“Ashes of Time” - Wong Kar Wai (1994)

“The root of man’s problems is memory.”
The films of Wong Kar Wai (Wáng Jia-wèi) range across a number of genres – film noir, sci-fi, wenyi pian (Chinese melodrama) and wuxia (Chinese martial arts) – but they all carry Wong’s renowned flavor of romantic melancholia no matter what the setting. So Ashes of Time (Dongxié Xidú; literally: "Eastern Heretic, Western Poison", 1994), which was Wong’s lone foray into the popular wuxia genre, did not devote much screen time to the kinetic swordplay typical of wuxia films, and instead focused more on philosophical and personal motivational issues.

The story for the film was inspired by the popular wuxia novel by Jin Yong (Louis Cha) The Legend of the Condor Heroes (1957) that was set in the late Song dynasty.  But Wong did not follow that novel’s narrative, and Ashes of Time only drew elements from some of the novel’s characters.  Wong was more interested in pursuing his own intuitive themes in accordance with his unique mise-en-scene.  Since Wong and his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, often made  changes to what they wanted on the shooting set, his films often ran well over their intended production schedules and budgets, and these problems were compounded by the location shooting of Ashes of Time in an arid, desolate area of western China.  So it was not particularly surprising that the film took two years to complete and ran way over budget. 

When the film was "completed" and originally released in 1994, it was not much of a commercial success.  But it did seem to go down well with the critical community in Hong Kong and elsewhere.  For the 1995 Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards, it won the awards for Best Film, Best Director (Wong Kar Wai), Best Actor (Leslie Cheung), and Best Screenplay (Wong Kar Wai). And at the 1994 Venice Film Festival, it won the award for Best Cinematography (Christopher Doyle).

In some respects, though, Wong may always be reluctant to think his films are ever really “complete” – there are always some desired changes that may come to mind later.  So in 2008 when Wong went to rescue the endangered negatives of Ashes of Time, he used the occasion to make some further changes to the film.  This involved correcting the color palette, adding some intertitles, reducing some screen time devoted to wuxia swordplay, and introducing moody theme music by cellist Yo-Yo Ma.  Altogether these adjustments probably reflected Wong’s evolving aesthetic which in the meantime had resulted in his excellent films  In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004). I have not seen the original 1994 version of Ashes of Time, but I have no doubts that Wong’s changes improved the film.  The resulting re-edit is known as Ashes of Time Redux (2008), and my review is based on that version [1,2].

The story of Ashes of Time concerns the activities and desires of four master swordsmen in that long ago era.  What is the makeup of such men?  What drives them?  Wong offers the viewer four different takes on these issues and hints that ancient Chinese metaphysical notions of qi may provide insight on these matters.  Qi is vital “energy”, two essential forms of which are yin and yang [3,4,5].  Yin and yang pervade everything in the world to various degrees.
“yang was associated with the masculine, the forceful, and the bright, while yin was associated with the feminine, the yielding, and the obscure.” [3]
“The underlying polarity of Yang and Yin thus begins with light vs. dark and extends not only into high vs. low, creative vs. receptive, firm vs. yielding, moving vs. resting, and masculine vs. feminine, but also into many other areas of human concern, including the sun and the moon, the weather, the parts of the body, and even the distinction between gods (all Yang) and ghosts (all Yin).” [4]
Yin and yang are always present, like two sides of an object, but they can often be out of balance – one of them can be overly dominant – which can lead to disasters and suffering.  In Ashes of Time the balance of yin and yang is manifested in the characters to varying degrees.  This effects two basic areas of their desires:
  • fame, fortune, and honor – which I would interpret as yang-oriented,
  • love – which I would interpret as yin-oriented.
The four martial artists of interest are
  • Ouyang Feng (played by Leslie Cheung).  He is a skilled swordsman, but now spends his time as a broker who hires other skilled swordsmen to commit murders for his clients.
  • Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-fai) is a famed swordsman from the east who makes yearly visits to his friend Ouyang Feng.
  • The Blind Swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) is a friend of Yaoshi and is losing his eyesight, so his days as a skilled sword fighter are numbered.
  • Hong Qigong (Jacky Cheung) is a local (to Feng’s area) ruffian who works for Feng and  seeks fame as a martial artist.
The film’s narrative is sectioned into five seasons, each of which are introduced by lines from the Chinese Buddhist Canon and the Tung Shu (aka Tung Shing), which is an ancient Chinese book of divination.

