In the 1990s, Hong Kong was home to a staggering number of the most gifted and charismatic actors in the world. It’s impossible to imagine the films of Wong Kar Wai—or the global art-house phenomenon they generated—without these extraordinary performers; at its heart, Wong’s cinema is an ode to their star power, and their artistry anchors his explorations of time, love, memory, and urban life. But the collective story of these key collaborators remains an underappreciated one. At least in the West, appraisals of these actors’ work often focus exclusively on their beauty and glamour, neglecting their cultural resonance beyond the realm of this one celebrated auteur.
Chinese-speaking viewers who encountered Wong’s movies in the nineties would have already been familiar with Maggie Cheung Man Yuk, Leslie Cheung Kwok Wing, and Tony Leung Chiu Wai through the dozens of roles they had played in films and TV shows, mostly pop entertainment that conformed to the industry standard of being cheap and easy to produce. Working with Wong, these stars were able to stretch their talents and collaborate in a slower, less formulaic creative process. In front of his camera, they achieved a richness of emotion that came to define Hong Kong cinema at a particularly explosive political moment, when the former British colony was shrouded by the anxiety of its handover to Mainland China in 1997. As the local movie industry became increasingly transnational and Wong’s gaze turned outward, his stable of regular players grew to include more members hailing from elsewhere: Taiwan’s Chang Chen, China’s Gong Li.
Decades later, the intensifying geopolitical conflicts within the region have made the short-lived golden age of Hong Kong stardom—which kicked into high gear in the 1980s and began to wane at the turn of the millennium—all the more poignant. These actors have also continued to capture the imagination of Asian audiences living on the other side of the world; for those of us in the Sinophone diaspora, their performances in Wong’s breathtaking run of masterpieces offer the opportunity to see Asian talent on the big screen, portraying characters who are sexy, zany, romantic, unpredictable—everything we’ve rarely had a chance to be in American movies.
In celebration of our box set World of Wong Kar Wai, released earlier this year and now playing on the Criterion Channel, we’ve gathered an array of U.S.-based writers with roots in various parts of the Chinese-speaking world—including critics, scholars, and novelists—to share what their favorite WKW actors have meant to them. Though we haven’t covered every one of the director’s greatest stars, we hope this series of nine tributes illuminates a significant part of his films’ legacy. —Andrew Chan
Genevieve Yue on Maggie Cheung Man Yuk
The mark of a good actor, it is often said, is the ability to slip invisibly into a role. Perhaps no one has done this better than Maggie Cheung Man Yuk, one of Wong Kar Wai’s principal collaborators and a legend of Hong Kong cinema. Even in Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep (1997), in which she plays herself, Cheung remains unnoticed for several minutes by the harried staff of a Parisian production office. The absurdity of the moment—how could anyone fail to see that the most beautiful woman in the world has arrived?!—is a satire of Western cinema’s ignorance of Cheung. Though she had already made seventy films by this point, this was her first role outside of Asia. But it also gets at her elusive quality. Her best-known roles have often been actors, women playing other women: besides the transnational star in Irma Vep, she has been an aspiring actress in Anthony Chan’s A Fishy Story (1989) and Shanghai silent cinema star Ruan Lingyu in Stanley Kwan’s Center Stage (1991). In her final film role, for Isaac Julien’s nine-screen installation Ten Thousand Waves (2010), she again played herself, this time strung up on guy wires, in the Brechtian guise of the sea goddess Mazu.
In In the Mood for Love, Cheung’s Su Li-zhen (also known as Mrs. Chan) plays a role, too, as she and her neighbor Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) improvise the moments when they will confront their cheating spouses, who have begun an affair with each other. The film cuts ambiguously between these “rehearsals” and the unspoken romance developing between Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow, deliberately frustrating the viewer’s ability to distinguish the two. But there’s a giveaway in Cheung’s performance—her most dramatic moments usually occur when her actress characters are deliberately acting. In one of the rehearsals, she tentatively slaps Mr. Chow, who is playing her husband, after he admits to having a mistress. He breaks character to admonish her: “If he admits it outright, let him have it!” She apologizes. “I didn’t know how to react.” They try again, and she slumps in silence. “I didn’t know it would hurt so much,” she finally explains before bursting into tears.
