing are isolated and dwell in
claustrophobic spaces, and their experiences in Argentina are similar to the diasporic lives
explored thoroughly in Wongs trilogy. Spaces such as the characters small apartment, the
confined space inside the moving bus, and the deserted streets construct evidently a diasporic
Other directors from Hong Kong, most notably Clara Law and Johnnie To, also share
Wongs thematic treatment of space and identity, and hence these directors works also make
good subjects for spatial analysis. These filmmakers also manipulate cinematic space to
foreground the dynamics of empowerment and disempowerment that are experienced by
individuals under colonialism and postcolonialism. Laws films, for instance, advance a diffuse
sense of identity. Ephemerality, inherent to Hong Kong due to its colonial past and post-colonial
present, prevails in Laws cinematic space. As a Hong Kong Second Wave film director, Law is
famous for her mastery of depicting nomadic lifestyles and the experiences of displacement.


Law was born in Macau, worked in Hong Kong, and immigrated to Australia before the
handover. Being an emigrant throughout her life, Law is interested in the space of Hong Kong in
addition to issues of geographical and emotional dislocation. Her films, such as Farewell China
(1990) and Autumn Moon (1992), Floating Life (1996), and The Goddess of 1967 (2000), address
themes of migrancy, dislocation, and the identity crisis in the characters encounters with people
from different cultures. Laws contemporary Hong Kong is featureless, reminiscent of the city in
Wongs 1960s trilogy. Like Wong, Law often sets her central characters apart from their
surroundings, which suggests the alienating aspects of modern life in Hong Kong and the sense
of rootlessness inherent to the immigrant experience.
Tos films explore the urban space of Hong Kong as a highly contested site. Set
exclusively in Hong Kong, his contemporary films provide close observations of life in this
environment. Under the influence of his own childhood in Kowloon Walled City, a place
famous for its illicit dealings, Tos cinematic urban space is full of tense action, and the
cinematic city is susceptible to disruptions and violence, reminiscent of Wongs As Tears Go by.
Tos cinematic urban space often comes to foil human characters plans. For instance, Hong
Kong in PTU: Police Tactical Unit (2003) is a matrix or a maze that confuses and traps Tos
Similarly, this spatial analysis of Wongs films can also be applied to works of some
Taiwanese filmmakers. For instance, director Hou Hsiao Hsien devotes significant attention to
physical settings. Hou is known for employing extreme long takes in a fixed position to observe
the interactions between the characters and their surroundings. In Hou Hsiao Hsiens The
Puppetmaster: The Poetics of Landscape, Nick Browne compares Hous depiction of the murky
domestic space with the sublime landscape in The Puppetmaster (1993) and praises the


filmmakers creative use of mise-en-scne and architecture to delineate the puppetmasters

family history.
Furthermore, observations on identity and space in Wongs films might be useful in
understanding some films made in Taiwan because of its geopolitical position. Like Hong Kong,
Taiwan is also located in a politically interstitial space. As Hong Kong is sandwiched between
mainland China and the British Empire, Taiwan is defined by the tension and conflicts between
the Kuomingtang (KMT) Nationalist Party and the Peoples Republic of China. Taiwan is also a
contested space under competing forces of indigenous culture, Japanese colonialism, and
Chinese culture. Hous films reveal concerns with these conflicts and tensions, which are
informed by his experiences as an immigrant in Taiwan. In addition to the history of
immigration, Hous films also examine Japanese colonization of Taiwan, its process of
modernization, and the social problems of Taiwan. One can probably link Hous depiction of
space with the changing political situations of Taiwan and ask questions, such as how does his
cinematic space allegorize political conditions in Taiwan? What effects does the landscape in
Hous long takes produce? How is the space of Taiwan renegotiated in Hous films and to what
The examination of the cinematic city and its relation to the shifting meanings of identity
could also provide a model for analysis of films in world cinema. Wongs films are both local
and international at the same time. Although Wongs films under examination are about Hong
Kong, global audiences can easily relate to his themes of isolation, rootlessness, and transiency
since these are universal concerns. In spite of the specific geographical location and temporal
settings of Wongs films, his focus on migration, globalization, displacement, identity, and
alienation lend his works a broader relevance.


