Sunday, May 28, 2023

One Good Thing: Two 90s Asian Movies That Capture the Loneliness of Modern Life

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Shreya Christina
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Years before I saw my first film by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, I came across a collection of stills on Tumblr from his 1994 film Chungking Express† I reblogged the images on my blog without any prior knowledge of them based solely on the aesthetics of the film. The images showed one of the protagonists, a boyishly handsome Takeshi Kaneshiro, holding a corded telephone to his left ear with a lethargic look. Below him the read subtitles: “Password is ‘I’ve loved you for 10,000 years.'”

This particularly romantic line of dialogue is one of a handful of recognizable Wong Kar-Wai scenes that often crop up in my social media feeds years later. Stills like this have helped spark modern online intrigue towards a particular genre of East Asian cinema and the (mainly male) directors that make up this category. While the average American moviegoer doesn’t seem to have much of an appetite for foreign films, some Western viewers seem to be more receptive to East Asian works – at least according to social media

In recent years, more and more Asian-American directors are making films that stylistically pay tribute to influential East Asian works. One of the multiverses in Everything everywhere at oncefor example, was strongly inspired by Wong’s In the mood for love, a film about two beautiful people who quietly long, but never act on their unrequited love. (Several posts on Twitter have gone viral showcasing the two works.” stylistic parallels.) Alan Yang’s tiger tailreleased on Netflix in 2020, attempted to recreate the sprawling domestic drama of an Edward Yang film through an extended multi-generational storyline.

There are many great East Asian directors, but lately I’ve been drawn to the standout work of two Chinese-language filmmakers: Wong Kar-Wai and his less-discussed Taiwanese contemporary Tsai Ming-Liang. Two of their early feature films, despite being produced more than two decades ago, capture the unbearably bleak mood of life in 2022. Their overall atmosphere is, so to speak, steeped in melancholic languor, with characters so close to each other. stand, yet remain eternally distant from the inner life of other people.

Tsai’s debut film from 1992 Rebels of the Neon God and Wong’s 1994 Chungking Express both the story of the lives of quirky urban youth coming of age during an economically prosperous but politically uncertain time. Set in Hong Kong and Taiwan respectively, the films refer to the emerging forces of globalization and the new political hierarchies that were ushered in at the turn of the century. These films also address themes that resonate with pandemic-ravaged audiences: alienation, nostalgia, longing, unfulfilled romance, and a sense of boredom with current events. And despite predating social media, Tsai and Wong both manage to capture the loneliness in modern relationships foresight.

tsai’s Rebels of the Neon God is split into two parallel storylines featuring four city-dwelling youths – two petty thieves, a college student, and a roller disco worker – whose lives overlap somewhat in strange and unexpected ways Hsiao-Kang, a disgruntled high school student, has problems with his parents because they have dropped out of school. He visits an arcade that is robbed after hours by two boys his age who live on petty theft. In a fit of random road rage, one of the thieves smashes into Hsiao-Kang’s father’s side mirror and rides off on his motorcycle, with girlfriend (the ice rink worker) in tow.

likewise, Chungking Express follows an ensemble cast of characters. The film is split into two sequential storylines featuring two disparate Hong Kong couples, whose lives fade into one another. Agent 223 wanders listlessly through the city and buys cans of pineapple with an expiration date of May 1, the day he expects to overcome an unrequited love. In a bar he meets a woman with sunglasses and a blond wig, who is secretly a drug dealer. The following vignette introduces us to Cop 663, who is heartbroken after his relationship with a flight attendant girlfriend ended. He befriends a server at a local food stand that he frequents. The server, unbeknownst to the agent, is in possession of an extra set of keys to his apartment, which have been left behind by his ex.

Agent 663 (Tony Leung) and the server (Faye Wong) in Chungking Express
Courtesy of Criterion Collection

It’s worth noting that Wong and Tsai aren’t usually discussed relatively, despite the complementary nature of these particular films. (Tsai is often characterized as an experimental author, named in line with Taiwanese contemporaries such as Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien; meanwhile, Wong has achieved a level of industrial success that grants his work wider international recognition.)

