Assembling Pieces of Time

On Sunday afternoon, when it was sunny and in the 80s in Seattle (during a relatively cold and rainy summer), I went to a lecture by Robert Horton, the curator of The Frye Art Gallery‘s The Magic Lantern “talks on film and art” series. I mentioned the talk the other day and gave some excerpts from programs I found online.

Overall, the talk was mediocre. I guess I’m more used to very academic talks at colleges, whereas this one was, I felt, geared more toward a general audience… which makes sense and, if nothing else, just shows how elitist I am. Oh well.

The Frye’s Oliver Herring: Taking and Making exhibit inspired Horton to do a talk about Wong Kar-Wai. In particular, Herring had a series of photographs arranged in the shape of an X (over about 20 feet or so) that told two stories. In the middle the stories intersected.

Horton compared this arrangement of photographs to motion pictures — since a film is, at its most basic level — a series of still photographs arranged horizontally in order to produce the “illusion of movement.” Horton also likened the X pattern to the multiple intersecting storylines often found in WKW’s movies (especially Chungking Express and As Tears Go By).

He also noted that WKW and Herring shared what, I believe, is a fairly common trait among artists: The act of creating the art is more important than the final product. Horton said that for Herring the objects (i.e. the art) was less interesting than the time he spent creating it. Likewise, Horton gave some history about WKW’s reluctance to finish pieces of work (he was shooting and editing parts of In the Mood for Love days before it preimierd at the Cannes Film Festival and actually changed 2046 a bit after it debuted at the Hong Kong Film Festival). Horton concluded that WKW loves the process of making the film, probably more than finishing the film.

The method of emphasizing the creation of the piece rather than the final product is, I would argue, a common theme in postmodern art. I think of things like Warhol’s studio or David Lynch using dead animals and insects to create pieces of art as being other examples of artists who value the process of making art more than the final piece.

Horton also gave some biographical information about WKW (born in Shanghai, moved to Hong Kong at age 5 during the early ’60s — no wonder he keeps returning to the ’60s in films like In the Mood for Love, The Hand (from Eros, and 2046), most importantly noting that WKW almost always collaborates with production designer/editor William Chang and cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Horton believes, as I’m sure many critics would agree, that Chang and Doyle add a great deal to the look and feel of WKW’s movies.

(As a side note, I am guessing that Horton has met Doyle at some point — Doyle was in Seattle for 2004 the Seattle International Film Festival — because he kept talking about how much Doyle partied and was a womanizer and whatnot. It was amusing.)

Horton then showed clips from four of WKW’s movies and discussed how these clips related to time and WKW’s non-straightforward method of producing films and storylines:

Days of Being Wild

Su Lizhen and Yuddy
Scene: Yuddy and Su Lizhen meet for the first time. The scene starts with a clock — Yuddy tells Su Lizhen to watch the clock for a minute. Then he tells that for despite what happens in the future, they will always have this one minute in which they were friends. An unknown amount of time passes. Yuddy and Su Lizhen are in bed. She asks him to marry her, he rejects. She leaves him.

Given that time was a central component of the lecture, Horton noted that a scene starting with a clock was perfect for the lecture. He noted that we don’t see their relationship progress and that the time between their first encounter and the demise of the relationship is ambiguous.

He explained that many of WKW’s films are “memory films,” and that chronology isn’t always important — the essence of the film and the events is more important than anything else.

Apparently WKW wanted his films to look like the work of Edward Hopper because of the way Hopper’s work captures alienation and loneliness — a look which WKW developed in Days and has carried through in his films sense. The production design (color palette, architecture, etc.) is very deliberate and somewhat nostalgic. Horton kept using the term brick-a-brack (another postmodern artistic technique) to describe it.

Chungking Express

The Cop and Faye
Scene: The cop and Faye meet for the first time. The owner of Chungking Express gives the cop food/dating advice, encouraging the cop to bring two things from the Express back to her and give her a choice. Ultimately giving his girlfriend choices in food causes her to leave the cop. (~35 min. into the film)

“California Dreamin'” by The Mamas & The Papas blasts from Faye’s radio as the cop tries to order food from Faye. All of the characters sort of randomly appear and disappear (not in a bizarre way — they are in one scene, and not in the other — presumably off doing something else) in the scene. The only way we know that time has passed is by the changing of Faye’s outfit — there is no traditional fading in or out. Horton calls this syncopation.

Faye, especially, is a syncopated character. She randomly appears in people’s lives then disappears — especially when least expected. Horton notes that this reflects the nature of her character, as evidenced by her trespassing into the cop’s apartment.

