Posts Tagged ‘alberti’

Chungking Express

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

Chungking Express

Chungking Express
1994, 98 minutes
directed by:  Wong Kar-wai

Hong Kong is a small region that produces a disproportionately large share of movies. For the remaining two films of the The Future is Asian series, I’ve chosen to discuss two films by one Hong Kong director, Wong Kar-wai. This is a testament to either Wong Kar-wai’s importance and relevance as a director, or to my stubbornness and arrogance in selecting films that I believe are relevant.

Chungking Express

Wong Kar-wai is one of those consummate indie film auteurs: the kind black-skinny-pants-wearing hipster film majors love to love. Chungking Express was the first movie distributed by Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Pictures movie company, and Wong has continued to produce highly anticipated and highly debated films—his latest, My Blueberry Nights, starring Norah Jones, Jude Law, and Rachel Weisz, made its American theatrical debut in 2007 (it received tepid reviews).

Faye Wong in Chungking Express

However, it’s not hard to see why Chungking Express made such a splash when it was first released in the US in 1994. It’s fast, stylishly oblique, cooly violent, and full of alienated beautiful people, the kind that have occupied hipster films since Antonioni. Though infused with a distinctively Asian vibe, it nonetheless effuses a thoroughly international sensibility. Wong Kar-Wai layered and mixed the music to compete with (and at times drown out) the dialogue–this was a fairly radical idea, and his use of music throughout his later films seems to have been a result of the success of that experiment in this film. As the theme song (in this case, “California Dreaming” by the Mamas and the Papas–see the clip below) weaves in and out or abruptly starts and stops throughout the film, it sets up a rhythm that organizes the narrative structure and establishes a spatial atmosphere.

But a funny thing happens when after you finish watching Chungking Express, or for that matter, other Wong Kar-Wai films: afterwards, you don’t necessarily remember the plot, or what happened, at least not in the traditional sense of who did what to whom, which then precipitated certain events, and so on and so on. In other words, you don’t exactly remember the chain of causal events that normally propel stories from beginning, middle, to end. This is not to say that Wong Kar-Wai’s films are forgettable—in fact, just the opposite. You distinctly remember the neon rush of the cosmopolitan streets of Hong Kong, the worn and tired texture of the old-city walls in that cramped, dark alley where two old friends said goodbye, the tight space of the lovers’ apartment, or the rhythm of the music that weaves its way through the images. Some images, like the food stall girl (the adorable Chinese pop-star Faye Wong) absent-mindedly bopping along to “California Dreaming” by the Mamas & the Papas (see the clip above), or the woman gently leaning her head on her lover in the back of a taxi, never leave you. Indeed, you are left with something else. We could try and call this something else visual impressions, or moods, or atmosphere, but I think it may be something which is the culmination of all of those things, yet somehow more: you are left with a sense of urbanity.

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Chungking Express takes its name from a bewildering, crowded mess of stores, shops, and eateries in one building in the Kowloon district of Hong Kong–it is essentially a vertical souq populated and staffed predominantly by immigrants and foreigners. To anyone who has ever been to this building/place/phenomenon, it is in and of itself an urban idea.

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Urbanity, as a broad concept, is inseparable from a conception of time. As our understanding and perception of time has changes, so does our understanding of cities. The most important urban theorists and architects all have differentiated themselves with a specific temporal conceptualization: from Alberti and Nolli all the way through Le Corbusier, Rossi, and Koolhaas. Wong Kar-Wai presents an essential understanding and documentation of contemporary urbanity due to his subtle, sophisticated, and irreducibly contemporary ability to play with time—most predominantly through his phrasing of visual sequences, his unique use of music, and to a lesser extent, his working method and the interconnectedness of his filmic oeuvre. Wong Kar-wai’s subject is exactly the relation between two things, time and urbanity, and in this way, proves that there are no more analogous artistic endeavors than film and architecture.

-    quang truong (originally written April 2008)

It cuts both ways. . .

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

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There are times when one feels utterly powerless against greater forces: in a perfectly played but losing hand of poker; in the passing of a completely unremarkable milestone birthday; or watching the passing of another historical moment that seems to gain no ground for the very idea of an expressive humanity.

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It pains one to see the tides of history sweep past unregarded citizens who were supposed to be its beneficiaries, and even more so when we had supposedly entered a new age where technological mediums rendered the oppressive techniques of the past obsolete. I wrote about this a bit in my review of the WWII-era surveillance film, The Lives of Others (2006, dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck), an excellent film.

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My studies had been roughly focused on the intersection of architecture and media–or, slightly more specifically,  between the intersection of film and architecture. My thesis is/was that changing modes of communication affect the way we inhabit, experience, and express space. This was borne from readings of McLuhan, Mario Carpo, Adorno, and extrapolated, used to explain the historical significance of architects such as Alberti, Le Corbusier, and Eisenman.

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Early on, many people pointed to the significance of new media to seeming alter the course of history. But as this article in Slate, titled, “The Revolution Will Not Be Digitized,”  argued, the new technology cut both ways. The same technology that could enable people could also be disabling. Yes, twitter was used to report on occurrences and organize groups of people, and major international news providers using video from cell phones as primary sources was no longer remarkable. But the chaos from so many “tweets” actually increased the confusion, and the government reportedly began using surveillance along with web volunteers to identify and imprison protesters. And because of the lack of true anonymity on the internet (tweets and postings can be traced), many citizens feel powerless or afraid of saying anything. Which exactly how they were supposed to not feel.  “The surprise isn’t that technology has given protesters a new voice. It’s that, despite all the tech, they’ve been effectively silenced.”

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In other words, top-down oppression lives on, and the anti-hierarchical digitopia remains (at this point) another castle in the sky. Which can be seen as one of the oldest stories in the book. In fact, up until recently, the standard bearer for historical mass-oppression was China. Think of the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square, or the Three Gorges Dam project. The effect of these historical drives towards “revolutionary” ideas on individuals is difficult to begin express, but I’ve probably seen no greater filmic attempt than Zhang Yi Mou’s To Live (1994), which I will review in a following post as part of my ongoing “The Future is Asian” film architecture series.

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As I write in that review, the story of a small Chinese family through the middle Twentieth Century serves “a simple reminder of the evil that even good intentions can create.” It is an example of the attempt to affect change upon a certain scale, and how the scale and locale of our actions may be the most important thing we consider as citizens of a community. It nevertheless remains difficult to sit by, at whatever distance has been made possible by the contemporary medium, and read/watch/surf/blog/twit about the actions of a few which seem to bring strife to so many. It feels as if I am literally watching walls being erected between people, and knowing that so many hearts are being broken at once. What has changed?

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The images throughout this post are from Shawn Rocco, a photographer who uses a cell phone as his medium. Yes,  a cell phone was used to capture all of the above images (a Motorola E815, to be precise). More info about Shawn can be found on his blog called cellular obscura.