Brushing Shoulders: “The Ephemerality of the Encounter” in Wong Kar-wai’s 1960s Trilogy

“That was the closest we ever got – just 0.01 cm between us. I knew nothing about her. Six hours later, she fell in love with another man.”

In Wong Kar-wai’s 1993 film Chungking Express, at about minute 40 of the film’s 98 minute runtime, our lovelorn policeman protagonist (Takeshi Kaneshiro) nearly bumps into Faye (Faye Wong), a new employee at his favorite food counter. The frame freezes, the haunting first strums of “California Dreamin’” begin to play, and Kaneshiro delivers the above narration. As the song continues, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai enters the film for the first time, walking right toward the viewer, removing his hat and smoothing his hair as he stares the camera straight in the eye. From here, the film enters its second half, a new story with new characters.

This minute-long sequence, one of my favorites in movie history, is the purest distillation of director Wong Kar-Wai’s obsession with chance encounters and missed opportunities. Rey Chow, an expert reference on Wong, relates this sensibility to the Chinese idiom 擦肩而过, “cā jiān ér guò,” which can translate to “brushing shoulders past one another,” a narrowly missed opportunity. In Chow’s essay “Sentimental Returns,” she refers to Wong’s use of this concept as “dramatizing the ephemerality of the encounter.”

While the idea of near-misses and tragic coincidences can be found in all of Wong’s work, it’s most potent in a trio of films set in Hong Kong in the 1960s of Wong’s own youth: Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, and 2046. Often referred to as a “loose trilogy” due to the recurrence of certain characters, these films in fact share more than a loose connection: they rely on each other and converse with one another in ways that many film trilogies do not. (Side note/disclaimer: if we’re talking Wong, I can go for days, so please forgive the occasional long-windedness of this examination. I’ll go through each of the three films briefly and then look at their connections.)

 

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York (Leslie Cheung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) in Days of Being Wild.

It starts with 1990’s Days of Being Wild, Wong’s second feature and the first full-throated showcase of his style: a dream-like, untethered narrative paired with the sheer cinematic presence of Hong Kong’s most iconic and charismatic faces: Maggie Cheung, Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung, Carina Lau and the too-large-for-life Leslie Cheung. The film is also Wong’s first collaboration of many with Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle, whose inventive work would become synonymous with Wong’s oeuvre.

The aptly named Days of Being Wild (its title comes from the Chinese title for Rebel Without a Cause) is a story of intense young relationships. York, a seductive and manipulative playboy played by the late, great Leslie Cheung, spends a silent minute with Maggie Cheung’s Su Li-zhen, saying that he’ll always remember her because of the minute they shared, 2:59 PM on April 16th, 1960. Li-zhen meets him, falls in love, asks to move in with him, asks him if he wants to marry, and leaves him angrily when he says no, all in the movie’s first nine minutes.

York then similarly manipulates a hotheaded dancer named Lulu (or sometimes Mimi, played by Carina Lau). Lulu falls even harder than Li-zhen did, and when York leaves her without a word in order to pursue his biological mother in the Philippines, Lulu confronts Li-zhen in a jealous rage, accusing her of stealing him back. In the meanwhile, Li-zhen has met and befriended a local policeman, Tide, who does his rounds late at night (Andy Lau). There’s a spark, but it never catches fire, and Tide leaves to become a sailor.

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Tide (Andy Lau) sharing a walk with Li-zhen.

About to catch a boat in the Philippines, Tide runs into York. The two men do not appear to recognize each other (earlier in the film, Tide knocks on York’s door and leads him downstairs to meet Li-zhen). Then, as York is dying (he’s shot after double-crossing his connection for an illegal passport, a little complicated and not worth explaining here), they briefly talk about Li-zhen, the woman they both loved. York tells Tide to relate this message to her: he doesn’t remember her. Tide replies, “I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again. Even if I do … she may not recognize me.”

In the second-to-last scene, we see Lulu arriving in the Philippines, still so in love with York as to pursue him even after he thoughtlessly abandoned her. Then, the film ends with one of the most undeniably enigmatic and intriguing final shots in my memory: Tony Leung (who hasn’t appeared in the previous 90 minutes) spends a single long take preparing to leave his small apartment. He files his nails, puts on his jacket, loads his pockets with cigarettes and cash, combs his hair in the mirror, turns off his lamp, and heads out the door. Roll credits. Who is this man? What does this have to do with the stories we’ve seen unfold?

Whether this scene comes across as intriguing or maddening is a matter of perspective. But the important thing is this: although audiences in 1990 didn’t know it (and neither did Wong, I have to assume), this shot is the introduction of the character who will anchor the following two films in this trilogy, Chow Mo-wan. And the woman he’ll fall in love with is Maggie Cheung’s Su Li-zhen.

