Time and Wong Kar-wai
By Catherine McDonald
Wong Kar-wai is an iconic Hong Kong director and filmmaker known for his romantic storytelling, bright saturated colours, and unique in-camera filmmaking techniques that have become his signature looks. When most people think of Wong Kar-wai, they think of visual techniques such as change in frame rate, and blurry, dreamy effects. These techniques are referenced in films such as Everything, Everywhere All at Once (2022), a movie that embraces and celebrates Asian cinema, showing the legacy that he’s created. He’s been coined “the most romantic filmmaker in the world” by Richard Corliss, a film critic for Time Magazine. Most of his notable films suggest that humans are lonely beings who long for something missing in their lives, something or someone who helps us feel less alone, especially in the lush, chaotic world of busy, neon Hong Kong where it’s easy to feel alone and misunderstood in a crowd. His films suggest that time and how it moves around our lives is correlated to our loneliness and desires, that time plays a factor in how our relationships play out and end.
In Chungking Express (1994), speed and time represents the characters’ personalities and feelings, and how the world around them moves against them. The film is split into two stories, with the first story revolving around Cop 223 recovering from a breakup, and Blondie on the run from a failed drug deal. With their story, Wong Kar-wai heavily utilizes step-printing to create a dreamy sense of motion. There’s a scene where Cop 223 is chasing after a criminal through the streets of Hong Kong, and another scene where Blondie is running from people trying to take her down. Both of these sequences have a time-lapse effect that makes the characters running look blocky and slow and out of place, but at the same time the world around them is fast and smeary — accomplished through step-printing. They’re visually appealing scenes, but the cinematography of these scenes were a conscious choice made to show how both of these characters live fast-paced lives. They are always on the run, the world around them is always moving fast despite their disconnect to the crowd, and they are people who have lifestyles that force them to make quick decisions. Cop 223 is the kind of person to make the quick choice to fall in love with Blondie, a stranger. Blondie is the kind of person to make the quick choice to kidnap a child.
Time is a big factor for these characters, emphasized by these stylized time-lapse montage sequences done with step-printing. Their heartbreaks and failures have deadlines in the film. Cop 223 references “May 1st” as the day his ex-girlfriend moved on from him, a month after April 1st, when she dumped him. Blondie has to recover from her drug deal before the next day, or she’s in trouble. They both move fast, disconnected from the world around them, and Wong Kar-wai uses step-printing to show how time around them correlates to Cop 223’s loneliness and longing and into his quick new-found love with Blondie. Quentin Tarantino’s opening to Reservoir Dogs (1992) utilizes this technique, but when “step-printing” is Googled, one will find that most results show Wong Kar-wai’s name next to it, truly making him the king of this technique to represent time
He also uses under-cranking in Chungking Express; another technique made iconic under his name. This plays a huge part in manipulating time in the second story of Chungking Express. The characters and how time revolves around them in this story are almost the opposite from the first story. Cop 663, like Cop 223, is also recovering from a heartbreak, while Faye is a restaurant worker going with the flow of life. The characters here have slow lives compared to the first set of characters. Cop 663 takes a long time to get over his heartbreak, and the progressing relationship between him and Faye takes place over a long period, as opposed to one night, like Cop 223 and Blondie’s romance. Faye is aimless and isn’t on the run from anything. Together, these people go through the motions of their slow jobs and slow-burn their feelings for each other. This is demonstrated by several sequences of under-cranking and a mixture of step-printing, emphasizing their loneliness and the time it takes for them to find they belong together as they take time to get to know each other. When they first become acquainted, we see a sequence of Cop 663 slowly drinking a coffee with Faye next to him, daydreaming. As they are lost in their own worlds, the people who walk by around them appear to be moving really fast, jittery and blocky, while Cop 663 and Faye appear to move extremely slowly, almost still.
It’s a very stylized sequence and feels intentionally much slower than the time-lapse sequences of the first story. It was achieved by under-cranking the camera and then having extras walk by the camera really fast so that when their movements were captured with fewer frames, it would appear to be blocky and smeared with an open camera shutter. The actors for Cop 663 and Faye were directed to move extremely slowly so that they would appear to almost be still amidst the chaos of Hong Kong. This sequence shows how in a busy city, these two characters almost don’t belong in all of it, disconnected from the crowd of many around them, just like Cop 223 and Blonde. They move slowly and aimlessly through their routine lives, lonely in a crowd of many, lost within themselves, looking for love that’s right in front of them.
Wong Kar-wai uses these in-camera techniques for different story intentions, but at the end all show how these characters are similar in their loneliness and how time plays a factor in their longing and desires. Time is a recurring character in many of his films, in which love and feelings often have a deadline, and relationships are connected and stretched across periods of time. Time can move so fast when we’re chasing after something, or running from something. Chasing after people and dreams who leave us faster than we’d like them to, maybe running from the truth that the person we love really did leave us on April Fool’s Day. Time can move so slow when we’re waiting for something too.
Despite this loneliness in isolated pockets of time, time brought this group of people as couples together. When you choose to impulsively in the moment fall in love with the first woman who walks through the door, and so by chance, the woman who walks through is the one who ends up paging you to wish you a “happy birthday” when no one else did. When your feelings for a policeman develop slowly and come unexpectedly, and so as he recovers from his heartbreak, he starts to see that you’ve become a part of his life. Time can be our enemy when it feels like everything is moving against us, but Wong Kar-wai suggests we also consider how time and chance can push us to connect with the people around us who are more like us than we think, despite our loneliness, or the deadlines we set for ourselves.
These stylized techniques have created romantic, dreamy sequences that have stapled him as something entirely unique in Asian cinema. He has a unique perspective on romance and loneliness and is able to communicate that vision with cinematographers in fractured scriptwriting, guerilla filmmaking, and risk-taking. His films' lush visuals and romantic themes add a sense of beauty to my perspective of life and have taught me that humans are more connected in loneliness and heartache, as opposed to those feelings disconnecting us from the world.
As a filmmaker, I've read about how his unique techniques are achieved through risk-taking and often coming up with new ideas on the day, which inspires me to be more of a filmmaker who should take more risks and be more confident. His unstructured storytelling tells of longing and hidden feelings in fictional characters that feel real. These characters represent a part of all of us, where we long to feel a little less lonely sometimes. Where we hope time might work in favour of our desires. He inspires me to view cinema and life with more of a rose-coloured lens and that it's worth trying to connect with the world through risk-taking.
Time is a confidant in heartbreak and secrets, and people can intercross with each other and affect each other’s lives in ways unrealized. As he wrote in his film 2046 (2004): “Love is all a matter of timing. It’s no good meeting the right person too soon or too late.”
Johnson, Meagan, Emily Nagler, Dylan Kanaan, Joalda Morancy, and Haina Lu. "The Expiration of Time and Love: Analyzing Speed of Motion in Wong Kar Wai's Chungking Express." Intermittent Mechanism. April 23, 2020. https://intermittentmechanism.blog/2020/04/23/the-expiration-of-time-and-love-analyzing-speed-of-motion-in-wong-kar-wais-chungking-express/.
"Wong Kar Wai's Chungking Express – Speed and Time." A Void in Frame. March 15, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DZ1fEC67GO4&feature=youtu.be.