The Constancy of Memory

Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased. Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it, or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.

 –Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Cities carry with them the burden of memory, of the hopes and sorrows of their many denizens, of the surrender of ideologies to indifference, of shapes erected and consequently felled, of trees and trains that scratch against their backs; so well defined are they, yet exist only in the heads of their inhabitants, each city a mere permutation of a different, imaginary city. For Kar-wai, these city-images converge to Hong Kong.

There is perhaps no categorisation of Kar-wai’s body of work, because it would be contrary to the very subject of his films: the presence of an absence, an absence so completely tangible and humane so as to almost be considered in itself a presence – of an absence, surely, but a presence, nonetheless. 

These films are considered visual depictions of loneliness, melancholy, unrequited love and insufferable nostalgia, with intersecting disjointed storylines painted by a kaleidoscope of colours and identities. However varying their subject matter might be, there exists in these films an inseparable solitude that seems distant, almost ethereal at first, and one wonders where one has felt this way before, but cannot remember. 

A scene from Happy Together (1997)
(Source: Screen Musings)

Slowly, stumbling through the fantasies of Kar-wai’s characters drenched in Doyle’s vision, we begin to remember something. It is not entirely clear but there is a vague sentiment that borders between familiarity and irrepressible longing. Despite the emotional connections or their absences that are Kar-wai’s main appeal to viewers, the stories pale before the indifferent background assumed by Hong Kong, and it is only in contrast to Kar-wai’s memory of this metropolis that the characters envision themselves, or desire to envision themselves, free of this loneliness that has followed them all their life in a convergence of technical mastery and subtle cinematography. The feeling of isolation between the city — or the characters’ lives as they know it — and the characters is transfigured into constraints in their relationships, often physical in nature as well as circumstantial, framed by Kar-wai to produce an atmosphere of contrasting indifference, monotony, and seclusion. 

Conversely, Kar-wai also repeatedly employs distorted close-up shots to emphasise the abandonment and yearning felt by the characters as they each endeavor to attain an unattainable longing: Kar-wai’s own self-imposed exile from the present and his voyage into his memory of a city masqueraded as acceptance, love, tension in relationships, affection, and all other forms that befit a lonely man walking the streets of a city he has forgotten, or worse, does not remember.

A scene from Happy Together (left) and Mr Chow and Mrs Chan from In the Mood for Love (right)

It almost seems as if one would taint Kar-wai’s ode to Hong Kong by localising it in his lyrical frames and forlorn colours, but to the viewer they morph into narratives of their own, spinning tales of different cities and stories, each converging into the childhood exile of Kar-wai from Shanghai. Amidst this flood of emotions, we find ourselves detached yet closer to the characters. 

Some snapshots from Fallen Angels (1995)
(Source: wykop.pl and liinza.tumblr.com)

Kar-wai often employs his trademark close-up shot of the protagonists – here, against a remarkably normal Hong Kong underpass doused in a lonely sea of green; a shot which would have pretensions towards a reconciliation between the characters in another film but in Kar-wai’s vision depicts the immense separation between two persons despite their physical intimacy, an intrinsic human detachment beyond the words and actions that tail us across the many plateaus of our meagre, never-ending life. 

It is as if we have been in Hong Kong ourselves but all we remember of it are its tributaries, little parts of Hong Kong that have never found their way together in our minds, such that one cannot outwardly say, “This film was a place! A mere shadow of a false memory! A dream!”

Scenes from Chungking Express (1994)
(Source: Screen Musings and The Film Noob)

And as these films unfold slowly, like tea leaves swirling and dying the water shyly, we yearn to bring the characters closer to us, to whisper in their ear that the loneliness they feel will always follow them, or to just stay silent with them and wallow in the resignation of our fate. The watch thrust into our palms with severed hands ticks unceasingly between an aimless present and a hopeless past, the same limbo our characters find themselves in, and resting oddly in our fumbling hands, the watch bears a distorted image of ourselves staring hazily at its own reflection. 

In the background stand tall buildings silhouetted against a setting sun, apartment blocks often obstructed by the lone tree and their facades adorned with clotheslines and potted plants, a stooping man frying something for sale after dusk and a stranded sweat bead rolling down his neck, the neon spilling onto the dimly lit streets, the overwhelming cacophony of lives not one’s own; and though we know and understand fully that the remorse we feel will return, all our sorrow seems absolved in this fleeting moment, and our city and our life too appear bearable, delightful even. 

Wong Kar-wai’s films featured in this piece: Chungking Express (1994), Fallen Angels (1995), Happy Together (1997) and In the Mood for Love (2000).

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Written by: Hassan A.

Cover photo credits: wykop.pl

Sometimes I'll start a sentence and I don't even know where it's going.

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