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Mr. Chow’s mysterious appearance in the final shot of Days of Being Wild.

Ten years after the film’s release, in the year 2000, Wong Kar-wai’s career had fully taken off. He’d won worldwide art-cinema acclaim for his mid-90s classics Chungking Express and Fallen Angels (themselves a two-film pseudo-series, though less directly linked than the trilogy in discussion), and particularly for Happy Together, which was nominated for the Palme d’Or and won Best Director at Cannes Film Festival. Wong was at the height of his powers.

As Wong’s next film slowly took shape and it became clear that Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung were on board, Wong saw an opportunity to tie it in with Days of Being Wild. He had originally planned on making sequels to that film, hence the curious ending, but its lackluster box office performance had prevented him from doing so. But now, with Wong Kar-wai’s status as the international auteur, he could truly accomplish his vision.

His vision took a very long time to accomplish, however. So long that director of photography Christopher Doyle had to leave the project mid-way and be replaced by Mark Lee Ping Bin, a master of a different style who was Hou Hsiao-hsien’s long-time artistic partner. Lee’s gorgeously slow, drifting camera would prove to be the perfect counterbalance to Doyle’s more frenetic technique, and both would be equally credited on the final cut.

The film was In the Mood for Love. One year after the events of Days of Being Wild, a hectic move-in day at a cramped Hong Kong apartment sees Su Li-zhen, now married and going by the name Mrs. Chan (for clarity’s sake, we’ll continue to call her Su Li-zhen), moving in next door to writer Chow Mo-wan (the mysterious man from the previous film’s ending, played by Tony Leung) and his wife. The moving companies repeatedly mix up their belongings, sending one couple’s items to the other’s room.

Li-zhen’s businessman husband is constantly out of town for work, leaving her to go to the movies and the noodle stand by herself. Meanwhile, Mr. Chow’s wife often works late, leaving him to do the same. Here we get the literal “cā jiān ér guò” of Mr. Chow and Li-zhen repeatedly brushing shoulders past one another in the stairway on their way to eat lonely noodles. Rebecca Pan, who played York’s adoptive mother in Days of Being Wild, returns as Li-zhen’s landlady (most likely not playing the same character). She scolds Li-zhen for letting her husband leave her alone so often. Eventually, Li-zhen invites Mr. Chow to dinner in order to ask him, first indirectly, then straight up, whether he has noticed it too: their spouses are cheating on them together.

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“Your wife likes hot dishes.”

How could this have started? Li-zhen and Mr. Chow decide to try and reenact the first moments their spouses began to see each other. A flirtatious hand touch, an invitation inside, a dinner date where they choose each other’s meals. They can’t seem to figure it out. Eventually, they bond over a shared love of martial arts serials, and Li-zhen agrees to help Mr. Chow write one. They see more of each other, but swear that they won’t be like their cheating spouses. They rent a room in another building so they aren’t seen meeting up so frequently: Room 2046. There, with its endless mirrors and billowing red curtains, they spend the days writing.

But the time comes when Mr. Chow cannot hold back any longer. He tells Li-zhen of his feelings for her. “I didn’t think you’d fall in love with me,” Li-zhen says. “I didn’t either,” Mr. Chow says. “I was only curious to know how it started. Now I know. Feelings can creep up just like that. I thought I was in control.”

Here, the near-misses escalate to an almost unbearable degree. Mr. Chow, believing that Li-zhen will not leave her husband, decides to move to Singapore, but offers her a ticket to come with him. He waits for her in room 2046, then leaves, and she arrives at the room after he has already left. Li-zhen goes to Singapore to see him, but can’t follow through, leaving only a lipstick stained cigarette in his ashtray. Mr. Chow returns to his old Hong Kong apartment to ask about her: the management has changed, and he’s told that a woman and her child live next door, not knowing that it is in fact a divorced Li-zhen and her young son.

In the Mood for Love was a critical smash, winning several awards at Cannes and being declared one of the best films of the decade, even of all time. Wong Kar-wai didn’t take a pause though; in fact, he had already been working on his next film for years. 2046 became a direct sequel to In the Mood for Love, picking up Mr. Chow’s story after his failure to connect with Li-zhen. Some footage for the film had even been shot during the production of In the Mood for Love.

2046 (finally finished in 2004) sees Chow Mo-wan, devastated by the loss of his happy ending that could’ve been, becoming a depressed womanizer. He has relationships with a series of women. Most notably, for this article, he briefly meets with dancer Lulu (Carina Lau, playing the same character from Days of Being Wild). It’s revealed that he met her around the time of Days of Being Wild, and he brings up her late lover York, “a Chinese Filipino from a rich family. You planned to marry him, but he died young. You said he was the only love of your life.”