Cheung often seems incredibly sad, especially in Wong’s films. There’s an almost spectral quality to her sadness, evident in her slow and deliberate movements, as though she were a half-step out of time. The image of Cheung I retain is not of her iconic cheongsams and long, regal neck but of her eyes, brimming with pain on an unlined face. Wong watched those eyes closely. Cheung has credited Wong for giving her her first serious roles, after years of playing girlfriends, ghosts, prostitutes, and at least one mud wrestler. Still, I’m troubled by what he did to Cheung’s characters, so often making her an obsession for men descending into callousness and cruelty. She’s saved by the quiet dignity she carries in In the Mood for Love, in which Mrs. Chan weighs her choices against her desires. Her sadness is a response to the betrayals and failures of courage she sees all around her, though everyone else seems oblivious. “You notice things if you’re paying attention,” she says to her boss. But no one takes notice, of her or anyone else, and she ends up alone in her sadness.
In an interview from 2004, Cheung admitted that actors are “sad deep down,” owing to the demands of temporarily stepping into someone’s life. “You experience a lot more pain than normal people,” she explained. “You’re trying to know what it feels like to watch a man die in front of you, as if you’ve really lived it. Once that division is gone, it gets blurry . . . was it something else, something real?” Cheung retired from acting soon after that, and today she refers to herself as someone who “used to be an actress.” It’s not incidental, this sadness. Within the roles she slid into, she also suffered, and folded herself into her sadness. I have to believe that in the years that have since passed, she has experienced a relief that was unavailable to her in the movies.
Genevieve Yue is assistant professor of culture and media and director of the Screen Studies program at Eugene Lang College, the New School. She is a member of the board of trustees of the Flaherty and author of Girl Head: Feminism and Film Materiality (Fordham University Press, 2020).
Amanda Lee Koe on Leslie Cheung Kwok Wing
I first saw Happy Together (1997) on a pirated DVD when I was twenty and living in Beijing, pining after a mercurial, philandering, androgynous Uyghur soccer player who was only good for disappearing on me despite her longstanding claims that what we had was unlike anything else. Leslie Cheung’s volatile, licentious, fey playboy—and the ruinous hold he has over an impuissant Tony Leung—hit a raw nerve. Like Tony, I knew full well I was being played, but that couldn’t stop me from being an accomplice to this game. It was impossible to hate Leslie for anything he did to Tony. The way Leslie inhabited the character, you could only love him.
What does it feel like to have the unconditional adoration of your scene partner, the camera, the public? Like many of the performers Wong Kar Wai has worked with, Leslie was already a hugely successful matinee idol, as well as a recording artist with platinum albums and legions of Cantopop fans. But the characters Wong wrote for Leslie gave him space, and not just to finesse his emotional range as a serious actor beyond anemic archetypes: Some performers use acting to sidestep who they really are. With Wong, Leslie grew closer to himself. Wong observed how other directors deployed Leslie before developing more internally oblique and radically intense versions of those roles for him to embody. Yuddy, the troubled Casanova in Days of Being Wild (1990), is a casually callous reinterpretation of the dreamy libertine Chan Chen-pang in Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (1987). The amoral swordsman Ouyang Feng in Ashes of Time (1994) is a world-weary iteration of the idealistic Zhuo Yihang in Ronny Yu’s The Bride with White Hair (1993). Ho Po-Wing’s rent-boy promiscuity in Happy Together is Douzi’s latent queerness in Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1993) brought to its flaming, cosmopolitan apex.
Sharing a performative affinity with midcentury James Dean and Timothée Chalamet today, Leslie’s approach to character deviated from that of the typical cisheteronormative leading man: unconcerned with virility, consistency, and technicality, he was far more invested in vulnerability, unpredictability, and authenticity. Leslie was beautiful, no doubt, but that wasn’t enough. He wanted to be beautiful on his own terms, and he openly othered his beauty by queering his masculinity. Because Wong was interested in distilling what was most Leslie about Leslie to access the id of these characters, Leslie never hid his otherness in Wong’s films.