With Chungking Express, Horton also notes that WKW rewards viewers for multiple viewings. The film is basically broken into two pieces: The first half dealing with the woman in the blonde wig and He, the cop; the second half dealing with the other cop and Faye. Bits and pieces from each half appear in the other, though in ways that are not obvious upon first viewing.

Horton also noted that Chungking Express was initially intended to be three parts, rather than two. The last part ultimately became Fallen Angels which, like Chungking Express then became a concatenation of two stories.

Fallen Angels

The Killer and his Partner
Scene: The Killer, one on of his assignments, goes into a restaurant or something to kill a group of people playing mahjong. After fleeing the scene he boards a bus where he runs into an old friend from school who tries to sell him insurance. He shows his “friend” a picture of his “wife” (a black woman he paid money to pose with him) and his “son” (a kid he bought ice cream for). He then contemplates the idea of an assassin having insurance benefits.

While the killer is killing a remix (or a remake??) of Massive Attack‘s “Karmacoma” is playing… I’m not familiar with the version of the song, though it sounds somewhat like the “Bumper Ball Dub” remix). I mention this because I love the song and loved that it was included in the movie and because Horton mentioned the song, as well.

Horton noted that throughout Fallen Angels, especially, WKW used wide angle lenses. They add a sort of distortion to the film, he argues. The wide angle lenses also made the scenes feel less claustrophobic (despite the fact they were since WKW shot on-location) and caused the people on the screen to look distanced, which captured the emotional feelings of many characters in the film.

From a technical standpoint, Horton also pointed out WKW’s use of step printing after the Killer leaves the restaurant and how it, also, distorts the scene. Step printing is a type of slow-motion filming that looks more like stop-animation. It’s hard to explain, unfortunately, but feels very disorienting.

The violence of the Killer’s assassination was nontraditional, Horton suggested, because of the quick cuts from different angles. Rather than helping the audience make sense of the moment, WKW made everything chaotic and appearing as a blur of color and movement. Horton went so far as to say that the frantic editing was like music.

Fallen Angels also makes use of narration (which becomes a WKW trademark in subsequent WKW movies — I don’t recall it in Chungking Express as much). Horton described the narration as “taking us out of the scene while we are still in it.” The narration also gave the main characters a chance to be more whimsical and ironic than the normal events of the film would let them be.

Finally, in regard to genre, Horton noted that WKW started off as a screenwriter mostly doing Hong Kong kung-fu and action-type movies. Fallen Angels, Horton explained, may have had the motif of a gangster movie, but that the film was really about other things (WKW favorites like loneliness, relationships, etc.) though it was “hung on the hanger of a gangster movie.”

Audience Questions & Comments 1

This part killed me. The thing I hate the most about lectures are the audience questions and comments. It seems people ask two types of questions: either they ask an inane question they could find the answer to (“what year did xxx come out?”) or a question that shows off their knowledge. I hate both types. Sometimes there is a good question, but mostly Q&As are lame.

Sample questions:

  • Was the murder while people were playing mahjong related to an “identical” murder that occurred in Seattle? — Are you joking me!! People are murdered all the time and the whole gangster stuff is pretty big in Asian cinema. I doubt WKW cares about crime in Seattle. Ugh.
  • WKW has an expectation of his audience — Duh.
  • First you fall in love with a WKW movie, then you get to know it. When the film finishes you have a sense of longing and you miss the characters. — Okay, I agree.
  • The films are physically gorgeous even if you don’t understand what is going on. — Okay, I agree with this comment, too.
  • Places are important to WKW. The backgrounds are a character. The frame is important. Everything is selected. — Horton had been saying the exact same thing all night… At least the person was listening.

Christopher Doyle

Doyle once told a story about Happy Together that Horton feels captures the chaotic style of WKW’s filmmaking process: Some of the supporting actors arrived in Argentina but WKW had no idea exactly who their characters were or how they were going to fit into the movie or anything. WKW starts without a script and then lets the characters find themselves (much to the annoyance of many actors). Doyle’s remark on this was something like: “The actors were waiting for their characters to come and WKW was hoping for the same thing at a coffee shop down the street.”

In the Mood For Love

Su Lizhen and Chow
Scene: Chow and Su Lizhen are in the alley acting out how they think their cheating significant others first met and started messing around. Some indefinite time passes and they are eating at a restaurant.

Some background Horton gave about In the Mood For Love: the shoot took 15 months (which is long), WKW was shooting the epilogue days before the Cannes premier, the actors didn’t have much direction and were told to “search for the material,” WKW wanted to shoot the entire thing on location — not on sets or soundstages, and the original title was Summer in Beijing.

The style of In the Mood is more like that of Days of Being Wild (not as jittery or random as Chungking or Fallen Angels), though with a more grown-up feel.

Originally, apparently, WKW wanted to do a 3-part film about food (?!?). Horton suggests that that is why there are so many scenes of people eating or at restaurants and why the food is almost fetishized.