Mr. Chow’s most extended involvement is with Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), who falls in love with him and is denied a serious relationship, just like Lulu in Days of Being Wild. In an attempt to keep his emotional distance, Mr. Chow gives Bai Ling a $10HK bill every time they sleep together. Mr. Chow has in many ways become York, the dangerous playboy who loved and then left both Li-zhen and Lulu. Near the film’s end, Bai Ling returns the full stack of bills to him, each one representing a night they spent.

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Mr. Chow and Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi) in 2046.

As always, Wong’s films are a veritable who’s who of screen icons: Mr. Chow’s other relationships in the film are with a mysterious gambler, coincidentally also named Su Li-zhen (Gong Li), and Wang Jing-wen (Faye Wong), with whom he writes a martial arts serial in an attempt to reclaim some of the magic from In the Mood for Love. While 2046 is a more direct sequel to In the Mood for Love, it owes more to Days of Being Wild when it comes to its loose, multiple-storylined structure. Mr. Chow’s story ends as unceremoniously as it began, with no resolution or conclusion except the increasing conviction that he only had one real chance at love, and missed it.

The first two films in this trilogy (particularly In the Mood for Love, a near-perfect film by my count) can stand on their own. But 2046, to a viewer with no knowledge of either prior film, would seem like a mostly jumbled recollection of unexplained memories. 2046 is the key to making this a trilogy, however. It ties together the characters from the previous installments, as we’ve discussed, but it also returns to important metaphors used in both films.

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Top: Mr. Chow and Su Li-zhen’s cab ride in In the Mood for Love. Bottom: Mr. Chow’s fantasy/memory of that moment, in 2046.

In Days of Being Wild, York gives a narration that attempts to explain his restless, commitment-phobic nature: “I’ve heard there’s a kind of bird with no legs. All it can do is fly and fly. When it gets tired, it sleeps on the wind. This bird can only land once in its whole life. That’s the moment it dies.” York flies from one relationship to the next, never stopping to rest, lest he never take flight again. Late in the film, though, he begins to doubt himself. “I used to think there was a kind of bird that, once born, would keep flying until death. The fact is that the bird hasn’t gone anywhere. It was dead from the beginning.”

After their narrow escape from the gangsters that York double-crossed, York briefly tries to tell this story to the cop turned sailor Tide, but Tide cuts him off and yells at him for being an impulsive, dangerous fool. “Think you’re a bird? If you could fly, you wouldn’t have to be here. Go ahead, fly. Show me how you fly,” he scolds him. “You’ll see,” York says, moments before being shot. “Just don’t be jealous when it happens.”

The woman who loved York the most, and for whom the legless bird metaphor also applies, is Lulu, who goes to try and find York in the Philippines. York most likely told her the story of the ever-flying bird at some point, because in 2046, she repeats it to her current boyfriend, who ends up stabbing her in a jealous rage. Lulu survives, however, and is seen late in the film fighting with another woman, much like she did with Li-zhen back in Days of Being Wild. In the end, York was brought down, but Lulu still flaps along, not letting herself change.

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Lulu (Carina Lau) in Days of Being Wild (top) and 2046 (bottom).

The other primary shared idea is that of the whispered secret. Secrets was an early title for In the Mood for Love (before Wong heard Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music’s “I’m In The Mood For Love). Mr. Chow tells his friend Ping (Siu Ping Lam, who appears as Mr. Chow’s best friend in both In the Mood for Love and 2046) the following story: “In the old days, if someone had a secret they didn’t want to share… you know what they did? They went up a mountain, found a tree, carved a hole in it, and whispered the secret into the hole. Then they covered it with mud. And left the secret there forever.”

After the series of tragically close near-misses that prevent Mr. Chow and Li-zhen from being together, Mr. Chow travels to Cambodia and visits the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat. He wanders the gorgeous, worn temples, and finds a small hole, which he lightly touches, before leaning in close to whisper his secret, not heard by the viewer, witnessed only by a young monk nearby. A deeply haunting cello plays a dark, plaintive reimagining of the film’s recurring theme as the camera slowly swirls around Mr. Chow, baring his soul. He finishes, fills the hole with a clod of mud and grass, and walks away. The following title appears on the black screen: “He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.”

This devastating coda gives In the Mood for Love a clearer sense of closure than most Wong films. You may wonder, then, what the necessity is of a sequel is, but in truth, it’s exactly this closure that helps make 2046 so hopeless: when viewed right after In the Mood for Love, you have the distinct feeling that Mr. Chow has given up, and that nothing could really save him. The secret in Angkor Wat was a profoundly affecting moment in Mr. Chow’s life, because in 2046, he continues to obsess over the idea.

In fact, the next film begins inside of Mr. Chow’s secret: we slowly pull back from a vague circular shape while hearing the sounds of whispers. Part of 2046 is spent inside Mr. Chow’s latest story, set in the year 2046 (which is one year before the end of Hong Kong’s promised 50 years of self-governance under China). The movie starts with images of a science fiction future and the story of a train that goes to the year 2046, whose passengers all seek “to recapture lost memories.”