1.  Spring
In the opening section Yaoshi makes his annual visit to Feng and offers him some wine that he was given that makes a person lose his memory. The wine-giver had told Yaoshi that this wine was useful, because "the root of man’s problems is memory." Yaoshi then drinks from the wine jug, but Feng abstains. Later Yaoshi visits his best friend’s (the Blind Swordsman’s) home town to attend his friend’s wedding to a woman named “Peach Blossom” (Carina Lau).  Something goes wrong, and we will later learn that Peach Blossom is in love with Yaoshi.

Later Yaoshi and Feng, separately and on separate occasions, meet what appear to be a brother and sister, Murong Yang and Murong Yin (both played by Brigitte Lin), but who later turn out to be two sides of a single person with a split personality.  Murong Yang and Murong Yin are fundamentally at odds with each other because of their contrasting yang and yin dominance.  Both siblings want to hire Feng to commit murders that they think will solve their problems.  This section includes a scene where Murong Yin approaches Feng while he is sleeping and furtively gives him sensual caresses, which he senses.  But for both of them, the caresses invoke dreams of someone else that they love but have lost – Murong Yin dreams of Yaoshi, and Feng dreams of the woman (Maggie Cheung) who spurned him to marry his brother.   As Feng says, “some people don’t realize who they love until they’ve left that person behind.”  (Hereafter I will refer to the character played by Maggie Cheung as OFSIL – Ouyang Feng’s Sister-in-law).

2.  Summer 
In the summertime an impoverished girl (Charlie Yeung) with only a mule to offer comes to Feng hoping he can arrange a revenge killing of some militia men who murdered her brother.  Feng, who is only coldly interested in money, refuses her offer, but he is attracted to her because she reminds him of OFSIL.

Then the Blind Swordsman arrives.  He, too, is attracted to the girl with the mule, because she reminds him of his estranged wife, Peach Blossom. Feng has arranged for him to fight a band of about a hundred bandits who have been harassing a local village.  With his sight rapidly failing the Blind Swordsman hopes that the sunlight will be bright on the day of the battle.  In the event, though, the sun passes behind a cloud momentarily obscuring the Blind Swordsman’s poor vision, and he is killed.

3.  Autumn 
This section introduces Hong Qigong, a barefoot swordsman with dreams of glory.  Feng arranges for him to fight the bandits, and despite a heavy sandstorm to interfere with things, Hong Qigong fights them off.  But Hong Qigong wants more than Feng’s money, he wants honor, and he agrees to fight the revenge battle for the girl with the mule.  Although he loses a finger in the ensuing battle, he does enact the sought-for revenge, and he treasures his honor.

4.  Winter 
In this section the subject is lost love.  Although Huang Yaoshi is loved by Murong Yin and Peach Blossom, the woman he really longs for is Ouyang Feng’s sister-in-law (OFSIL).  So both Yaoshi and Feng yearn for the same unattainable woman (although OFSIL still seems to have a hidden love for Feng).  Every year after his visit with Feng, Yaoshi visits OFSIL to let her secretly know how Feng is doing.   OFSIL had rejected Feng because he was too proud to tell her that he loved her. So it was a battle of (yang) egos back then.  But now she is fatalistic about love; she tells Yaoshi:
“Nothing really matters anymore. I used to think some words were so important.  Once spoken, they’d last a lifetime. But looking back, I realized it makes no difference. Everything changes. . . . I always thought I was the winner . . . until one day I looked in the mirror and saw the face of a loser. . . . During the best years of my life, the person I love was not by my side.“
Then there is this exchange between OFSIL and Yaoshi:
OFSIL: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could go back to the past. . . . You’re his good friend.  Why haven’t you told him I was here?

Yaoshi: “I made you a promise, so I kept silent.”

OFSIL: “You are too honest.”
Shortly afterwards OFSIL falls ill and passes away.  Before she dies, she gives Yaoshi the magic bottle of wine mentioned in the film’s beginning that makes one forget, so that Feng will forget about her.

5.  Spring  
The final section is even more elegiacal.  Yaoshi stops visiting Feng, who later learns of OFSIL’s death.  Feng then solemnly reflects on what he has accomplished in life by his selfish ways.
“I learned that the best way to avoid rejection is to reject others first.”
He finally decides to drink from the memory-cancelling wine jug, but to no avail.  He then reflects:
"That wine was just a joke she played on me.  The more you try to forget, the better you’ll remember.”
In the end, Ashes of Time is not really about wuxia heroism.  It is more about Wong’s themes on the memories of missed romantic connections, and the film’s English title is well chosen.  The wuxia battles that do appear in the film offer a blizzard of blurry action shots, mostly in closeup, but they are merely chaotic and have no real progression to them.  Some people might like some of the stop-action slowmo effects, but I thought that the fight scenes were just a distraction and Wong was right to cut some of them out.  Overall, however, the cinematography is very effective, with emotive closeups and atmospheric landscapes that convey the emotional landscape.