In our midtwenties, the soccer player told me girls couldn’t be with girls forever. She looked more like a boy than a girl, but she said she could and would mask her androgyny if and when she had to—I had it easier as a femme and ought not disappoint my parents. I don’t know what she’d think of Leslie, who dated sweet-faced actresses in a string of short-lived affairs before publicly declaring his childhood friend Mr. Tong, with whom he’d had a twenty-year relationship, the love of his life. These days, many celebrities in the Western hemisphere come out as bi or pan with little fanfare or negative consequences, but in the conformist chokehold of nineties Asia, Leslie had to live with bigots who mocked him for being “perverted” and “haunted by a female ghost.” The tragic irony is that while Leslie raised queer visibility in a time and place where it was badly needed, his courageous representation in the face of homophobic intolerance left him susceptible to deep bouts of depression, and he died by suicide in 2003.
And so we’re left with Leslie’s gravity and grace in his performances. He’s not here, but we’re still mesmerized by how he lights a cigarette, throws a tantrum, cajoles a lover. Other directors may have captured the ineluctable way in which Leslie lit up a screen, but no one comes close to the intimacy of Wong’s intuition in constructing entire sequences just to watch Leslie live in his body, just to let him move. Who can possibly resist the lush restlessness of Yuddy in a white singlet, feeling himself as he dances the mambo before a mirror in Days of Being Wild? Who will ever be able to forget the extravagant joy of Leslie hooking his ankle when Tony suavely dips him in the tango they steal together in an empty communal kitchen in Happy Together?
When Leslie dances, he is never fixed, but always in flux. Limitless in its fluidity, Leslie’s legacy reveals how easy and difficult, how painful and beautiful, above all how necessary it is for queer, nonbinary, and trans folks to freely be ourselves/themselves. If you ever need to remember you’re perfect just the way you are, go watch Leslie shake his hips in a Wong Kar Wai picture, then put on his soaring anthem “我” (I) and know that I’ll be dancing with you to these opening lines: I am what I am / 我永遠都愛這樣的我 (I will always love the me I am).
Amanda Lee Koe is the author of Ministry of Moral Panic and Delayed Rays of a Star. Born in Singapore, she has spent time in Beijing and Berlin. She now lives in New York.
Aliza Ma on Rebecca Pan
Human migration has shaped a great deal of cultural existence, yet often the legacy of diasporic communities takes on unexpected forms, with wistful results. Between the drive toward assimilation and the contradictory urge to preserve one’s heritage, imported traditions and cultures can become amber-cast relics, evolve into bizzaro permutations, or vanish altogether. Wong Kar Wai’s most personal films reckon with these changes and impermanences, reinventing the now-disappeared 1960s Shanghainese community in Hong Kong where he grew up, and telling emotional stories drawn from an amalgam of imagination and recollection. While Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love are often marveled at for the pageantry of their sets and costumes, their true allure lies in their uncanny ability to transmit a yearning for their bygone milieu, even to those who never experienced it firsthand. This has a lot to do with the recurring appearances of the sensational singer-actor Rebecca Pan, who serves as a bridge into Wong’s lived and imagined pasts.
In 1949, at the end of the Chinese Civil War, Pan was part of a creative class from Shanghai that sought refuge in Hong Kong. These émigrés brought about vast transformations in the city’s film, music, and fashion industries but expected their move to be temporary. They formed domestic microcosms filled with Shanghainese objects and customs, establishing a capsule community that an impressionable five-year-old Wong and his mother, who embarked on the same journey about a decade later, came to inhabit. Incidentally, most of these émigrés never left. Their old identity melded with their new surroundings, resulting in a midcentury Hong Kong cosmopolitanism that was embodied by women like Wong’s mother and Pan, who catapulted to stardom at age eighteen with songs like “My Hong Kong.” Her music juxtaposed traditional Chinese instrumentation with modern themes and intercontinental melodies and lyrics.