Wong tends to romanticize his characters, mixing dreamy, music-laden interludes into their daily routines. On the other hand, there is little glamor in the lives of Tsai’s protagonists. The thieves constantly inhabit flooded and damaged apartments. They dawdle in Internet cafes, arcades and cheap motels and often get drunk. They spend their nights committing debauchery and theft to come over.

Rebels of the Neon God enshrined in Taiwan’s post-martial law in the 1990s, which granted citizens significantly more civil liberties than before. Yet Tsai’s protagonists react with little joy to these newfound freedoms. Hsiao-Kang is clearly not interested in lectures and seems fascinated by the lives of delinquents his age. This is perhaps an allusion to the “dark foundations of Taiwan’s assimilation into the world market”, noticed Dennis Zhou of the New Yorker, citing Tsai’s interest in “bums, idlers and insomniacs on the fringes of the global supply chain.” His use of dialogue is also sparse, emphasizing the aimlessness of the characters’ behavior and the boredom of their lives.

Chungking Express, while decidedly more aesthetically pleasing, it also has a slight political undertone. Wong has said the film is about Hong Kong because “it reflects how people were feeling at the time.” Chungking was released three years before 1997, when Hong Kong was ceded to mainland China after 156 years of British colonial rule. Critics have interpreted the film’s “chaotic, confusing, and … obscure environment” as a commentary on the decade’s ubiquitous uncertainty, heightened by sudden visual shifts between blurry, slow-motion shots and close-ups of the face.

rebels and Chungking are not necessarily ominous movies. Yet there is the underlying sense that something is wrong or a little off within these realities, even though the stakes seem relatively low. There are no super villains or potential world disasters to stop. Rather, it is the encroachment of technology or globalization that contributes to the ubiquitous alienation of the characters. A scene in rebels shows the motorcycle thief and his girlfriend having sex next to a TV with porn on it. It is unclear whether they are really interested in having sex with each other or just mimicking what is being presented to them through the mass media. In another scene, one of the thieves asks his friend to find a girl for him to cuddle so that he can feel the warmth of a woman’s body after being beaten up in the street.

Isolation and boredom in Chungking are portrayed in a more light-hearted (and arguably more romantic) way, but the unsettling mood persists. Film scholar Michael Blancato wrote that the film is representative of “a culture subject to temporal compression and telesurveillance – characteristics that define contemporary globalization. [Wong’s] movies illustrate that the national cost of participating in a modern, global economy is affective discontent among citizens.”

It is therefore somewhat ironic that scenes from… Chungking Express have become so widespread on the internet and have reached audiences all over the world discovering in these characters something they can identify with. Wong’s signature photos are colorful and captivating, easy to screenshot to shareable content. Even when taken out of context on a Tumblr or Instagram feed, the visual power of its cinematography, coupled with the muted dialogue between characters, captivates the viewer. (Photos and clips from Wong’s movies are often shared on popular Instagram movie accounts, including the Criterion channelsand some are devoted solely to publishing his body of work.)

Although Tsai’s work is less shared than Wong’s, a similar sentiment applies. The current streaming ecosystem makes his movies readily available to a massive international audience, despite how Tsai, who considers himself a… non-commercial directoris struggling to attract a mainstream Taiwanese viewership.

Social media compresses their old works into something consumable and recognizable to a Western audience, occasionally taking away the naturalistic cadence of the film. †rebels is noticeably slower than Chungking, with Tsai deliberately dwelling on characters doing “normal” things, such as walking around or lying about their apartments.) Still, there’s something poetic about this digital transfiguration. Thanks to the popularity of streaming services, Rebels of the Neon God and Chungking Express, two different films about alienation in urban spaces, can only be viewed in the privacy of one’s home. As lonely as that may seem, I find it comforting; there is a common sense within the individual experience of rediscovering cult classics that so sharply reflect how life isolates, no matter how connected we seem to other people.

Rebels of the Neon God is available to stream on Prime VideoChungking Express is on HBO Max† For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the A good case archives.

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