In fact it is the crisscrossed human relationships that intrigue one as the film moves along. Gradually one learns that the Blind Swordsman loves Peach Blossom, who loves Huang Yaoshi, who is also loved by Murong Yin but who really loves OFSIL, who loves Ouyang Feng, who in turn loves the no-longer-available OFSIL. However, the yang-driven pride and acquisitiveness don’t provide much satisfaction in this story.
  • Ouyang Feng just wanted money in order to arrange for murders.   And it was his pride that blocked him from declaring his love to OFSIL.
  • OFSIL’s pride caused her to reject Feng.
  • Huang Yaoshi wanted fame and honor
  • The Blind Swordsman vowed revenge on Yaoshi concerning Peach Blossom, but was blocked by his poor eyesight from carrying it out.
  • Hong Qigong wanted personal honor.
  • The girl with the mule wanted revenge.
  • Murong Yang wanted revenge
  • Murong Yin wanted Feng to kill Murong Yang (i.e. suicide).
  • And an offhand reference is made to Feng and Hong Qigong much later engaging in a duel that resulted in them taking each other’s life. 
Where did all these prideful feelings get them in the end?  It all adds up to just wanting to kill memories and/or score points on some mythical scoreboard.  When Ouyang Feng and the Blind Swordsman do, on separate occasions, try to engage romantically with women, their actions are clumsy and self-centered.  The only one who seems to treasure the present is Huang Yaoshi, who loves visiting OFSIL:
“Though I have always loved her [OFSIL], I have kept it a secret, because I know that untouched fruit is the sweetest."
But this is a limited consolation.  In the end what we see in Ashes of Time, and perhaps Wong is suggesting in wuxia stories generally, is that yin and yang are out of balance on this stage.  Wong effectively conveys in this film the feeling that there needs to be more consideration and support given to yin.

  1. Fernando F. Croce, “Ashes of Time Redux”, Slant Magazine, (26 September 2008). 
  2. Stephen O. Murray, “No Longer Opaque, but Complicated and Difficult Wong Kar-wai Movie”, Epinions, (3 March 2010). 
  3. Franklin Perkins, “Metaphysics in Chinese Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (2 April 2015).  
  4. Charles E. Osgood and Meredith Martin Richards, “Yang and Yin to and or but”, Language, Vol. 49, No. 2, (June 1973), pp. 380-412.
  5. Robin R. Wang, “Yinyang (Yin-yang)”, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (September 2006).  

“2046” - Wong Kar Wai (2004)

“Love is all a matter of timing. It’s no good meeting the right person too soon or too late. . . . If I'd lived in another time or place, my story might have had a very different ending.”
– Chow Mo-wan in 2046
The films of writer-director Wong Kar Wai (Wáng Jia-wèi) always seem to be laden with a romantic expressionism that is not just a background mood but the very substance of what is being told.  It is as if the viewer is presented not so much with a story, but with a visually orchestrated “tone poem” [1].  This was particularly true of the string of films Wong made from 1990 to 2004, which culminated with his magisterial 2046.

Throughout his career, Wong has employed an off-the-cuff production style whereby he has begun shooting his films without a script in hand and has more or less made things up as he has gone along.  This has invariably led to massive cost and shooting-schedule overruns, as Wong has continued to reshoot, cut out, and re-edit major aspects of his works in progress.  And these improvisational production habits seem to have expanded over the years.  Wong’s preceding film, In the Mood for Love (2000) took 15 months to shoot, and 2046 was five years in the making [2,3,4].  Although those two films were originally conceived as two separate and unconnected works, their overlapping and evolving production led to 2046 being a direct sequel to In the Mood for Love.

The story of 2046, like the earlier Days of Being Wild (1990) and In the Mood for Love, is set in Hong Kong during the 1960s, which was a turbulent period of rapid growth for the city that perhaps may be an historically mythic image for today’s Hong Kongers in the same way as the “Roaring Twenties” has been for Americans.  The title “2046" has several references, the futuristic one of which led some people to assume (partly encouraged by some misleading pre-release publicity) that 2046 would essentially be a sci-fi film.  There is indeed a sci-fi narrative fantasy thread in the film, but the film is very much situated in the 60s.

Since those three Wong films occupy successive periods of the 60s and have some common personages in their stories, they are sometimes referred to as a trilogy.  However, the linkage with Days of Being Wild is rather weak, and familiarity with that story is not necessary for appreciating 2046.  On the other hand, I would say you really need to have seen In the Mood for Love first in order to fully appreciate what is going on in 2046. (Note that Wong once commented that it would be best to see 2046 first [2], but I disagree.)  One might argue this close dependence on another film for narrative background is a flaw (one of several) in 2046, but the film has enough virtues to overcome such weaknesses.