Wong and Pan met just before the filming of Days of Being Wild. It’s easy to imagine how they hit it off: encountering someone who shares the same birthplace abroad feels like finding terra firma—there emerges a mutual understanding of being possessed of familiar cultural and linguistic paradigms, and of having suffered similar heartaches of displacement. The soundtracks of Days and Mood, which work like sonic triggers for emotions and space, commingle the radio music favored by Wong’s mother—Zhou Xuan’s “golden voice” and the crooning boleros of Nat King Cole—and extractions from Pan’s musical taste and output. Pan introduced Wong to Xavier Cugat, who was popularized by the Latin-influenced musicians who came from the Philippines in the mid-1900s; Cugat’s “Always in My Heart” percolates in a key scene in Days. And her own lilting rendition of “Bengawan Solo,” an Indonesian folk song that became a pan-Asian anthem about the longing for home after World War II, is indelibly layered into the soundscape of Mood.
Wong’s mother, who died before he made his first feature film, would have been Pan’s coeval. The director instinctively cast Pan as matriarchal figures: the troubled adoptive mother of Leslie Cheung’s playboy, Yuddy, in Days, also named Rebecca—one of the few times any Wong film portrays family life—and Mrs. Suen, the well-meaning but prying, mahjong-addicted landlady of the main characters in Mood (her amah is Chin Tsi-Ang, another Shanghainese émigré, who had performed in silent martial arts serials and happened to be Sammo Hung’s grandmother). These two contrasting diasporic characters place an outsized significance on everyday objects, from earrings to mahjong sets to a neighbor’s new rice cooker. These things become signifiers of belonging or exoticism; their familiarity, foreignness, and perishability weigh against those same qualities in Pan’s characters. The comfort and ease with which Pan dons her cheongsams—garments popularized in Shanghai and then brought to Hong Kong by her generation—and her fiery Shanghainese dialogue lend the films’ highly stylized scenes a vital authenticity and lifelikeness. With Hong Kong’s 1997 handover to Mainland China contemporaneously looming over these productions, her presence also took on personal and political dimensions: she’s a figure of the perpetually homesick, occupying the liminal space between a tenuous past and an unknown future. That nothing is told about her characters’ histories is a reminder of the fracturing effect of migration, so violently rupturing that it’s often likened to a kind of reincarnation rather than any linear progression through life. But in Wong’s cinema of déjà vus, it is possible to relive past lives.
Aliza Ma is a China-born, New York–based film writer and producer for the Criterion Collection.
Andrew Chan on Tony Leung Chiu Wai
There are moments in Wong Kar Wai’s films when Tony Leung breaks into a half-smile, often followed by a bashful casting downward of his eyes. That’s when you know he’s got it bad. Those feelings inside him are so sharp, they’ve cut his face in two. The lopsided mouth is saying one thing, but the eyes—deep, pleading, always a little damp—say something else entirely. This is the face of a man who has tried, maybe many times, to divest himself from desire and is realizing that he’s failed.
The surface of Leung’s face is the primary visual motif in Happy Together, and it’s at its most turbulent when his character is drawn into close proximity with the love of his life, a tempestuous hottie played by Leslie Cheung. At one point, the two men are standing a few inches apart from one another on a street in Buenos Aires. Leung begrudgingly lights Cheung’s cigarette with his, and then he averts his gaze, as if to avoid blinding himself. Later, as full-scale depression sets in, he hides his face behind a tape recorder that his happy-go-lucky coworker (Chang Chen) has given him to hold, pressing it to his cheek in hopes of concealing an emotional catharsis he releases in tear-choked spasms.
It’s hard to think of another actor who has made the self-negating effort of not wanting—of not needing anyone, while at the same time keeping the door of his battered heart slightly ajar—as sexy as Leung does in Wong’s films. These are luxurious romances filled with pleasure and possibility, but the questions at their core all have to do with pain: What is the right way to respond to the elusiveness of love, its cruel fictitiousness? How do we go on? More than any other star in Wong’s constellation, Leung wears these questions on his body. Looking at his face, you recognize the discipline required to carry on while holding all that ache inside yourself.
I know this isn’t all Leung is capable of. The man’s got range. He has a daffy screwball register. And his sincere, boyish, endearingly dopey voice can sometimes, without much warning, morph into a sneer or a holler. But at the risk of reducing his filmography to my favorites among his collaborations with Wong, I’ll take my Tony with a generous helping of the blues.