Due to the limited scope of this dissertation, there are a few topics that I did not have the
chance to explore thoroughly but would like to develop for future projects. For instance, racial
and gender relationships are central to colonial and postcolonial discourses, and these issues are
important for future research. Although I have touched on these issues in relation to Chungking
Express, additional work could be done to investigate how these social relations are inscribed in
cinematic space. In colonies such as Hong Kong, the colonizer often divides the city space to
serve different purposes, and where one lives and works indicates his or her social status. My
future work in these areas would involve the following questions: how is this space of power
relations reflected in Hong Kong films and literature? How is it omitted in artistic representation
of Hong Kong and why?
Also, the representation of masculinity is an important issue for future research. From
the stories of Yuddy in Days of Being Wild and Chow Muyun in 2046, masculinity in Wongs
films set in the colonial era can only be expressed through the controlling male gaze and the
characters misogynistic treatment of their girlfriends. How do we understand the male
characters misogyny? Does this hatred have anything to do with the protagonists lack of
political power in Hong Kong? Is a political reading applicable to Wongs sentimental male
characters, who openly express their emotions like Cop #663 an #223 in Chungking Express?
Additionally, it would be interesting to investigate the issue of class in Wongs
representation of Hong Kong and how social status of his characters determines the spaces they
inhabit and their behaviors. In Wongs nostalgic trilogy, Yuddy comes from a wealthy family,
and Chow Muyun, who is obviously well educated, seems better off than the majority of other
new immigrants. However, Wongs protagonists in films set in the 1990s all come from the
lower or lower-middle class. The spaces these protagonists occupy not only indicate their


identities but also predetermine their behaviors. Yuddy and Chow are shown in closed spaces,
while the policemen and gangsters in Wongs films set in the 1980s and 1990s are often seen in
urban streets, which are associated with anonymity, disruption, and violence. Does this shift
from the depiction of life of the upper or middle class to that of the lower or lower-middle class
stem from a changing social structure? What does it suggest about the success story of Hong
Kong, the myth that Hong Kong is a world city occupied by middle-class residents?
Similarly, a further study could assess the critical role of music in Wongs films and its
effects on signifying emotions and constructing cinematic space. The role of music in film can
never be overstated as it often expresses hidden emotions, comments on the action, and
sometimes adds to actors performances. Wong creatively exploits the potential of music in
filmmaking. He often uses music to represent characters and lets the music speak for them. For
instance, in 2046, Bai Ling is first introduced through Connie Franciss Siboney. The
passionate Latin music highlights the characters exotic and mysterious allure. The music
intensifies the passion and the seduction of the scene and successfully creates the passionate and
seductive character Bai Ling, who constantly falls in and out of love. Also, Wongs use of music
often creates a desirable ambience or foregrounds certain characteristics of the place. For
instance, in the beginning of Chungking Express, the Indian music calls attention to the
multicultural environment of the Chungking Mansion.
This dissertation has treated space as a key element to understanding Hong Kongs
unique cultural identity in Wongs films. Space influences the formation of identity, whereas
identity also shapes peoples perception and production of space. In Wongs films, the space of
Hong Kong, going through the process of colonization, modernization, decolonization, and
globalization, impacts residents senses of themselves. Wongs characters identities change


over time: from the liminal identity to diasporic identity in films set in the 1960s and from the
awakening of local consciousness in As Tears Go by to the preservation of local identity under
the influence of globalization in Chungking Express. Along with these alterations in identities,
the characters perceptions of Hong Kong change from initially regarding it as a liminal space, to
seeing it as a host city, and to eventually considering it their only home. All this evidence
suggests that space influences people. In return, the production of space in Wongs films shows
the impact of social transformations on residents and illustrates changes in their relationships
with the place. However, my observations here are not conclusive. Since Wong will continue to
make films in the future, and his creativity, aesthetics, and style are still in progress, it would be
premature to arrive at any definite conclusion about his body of work as a whole. If anything, I
hope my dissertation helps to open up new possibilities for continued theorization of spatiality
not only in films but also in other forms of cultural representation.


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