In the film’s first five minutes, Mr. Chow’s literary stand-in Tak (Takuya Kimura) retells the story of hiding a secret in a tree in the mountains, and we see Tak and Faye Wong (in android form) each leaning to whisper secrets into a large, reflective sphere. Their cupped hands hide their moving lips, just as Mr. Chow’s did in Angkor Wat.

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Top: Mr. Chow shares his secret in Angkor Wat in In the Mood for Love. Bottom: In 2046, Mr. Chow places this memory into his science fiction story.

In a sense, 2046’s reuse of the hidden secret story and the legless bird story can be seen as the relationship between all three films writ large. Both Mr. Chow and Wong himself are obsessed with returning to a lost, untouchable past. In 2046, Mr. Chow seeks any relationship that resembles his missed chance with Su Li-zhen: he tries to rent the same room number in a new building, nearly falls in love with a woman whose name is also Su Li-zhen, and ends up co-writing another martial arts serial with another woman he cannot be with. Wong similarly recycles the previous film’s actors and story beats in order to evoke a fond memory in the viewer, a memory of a past more hopeful.

And I don’t mean to say that this is some discovery I’ve made- this is all text, written into the film. It’s a self-aware decision by Wong to make 2046 the ultimate movie about looking back, one that textually refers back to its previous installments and also cannot help but be examined in the same way on an extra-textual level. The whole trilogy can be viewed this way, too, as Wong Kar-wai and his longtime production designer William Chang painstakingly recreate 1960s Hong Kong with a flair that’s a little more nostalgia than historical realism. Wong knows that “the past is something he could see, but not touch.”

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At the very least, it’s the definitive trilogy of Tony Leung’s cinematic smoking habit. (top: Days of Being Wild, middle: In the Mood for Love, bottom: 2046.)

The 1960s Trilogy is primarily the story of three characters, Chow Mo-wan, Su Li-zhen, and Lulu. The three actors who returned to these roles over the course of fifteen years have also had interesting real life dynamics. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, the core couple of the series and the focus of In the Mood for Love, have spent decades playing love interests, getting their careers and their romantic chemistry off the ground on the television series Police Cadet 84 (which Lau appeared in as well). In this delightful, revealing conversation between Wong and Leung, Leung says that Maggie Cheung is “a truly formidable partner – one to waltz with. We do not spend a lot of time with each other, as we like to keep some mystery between us. When I see her, I discover something new about her.”

Tony Leung and Carina Lau (Lulu), on the other hand, are one of Hong Kong’s highest profile celebrity couples. They’ve been together since 1989, just before Days of Being Wild, and were married in 2008. “Carina is the opposite of Maggie,” Leung says in the above interview. “We have been together for a long time. We know each other very well, but during our shooting we must pretend to be total strangers. It’s fun for a short while.”

Take this part with a big grain of salt, but for what it’s worth, Hong Kong tabloids have been rife with rumors of a love triangle between three of them for many years. By some accounts, Leung’s decision to be with Lau explains Maggie Cheung’s non-attendance at their mutual friend and Days of Being Wild co-star Leslie Cheung’s funeral after his tragic suicide in 2003. All I can say is this: it proved much harder than I thought it would to find pictures of all three actors together, and after the early 90s, Maggie Cheung and Carina Lau never shared a scene together again.

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Carina Lau and Maggie Cheung in Days of Being Wild.

Wong Kar-wai’s 1960s Trilogy is best viewed as a cohesive arc comprised of ideas that converse with one another. Tony Leung’s mysterious appearance as Mr. Chow in the final shot of Days of Being Wild is perhaps the most important puzzle piece. At the risk of annoying everyone who managed to read this far, the scene is not unlike an art-film precedent for the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s now-famous post-credits sequences. It’s not immediately relevant to the movie you’ve just watched, but it does hint at future installments. The difference is that while Marvel’s hints excite fans by referring to canonical characters or stories, Wong’s has no such reference point. A young, then-unnamed Mr. Chow counting his wad of bills meant nothing to viewers in 1990, but that very image returned in 2004 as Mr. Chow looks at the cash returned to him by Bai Ling, who he’d paid each time they slept together. Could that have been what the bills were for all those years ago, too?

Even while the three main characters enter and exit each other’s lives, these three films lightly brush past each other’s shoulders, trading thoughts about relationships and love. Wong’s works are a unique collection in world cinema, but their refusal of narrative and stylistic norms can make them difficult to pin down. By looking at these three films as a single, decade-spanning trilogy, we can start to see more about how Wong Kar-wai (and Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and Carina Lau) functions as a storyteller and creator.

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