I used to assume that what made Leung so attractive was his mastery of repression, which has unfortunately become something of a lost art in movie romances. But I’m no longer sure that’s accurate. Is a man really repressed if he has looked love squarely in the face and lived to tell the tale? At the end of In the Mood for Love, Leung takes his secret, impossible flame all the way to Angkor Wat, depositing it into a hole in a wall of a temple ruin. The camera shoots the back of his head, so again his face is obscured. To leave his once-in-a-lifetime love in that hole for all eternity, and then to walk away, certain he’ll never know anything else like it: that’s the kind of dignity only an actor like Leung can summon.
I look to him as our emissary from the land of lonely hearts. His performances show us what we’ll need to survive if ever we should find ourselves there.
Andrew Chan is web editor at the Criterion Collection. His work has appeared in Film Comment, 4Columns, NPR Music, Reverse Shot, and other publications.
Charles Yu on Takeshi Kaneshiro
The first time I watched Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) scarf down that room-service burger in Chungking Express (1994), I learned something: I’d been doing life wrong. I was twenty-one years old, and up to that point I had eaten probably hundreds of hamburgers. Enjoyed many. But I had never really eaten one. Not like that. I had been taking bites—reasonable, sensible bites—when it turns out what I should have been doing instead was devouring them. Like Takeshi Kaneshiro.
(And the salad. Don’t even get me started. How he eats that chef’s salad is how I wish I could live my life.)
Whether he’s a police officer in Chungking Express or a nocturnal petty criminal in Fallen Angels, whether he speaks five languages or none, Kaneshiro plays characters who do things all the way.
Look at him massaging that dead pig. Or kidnapping a family in the dead of night and driving them around in a stolen ice-cream truck, force-feeding them way too much soft serve. Or carefully cleaning Brigitte Lin’s pumps with the back of his necktie, setting them down gently by the side of the hotel bed.
Look at him running in the rain. He’s not pacing himself. He’s flat-out sprinting. Just watching him is painful; it’s the kind of exertion where it feels like your lungs might literally explode. It’s cold and miserable, and yet somehow he makes it seem . . . kind of fun.
Look at him eating pineapple chunks. Has anyone ever looked cooler doing that? The way he holds the fork, the way he tilts the can up to get the last drips of syrup. The way he pops the top on another can. His scene partners in this pineapple moment are his goldfish and his dog. His scene partner is himself. His scene partner is you. He pulls you in. You can’t help but be charmed.
Whether he’s alone or with other people, sad or drunk or exhausted or missing his dad or covered in blood, Takeshi Kaneshiro always looks like he’s having a lot of fun.
And he always makes things look cool. On the phone, trying (and failing) to get a date. Helping his boss make a video for his son. Even the way he brushes his teeth is cool, how he wipes the excess foam off his face in one precise horizontal swipe. With his pop-idol looks, his shock of jet-black hair, the way the clothes hang off his frame, Kaneshiro in these two films was a revelation for me, a dorky undergrad with zero fashion sense and even less confidence in my oily skin, my awkward frame, my lack of desirability—not just in a physical sense, but in a deeper one as well. I was about as uncool as you could be, and on both a conscious and unconscious level that uncoolness was intrinsically linked to my being of Asian descent. My Asian face, my Asian body. And then along comes this guy, Takeshi Kaneshiro, moving through the world with style and flair and even grace. Always a gleam in his eye. And thanks to the ample voice-over used in both films, I could be inside of his head, could feel like I was moving through the world with him.
Charles Yu is the author of four books, including his latest, Interior Chinatown, which won the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the Le Prix Médicis étranger. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in a number of publications including the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic, and Harper’s. He has also written for shows on HBO, FX, and AMC. Copyright © 2021 by Charles Yu.
Walter Chaw on Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia
I always thought of myself as “fake Chinese.” Born here, second-generation Chinese Americans are often more culturally American than we could ever be culturally Chinese. I spent most of my life trying to assimilate. At moments when I felt the most alien, I even wished that I could somehow pass as white. Taiwanese actress Brigitte Lin presented the possibility to accept, even embrace my essential, insurmountable difference. The first time I saw her in a movie, I was twelve and she was the castrati Dongfang Bubai in Ching Siu-tung and Stanley Tong’s Swordsman II. I was transfixed before a beat-up bootleg VHS my parents scored at the local Vietnamese grocery. Lin’s character is mistaken for a woman, of course, and the picture unfolds as a wuxia Twelfth Night, with Lin’s character wooed by a man while entertaining a girlfriend on the side. She is as virile as any man and as feminine as any woman, and the only definitions that govern her are those she assigns to herself. I was entranced by how Lin straddles gender identities as fluidly as I tried to straddle racial ones.
