Twenty-five years after Wong Kar-wai first chronicled the languid romantic yearnings of Hong Kong’s young adults, their descendants have finally broken through their torpor and taken to the streets. What would Wong, or his cast of forever searching and unfulfilled characters, think of the “Umbrella Revolution”—so named for the umbrellas that protestors wielded to protect themselves from rainfall, police attacks and anti-democracy demonstrators?
Not since 1989 Tiananmen Square has a city under Chinese rule exhibited such public anti-authoritarian rebellion as they did starting last month in Hong Kong. Also called the “Occupy Central” movement, the demonstrations began as a protest against the country’s electoral policies for the coming 2017 election. Hong Kong voters are not allowed to vote for candidates of their choosing, but are restricted to those handpicked by Beijing.
But the peoples’ conflicted relationship with China is longstanding: Ever since 1997, when the territory went from British colony to Chinese administration region, many Hong Kong residents have prided themselves on their more liberal traditions, despite the creeping influence of their mainland overlords. Perennially caught between West and East, capitalism and communism, the HongKongese represent a walking Identity Crisis—long seen in the works of Wong Kar-wai—which apparently reached a considerable breaking point last month.
To return to Wong’s first films, As Tears Go By (1988) and Days of Being Wild (1990), today is to see portraits of paralyzed twentysomethings, existing in a limbo state of inertia and impermanence—which seems antithetical to the spirit of protest and rebellion of Hong Kong’s current historical moment. And while Tiananmen Square occurred while Wong was making and releasing his first and second features, the movies are marked more as an ominous harbinger of what followed the ’89 Democracy Movement—protestors were killed and arrested, civil liberties were quashed and pessimism sunk in.
It seems fitting that the opening of Wong’s debut As Tears Go By shows Andy Lau’s gangster Wah under his covers and unwilling to get out of bed. Neither repeated phone calls nor the arrival of his country cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung) fail to stir him from his slumber. Though he eventually wakes up, and throughout the film takes several decisive actions, from saving his reckless “brother” Fly to grabbing Ngor and passionately kissing her in a phone booth, his sorry fate seems sealed from the beginning. The neon-lit sign reading “FUTURE” that flashes upon the screen at one point comes across as archly ironic: These are characters without one; the audience is left with little doubt that Wah and Ngor’s love affair won’t end happily ever after on Lantau Island—a respite from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong where they briefly escape. On the contrary, as the film’s Chinese version of Berlin’s pop ballad “Take my breath away” sings on the soundtrack, “Through the hourglass I saw you/In time you slipped away.”
Two years later, the cynicism of As Years Go By turns to full-blown lethargy in Days of Being Wild, a languorous study of stunted love, identity crises and ephemerality. The film’s overriding metaphor comes in voiceover spoken by Leslie Cheung’s lothario Luddy. “I’ve heard that there’s a kind of bird without legs that can only fly and fly,” he says. “The bird only lands once in its life… the moment when it dies.”
Like the imagined bird, Luddy is a restless soul. He’s in search of his true identity—the birth mother he never knew—and some kind of love object—fleetingly found in two women: So Lai-Chun, an innocent shopgirl (Maggie Cheung), and Mimi, a lively showgirl (Carina Lau). But like As Tears Go By’s Wah, Luddy is striving to find himself, but he’s frequently seen in bed, either alone or fooling around with these women, stranded in some kind of frozen ever-sensual moment, accentuated by Wong’s fixation with ubiquitous slowly ticking clocks. The film may chart his efforts to find his birth mother in the Philippines, but he and the rest of the characters are doomed from the start. As Luddy reflects back on his bird at the end of the film, “The fact is that the bird hasn’t gone anywhere. It was dead from the beginning.”
Wong’s characters are also constantly wrestling with dual nationalities and identities: Luddy is torn between Hong Kong and the Philippines; So Lai-Chun is stranded between her own birthplace, Macao, and the city; a cop (played again by Andy Lau), who takes Sisyphean night patrols, yearns to become a sailor. And framed inside cage-like phone booths, chain-link fences, and ornately designed gates, these lovelorn wanderers are not only aimless, but trapped, as well.
It’s difficult to imagine any of Wong’s characters occupying Tiananmen or Central. They are stuck in ruts, cycles, moments, memories and dead-ends. But they do seem to express, heartbreakingly so, the longstanding anomie and angst that has served to fuel the current student movement. Let’s hope today’s youth protestors won’t end up, like in a Wong Kar-wai film, even worse off than when they started.