Posts Tagged ‘hong kong’

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.

in-the-mood-for-love

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.

chungking-express1

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)

Memories of Murder

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

memories2

Memories of Murder
2003, 130 minutes
directed by:  Bong Joon-ho

A friend and I recently had a conversation about the contemporary artist John Currin. He has had feature articles written about him for several years now, including one in the New Yorker, which is no small feat for an American painter alive and working today. He’s a graduate of Yale’s MFA program (Mafia of Art) and a critical darling. In short, he’s received no small amount of critical and professional success.

john-currin

However, there’s something palpably underwhelming about his work. It sometimes feels like what he’s doing is the art world equivalent of a PhD thesis. It’s intelligent and it represents diligent, hard work, but there’s no energy or fire. There’s no brashness. There’s no urgency. There’s nothing in them that really represents a real risk of failure. I don’t mean to single out John Currin for this, for I certainly like and respect his work. I think what is unsettling is the issue of risk. I think the Spanish have a word for it: cojones.

koolhaas_jussieu

In a way, the architects we reference the most were almost unpalatably punk in their youth—the competition-rule-breaking entries of early Rem Koolhaas, the suburban house by Frank Gehry, the distressed drawings of Thom Mayne, the paintings of Zaha Hadid, or the art and dance installations of Diller & Scofidio. They gained attention because they were desperately searching for a way around the established methods to get towards something more honest and expressive. That in the end is what creativity is, and that is why we know them today.

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Several years ago, when Jackie Chan made his first American production movie, several interviewers asked Jackie what the difference was between making a movie in America versus making a movie in Hong Kong. Well, Jackie said, the difference was that in America, the movie-makers actually think about things like safety, preparation, planning, and insurance. There is a whole industry that revolves around making sure people don’t get hurt. Apparently, in contrast, back in Hong Kong, somebody would dream up a stunt, no matter how insane, and whoever had the balls would just get up and try to do it on film. If that person got hurt, they would just get another guy. If, after a few maimed guys, they decided the stunt was probably impossible, they would just think of another stunt. And so a movie got made. In short, that was the path to success for Jackie Chan, who literally started his career as a stuntman, and apparently was the guy who survived all the stunts.

jackie_chan2

It seems there is no shortage of Asian people willing to do stupid things at a moment’s notice—which is precisely why it’s so exciting. Asia is producing so much: not only in terms of products, but most importantly, in terms of ideas. As I’ve written before, this is why Asia warrants attention; not only because new stuff is being done in Asia, but also because new ways of interpreting and expressing that stuff are being formulated. Asia is just so punk.

memories

The director Bong Joon-ho became famous most recently for his film, The Host, the highest grossing film of all time in South Korea, which the New York Times called a “feverishly imaginative genre hybrid.” This film, Memories of Murder, is arguably a better, more inventive and surprising film. That’s why, comparatively, the artist John Currin just feels like reading a good academic paper. He just went through all the established, formulaic steps to become a good considerate, professional artist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.