I followed her devoutly ever after, chasing her through centuries and home-video formats and scenarios that ran the gamut from romantic to violent, from poetic to debased, until we both arrived, Lin and I, at a transformational crossroads in Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express. Paired with Wong and his Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle—another blending of East and West—Lin demonstrates an ability to occupy a liminal space that is used as a metaphor for longing. She is neither one thing nor the other, and because she is all things she is desired by everyone. The revolution she represented in my sense of self was bracing and edifying. She played both aspects of Yin and Yang, somewhat literally, a swordsman and his sister—twins—in Wong’s Ashes of Time, an elliptical tone poem about yearning for wholeness and spiritual communion. But it’s in Chungking Express that Lin finds what is for me the definitive example of her unknowable and seductive duality. Wong and Doyle find in Lin an echo of their own winsome voices.
In this film, Lin plays an unnamed drug courier taking on a traditionally masculine role in handing out money, engaging in gunplay, and barking orders. Donning a blonde wig, in a nod to the influence of Western culture in Hong Kong society, she catches the eye one night of lovelorn He Zhi Wu (Cop 223), played by Takeshi Kaneshiro, who straddles his own warring cultural identities as a man of Japanese and Taiwanese descent. They have a few drinks, two lonesome people making a connection. Lin plays it cool. She knows what she wants and describes the limits of their engagement. Their meeting epitomizes a brief encounter with that obscure object of desire, and she’s alluring because of the slipperiness of her identity, not in spite of it.
Wong’s appeal as a filmmaker is that he works in the poetry of chance meetings and of longings never satisfied. He is a romanticist and Lin his immortal beloved. Wong captures her as something of an agent of chaos and disruption. She passes He Zhi Wu one night on a busy street as she’s walking the other way. He muses that he passed close enough to touch her, but he wouldn’t know until later how much he would want to. She exists in Chungking Express precisely as she is in my most ideal construction of a personal diaspora. She is what I have always wanted to be: wished for, pursued, powerful. She is an expression of my multitudes. She is a beautiful contradiction. Aren’t we all?
Walter Chaw is the senior film critic for FilmFreakCentral.net, with bylines in the New York Times, LA Weekly, the New York Post’s Decider.com, and NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. His book on the films of Walter Hill is due in the spring of 2022.
Oliver Wang on Faye Wong
Watching Chungking Express for the first time, you’d be forgiven for missing Faye Wong’s initial appearance. We’re formally introduced to her character—also named Faye—during the transition between the film’s two halves. In that scene, we learn that Faye is working at her cousin’s food stand, seems a bit restless, and really likes playing “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas & the Papas at ear-piercing volume.
However, Wong actually enters the frame in the first half, during a brief, seven-second scene seventeen minutes in. Distracting us from noticing her are (1) Brigitte Lin, enigmatically cloaked in a raincoat, blonde wig, and sunglasses, smoking a cigarette, and (2) the ginormous Garfield plushy Faye carries out of a toy store.
That giant doll provides some levity to relieve the tension of Lin’s cat-and-mouse game with double-crossing heroin smugglers. But this interstitial moment gets a callback/payoff in the second half of the film, when Faye brings the same plushy to secretly replace the equally oversized teddy bear in the apartment of Cop 663 (Tony Leung). Between the scenes, Faye found time to slide a T-shirt onto Garfield that appears to ask, “ARE WE HAVING FUN YET?”
If Wong Kar Wai has any cinematic muses, the two most obvious candidates would be Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, with whom he’s respectively made seven and four films. Yet I’m not sure he’s ever created a more indelible character, or made a more inspired casting decision, than when he chose Faye Wong to play Faye in Chungking Express. As I wrote about in 2019 regarding the film’s use of Wong’s own single, “Dream Lover,” the character Faye was so heavily aligned with the singer’s star persona—free-spirited and whimsical—it’s impossible to imagine the role being played by anyone else.