The story of “In the Mood for Love” is set in the mid-1960s and concerns the growing but tantalizing affection between a man and woman, Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen,  who are already married to separate spouses.  They discover that their two spouses are having an affair with each other, which brings Chow and Su together in sympathy but places moral inhibitions in the way of their own mutual ardor. The entire film is a moody rendition of romantic longing and missed opportunities to express deep feelings.  Eventually Chow and Su abandon their tacit hopes of getting together and go their own ways unfulfilled.

The story of 2046 picks things up where they were left off in the preceding film, with Chow Mo-wan (played again by Tony Chiu Wai Leung) now back in Hong Kong in 1966 after working some time in Singapore. He still moons over Su Li-zhen, but he now seems to be a changed man.  For one thing, there is no mention of his unfaithful wife, so he is evidently disconnected from her.  And whereas in In the Mood for Love Chow was a sensitive and upright individual, in 2046 he is seen to be a more callous, role-playing ladies’ man.  Over the course of 2046, the viewer sees his relationships with several woman with whom he becomes involved. Each of these relationships give Wong Kar Wai the opportunity to explore different sides of time and memory. Part of this cinematic narration involves sequences that are out of time order, suggesting that they are memories that spontaneously emerge in Chow’s mind as he proceeds with life.

There are some stylistic commonalities between the two films of course.
  • There is again the moody music of Shigeru Umebayashi, who also composed the music for House of Flying Daggers (2004).  He fills the air with smooth, melancholy rumbas and other dances.
  • The cinematography again bears the signature of Christopher Doyle (due to the film’s lengthy production period, Doyle once again had to depart at some point, and so the cinematography was also performed by Kwan Pun-leung and Lai Yiu-fai).
  • The production design and editing was again supervised by William Chang.
But there were also some significant differences in the way the two stories were told.
  • The focalization in In the Mood for Love” was balanced between Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen, but here in 2046, the focalization is almost exclusively from Chow’s perspective.  Nevertheless, as with other Wong films, though the focalization is from the male perspective, the focus is squarely on the visages of the women yearning and aching for love that is out of reach.
  • There is much more dialogue and voiceover in 2046.
  • Amorous fulfillment and physical eroticism, which were basically absent in In the Mood for Love, are prominently featured in 2046.
  • And as already mentioned, Chow Mo-wan is less innocent and more selfish in 2046.  But to a certain extent we can understand him a bit more here than, for example, we could understand Yuddy in Days of Being Wild, because we know more about Chow’s past.

The number 2046 in this story has several references and meanings, all of which relate to time and memory.
  • 2046 was the apartment room number in In the Mood for Love, where Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen sequestered themselves in order to help Chow write his wuxia (Chinese martial arts) serial novel.  Those were the happiest times for Chow, and 2046 represents a state-of-mind that he would like to return to.
  • 2046 is also the hotel room number in 2046 that Chow finds when he returns to Hong Kong in 1966.  It turns out to be successively occupied by several different women of interest in this story.
  • 2046 is the final year of the 50-year agreement (“One Country, Two Systems”) that the Chinese government made with the UK on 1July 1997 to allow Hong Kong to retain its self-governing status for fifty more years.  For many Hong Kongers that suggests that the year 2046 has no perceived future for them.  Thus 2046 symbolizes timelessness.
  • The sci-fi portion of the film seems to have been directly inspired by a 1959 Twilight Zone episode, “The Lonely” [6]. In it a man in the year 2046 has been condemned to be imprisoned alone on an asteroid for fifty years.  A sympathetic supply-spaceship captain gives the lonely prisoner a feminine android robot to keep him company, and the recipient prisoner gradually falls in love with “her”.
When Chow-wan engages in writing a sci-fi story in the film, he calls it “2046" to suggest a mystical time and place one can go to retrieve lost memories.  Later when he tries to write a more optimistic story about undying love, he calls it “2047".  Although both stories are set in the future, they are, of course, all about Chow’s present state of mind.