Horton’s main discussion about In the Mood, however, focused on the deleted scenes and the Criterion Collection edition of In the Mood For Love.

Some of the most important deleted scenes make the relationship between Chow and Su Lizhen much more explicit. They make love (which is only vaguely alluded to — and never confirmed — in the “theatrical” version of the film), the cook together, they dance together, etc.

Horton argues that the existence and relative accessibility of these scenes (i.e. they aren’t locked away in a vault or anything — the Criterion Collection is, as far as I know, the only U.S. release of the film) alters the film in a sort of metaphysical way. The overall story is drastically changed in our heads forever now. Even though the scenes were “deleted,” they live in our head and change our understanding of the events in the movie.

DVDs can change the way films are understood and turn them into a constant work of art. The DVD is a new form of art with a new film on it. In order to really understand In the Mood For Love are we better off watching the DVD and seeing the “true” story, or should we ignore the deleted scenes and take the “theatrical” version as the definitive version.

What is interesting about this whole idea is that other directors, most notably George Lucas and Peter Jackson, have also embraced the DVD and/or re-releases of films in order to constantly work on their previous projects. Whereas Jackson has been commended for his DVDs, Lucas has mostly been criticized.

It’s a fine line, and I’m not sure where I fall when it comes to In the Mood — the unspoken and unseen love between Chow and Su Lizhen is one of the most beautiful aspects of the movie… but at the same time, I love existing in their world and seeing as much as possible. It’s hard.

And then, of course, how does 2046 fit into everything. It’s been described as a “loose sequel.” It definitely stands alone, but should it? Is 2046 just another permutation of the same project that In the Mood For Love is? And is In the Mood For Love just a sequel to Days of Being Wild anyway?

Horton then moved the conversation toward WKW’s fetishization of objects. He mentioned the food in the restaurant scene that started the In the Mood discussion and also remarked that WKW also fetishized music, people’s faces through extreme close-ups. intense colors and textures, jukeboxes, hair, and costumes (especially Su Lizhen’s in In the Mood). Again, he referred to this as brick-a-brack and theorized that it made everything more precious and important.

Audience Questions & Comments 2

Only the good ones:

  • WKW creates stories with the potential for viewers to explore. Everything is done through inclination and suggestion.
  • WKW has nostalgia for disappearing things… (which the audience member said was a theme in Asian film, which I thought was a rather dubious claim… it’s a theme everywhere).
  • WKW is not into conventional beauty. He likes things that are run-down and lived in.
  • The best comment: WKW is somewhat like Proust. They both constantly revise and rework their projects. They like to explore all the possibilities of their characters and situations. They both also focus on solitary characters who never “connect with their one true love.”
  • Film lends itself to memory.


Horton made two comments about 2046: First, Chow’s character is more like Yuddy from Days than Chow from In the Mood; second, if 2046 is just an extension/exploration continuing In the Mood For Love and In the Mood For Love is an “adult” version of Days of Being Wild… so that basically all of WKW’s movies are different perspectives on the same theme, he doesn’t need to choose a “favorite,” per say — he loves them all.

Annoying Audience Members

Finally, I have to comment on how annoying some of the audience members were.

First, there were some old women toward the back of the auditorium who were talking throughout the lecture. Because they were old, I am guessing, they had to speak louder because they had lost their hearing or something. It was totally rude and they were ignorant about what they were doing.

Second, in a similar vein, there was another old woman who had a plastic bag that she sat and ruffled for quite a long time toward the end of the lecture. Nearly everyone in the auditorium looked back to give her “the evil eye” but, again, she was ignorant to how rude she was. It was very annoying.

Finally, there was an audience member who was trying to be all know-it-all and suggested that the title 2046 was a reference to the fact that it would be the 50th anniversary of Britain returning Hong Kong to China… well, as I noted in a previous review, the year is actually 2047. I am guessing that the guy read the same review I did and just got the dates confused. This is an example of someone asking a question only to show off.


… the lecture was interesting, probably more due to the fact that it was about a director I love than the content of the lecture. As I said before, I’m not entirely sure what the guy’s thesis was — if there was one at all. It started out with some interesting ideas on time in WKW films, then into WKW’s haphazard method of developing his storylines, and finally into the new continually evolving type of film that WKW has created with the deleted scenes on the Criterion DVD. I wish he would’ve included some discussion of Happy Together (the film that got me hooked on WKW), or As Tears Go By (WKW’s first, apparently more conventional film) or Ashes of Time (which, along with Tears, I have yet to watch). Nonetheless, it great to see someone else intellectually engaged with WKW’s work and maybe it will inspire me in some way that I have yet to realize.

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