Faye also feels like a singular departure from the brooding melancholia that defines most of WKW’s characters. This includes Wang Jing-wen, Wong’s lovelorn ingenue in 2046, left morose after her father forces her to break up with her Japanese boyfriend. Jing-wen is cloistered in a way that’s antithetical to Faye’s unbridled autonomy. Yet there’s an irrepressible vivacity in Wong’s eyes that seems to link the two performances, however intentionally or not.
When I was younger, I found Faye charming, though I was probably projecting manic-pixie-dream-girl vibes onto her. Now that I’m older, her emotional repression and questionable ethics—she basically roofies Cop 663 to continue her covert cleanings—make Faye less alluring yet no less compelling. This has been especially true over the past year as I’ve watched my sixteen-year-old, Ella, become interested with Faye/Wong in ways I’ve never been.
Partly to help pass the time in pandemic lockdown, Ella decided to become an Asian cinephile, bingeing on most of WKW’s catalog when she wasn’t exploring Kore-eda or Iwai flicks. Her favorite WKW film is Fallen Angels, but she’s also fascinated with Faye, telling me: “To be able to find beauty in the ordinary, to do what you want without fear of judgement, to silently yearn and genuinely live, this is what is so largely appealing and romantic to me about Faye . . . She exemplifies original cool.”
I had always viewed Faye as I imagined Cop 663 did—as a romantic object—but Ella’s interest in her is driven less by desire and more by identification. To her, Faye’s free spirit is a sensibility to aspire to, a way of moving between the harsh realities of work and romance and a vivid dream world of one’s own making. Faye’s journey by the end of Chungking Express is left open-ended, which seems exactly right. For both Wong, the actor/singer, and Faye, the character, the goal to strive for is a life open to the possibility of serendipity. We don’t actually know why Faye purchased that giant Garfield to begin with, but as is evident in the fact that it eventually ends up in Cop 663’s apartment, it’s the unexpected path that produces the potential for surprise and delight.
Oliver Wang is a professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach and regularly contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Los Angeles Times, NPR’s All Things Considered, KCET’s Artbound, and other outlets. He cohosts the music podcast Heat Rocks.
Ryan Swen on Chang Chen
As a performer, Chang Chen specializes in observing and listening. One of the key Taiwanese actors of the past thirty years, he began his career at fourteen in Edward Yang’s epochal masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day (1991) and has worked with some of the most notable contemporary Chinese-speaking directors, from Yang to Hou Hsiao-hsien, from John Woo to Ang Lee, in both his native country and in China and Hong Kong. Across his career, whether by dint of exclusively speaking Mandarin among Cantonese speakers or playing people on the periphery of the story, Chang tends to be on the outside looking in, slightly aloof and inscrutable even when he’s at the center. I have long held an intense admiration for him, in large part because I see something of myself in his characters: I’m a young Taiwanese man living in the United States who always feels like an outsider, constantly attempting to understand those around me.
Few filmmakers have harnessed that odd-man-out quality as well as Wong Kar Wai, who has directed Chang in four films. In their earliest collaborations, Chang offers something that no other actor in Wong’s considerable repertory cast provides: he’s an unmolded performer at the beginning of his career, and his screen presence and roles shift profoundly with each film.
This youthfulness is put to pointed use in Chang’s first Wong film, Happy Together. Alongside the destructive pas de deux between Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung, Chang is the only other significant character. His role is deliberately ambiguous, and so is his sexuality, but he does represent a radiance, an innocence that has long been absent from the two lovers’ lives. In a film shadowed by the Hong Kong handover—a film in which characters struggle to break out of the cages of their past—his nationality is no accident: he and Taiwan stand out as beacons of hope, of a possible future where tears and pain can be left behind.
Chang would get his own duet and a true showcase for his talent with The Hand (2004), Wong’s short contribution to the omnibus Eros. Playing a tailor who develops an intense relationship with a high-class call girl (Gong Li), he has a nigh-ageless appearance that becomes indispensable to the film. For most of the duration, he could be anywhere between twenty and forty years old, creating a temporal blurriness that, when coupled with understated jumps in chronology, deliberately unmoors the film from any conventional sense of time, allowing the pair’s longing to assume a floating yet palpable grandeur and tragedy. His quiet countenance is here deployed as a mask for his ardent emotions, held in place until it is shattered at the end.
Chang’s other two Wong appearances are far more peripheral, but they each have different aims. He is one fleeting face amid the cavalcade of ghosts from Wong’s past in 2046. More revealing is his storyline in The Grandmaster (2013). Though he appears in only three scenes and interacts with a character from the main narrative just once, he registers profoundly as a kung fu master among equals. He is simultaneously set apart and within the fold, in a state of suspension that perfectly represents his unique, essential presence in Wong’s oeuvre.
Ryan Swen is a Los Angeles–based freelance film critic and a cinema and media studies MA at the University of Southern California. He hosts and produces the Catalyst and Witness podcast and has written for Reverse Shot, the Film Stage, Seattle Screen Scene, MUBI Notebook, Hyperallergic, and the BFI.
Phoebe Chen on Gong Li
For years, I only knew her as a tired beauty prone to rebellion: in Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), she plays a filigreed empress poisoned to the brink of madness; in that white man’s delusion of Japan, Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), she sets fire to her okiya and slinks away in the ashen dawn. I was twelve, graceless, and could not bear to look at my face, so I lost myself in hers, buoyed by the routine dream that desire alone could make a mirror of the silver screen. There’s some cultural consensus, my mother once said, that a face like Gong Li’s, all high slants and sharp planes, suggests kǔ mìng, a Chinese phrase that means hardship or suffering, though I prefer the most literal translation: bitter fate. As a child, I did not think that the women Gong played in the mid-2000s, as fixed as stars in the eternal present of their seeming worldliness, could’ve ever been children themselves. Even now, long after I’ve seen her as the sun-flushed ingenue in Red Sorghum (1987), my image of her still comes from that midcareer stretch of furtive women with heavy pasts. I recall her best with a tense jaw and glistening eyes, her magic not in the deluge and its easy pathos, but the sheer force it takes to hold it all back.
This weary Gong is the one who appears in her two collaborations with Wong Kar Wai—The Hand and 2046, the latter of which is their only feature together. But here Wong anchors the intimations of her worldliness elsewhere, not just in her eyes but in her hands. She charms in the former film as Miss Hua, a coiffed and cat-eyed sex worker alongside Chang Chen’s apprentice tailor, and as a professional gambler in the latter, opposite Tony Leung’s haunted and itinerant writer. There’s no better way to flash the sensuality and dexterity required for survival than by showing the expert hands of women who turn and pull tricks to live. Gong uses them to teach, too: by lamplight somewhere in Singapore, they show Leung how to gamble (and win); somewhere in Hong Kong, they school Chang in pleasure. “Remember this feeling,” she whispers, neck swanned back, “and you’ll make me beautiful clothes.” You bet he does: he goes on to create a black cheongsam with tiny crystals nested like diamonds in the rough, another draped in dark roses and their thorns, and yet another in sheer plum with filaments of gold. He remembers that feeling so well, in fact, that the fabric’s phantom curvature is enough to replay the sensation of her flesh.
In 2046, Gong’s hand is infamous as a site of occlusion, sheathed in a black glove that never comes off. Conjecture surrounds the hidden hand like air: Was it chopped off for cheating? Does the glove mask a fake? Her character is steeped in so much mystery that she’s given all of ten minutes in the film, but with a face and hands like that, who needs a backstory? Predictably, Leung still wants to know about her past, so she relents with a simple condition: if he beats her at a game of high-low, she’ll tell him everything. In the dim light of the playing room, she fans a stack of cards with her ungloved hand, its crimson talons and her perennial red lip the only jolts of color in her funereal appearance. Leung draws an eight of clubs, and Gong, with a flick of her wrist so spry it’s almost suspicious, bares an ace. He was never going to win. Even when they tremble or falter, and even when the tears do fall, Gong’s women always seem worthy of their secrets, and women with secrets worth keeping would hardly leave their revelation to chance.
Phoebe Chen is a writer and graduate student living in New York.
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