The principal women characters with whom Chow has relationships are performed in this film by an all-star lineup of astonishingly beautiful and emotive actresses: Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi, Faye Wong, Maggie Cheung, and Carina Lau. They each embody different perspectives on lost love:
  • Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), who was Chow’s out-of-reach love in In the Mood for Love, only appears in a few brief flashback shots in this film, but she still haunts his memories.
  • “Black Spider” (Gong Li) is a mysterious professional woman gambler that Chow met in Singapore after the end of his relationship with Su Li-zhen.  Chow is attracted to her because she reminds him of his lost love, and he is later surprised to learn that Black Spider’s real name happens also to be Su Li-zhen (but she is a different woman).  Black Spider is romantically attracted to Chow, too, but she seems to have her own painful romantic memories that she is trying to flee, and to a certain extent she mirrors Chow.  That fact seems to dissuade her from advancing their relationship.  Chow recalls how he invited her to come with him back to Hong Kong, to which she said she would agree  only if he could beat her in an unwinnable (because she is a skilled cardsharp) card draw.
  • Lulu (Carina Lau), who now uses her stage name, Mimi, was a major figure in Days of Being Wild.  In that film she was in love with the narcissistic and doomed Yuddy, and here in 2046 she is shown trying to bury her memories by dissolving herself in a string of jealousy-laden affairs. For this desperate woman there are now no memories, only the present. When she meets Chow after having known him (perhaps intimately) earlier, she cannot even remember him. She is the first occupant of room 2046, which is next door to Chow’s.  Her relationship with Chow is only briefly covered in the film, and I wonder if more material concerning the two of them was the victim of Wong’s late-in-the-day editing cuts.
  • Wang Jing-wen (Faye Wong) is the beautiful daughter of Chow’s landlord and is the second (and later the fourth) occupant of room 2046.  She is passionately in love with a young Japanese man (Takuya Kimura), whose marriage proposal to her is blocked by her father’s angry memories of the Japanese War.  Chow develops a platonic relationship with Jing-wen, and during her later occupancy of room 2046, the two of them collaborate on Chow’s sci-fi novel writing.  This innocent authorial teamwork together echoes Chow’s earlier collaboration with Su Li-zhen in In the Mood for Love, and similar to that occasion, a growing affection for Jing-wen creeps up on Chow.  And as was also the case in that earlier film, Chow is hesitant to express his true feelings for the woman;  eventually he even facilitates the re-engagement and marriage of Wang Jing-wen with her Japanese lover.
  • Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi) is a beautiful nightclub hostess who is the third occupant of room 2046.  The name ‘Bai Ling’, incidentally but probably not accidentally, happens to match that of another famous and voluptuous Hong Kong movie actress who has had a tempestuous personal life.  Here in 2046 our Bai Ling is a lascivious coquette who attracts men with her kittenish and seductive ways. Like the Su Li-zhen in In the Mood for Love, she wears body-hugging cheongsam outfits that show of her slender and curvaceous figure. Chow Mo-wan cannot help noticing this, and soon he is making all his moves on the woman.  They start off as “drinking buddies”, but their mutual sexual attraction has only one destination: the bed.  Because Bai Ling works as a taxi dancer and has a number of male customers, her relationship with Chow has the appearance of a game, and he carelessly insults her by paying her for her “services”.  But despite appearances, Bai Ling is not truly toying with Chow in this relationship and is not so self-seeking.  Soon she falls deeply in love with Chow and struggles to elevate their relationship above its artificial role-playing. Their relationship occupies a major portion of the film, and it is highlighted by their several extremely erotic sexual encounters.  Eventually the frustrated Bai Ling demands to be Chow’s exclusive woman, and when he flippantly refuses, she terminates their relationship out of frustration.
The nonlinear storytelling of 2046 covers all of these relationships, as well as dramatizations of Chow’s sci-fi tale, which feature a futuristic version of Wang Jing-wen’s Japanese boyfriend, Tak (but actually representing Chow’s persona), traveling on a train to and from the mysterious destination of 2046, where lost memories can be regained and dwelled upon.  While traveling on the train, Tak encounters a beautiful android (Faye Wong again) with whom he falls in love, just like the earlier-mentioned Twilight Zone episode.  Tak invites the android to leave with him, but for various hypothesized reasons (mechanical wear and tear, emotional indifference, . . .), she only passively receives but never responds affirmatively to his caresses and proposal.  Tak sadly retells to her Chow’s story from In the Mood for Love about how one buries a secret forever:
“Before, when people had secrets they didn’t want to share, they’d climb a mountain.  They’d find a tree and carve a hole in it and whisper the secret into the hole.  Then cover it with mud.  That way, noone else would ever discover it.”
But his android only makes a game of the sad story’s carved hole by imitating it with her fingers.  Tak also invites another android (Carina Lau) to leave with him, but again he gets only acquiescence and no positive uptake.  Again the problem is memories.  In Tak's case the problem is that the androids he encounters don't seem to have much in the way of memories.

If we think about things on a more general level, we can say that all human relationships entail memories, which provide the very basis for future hopes and dreams. Indeed our primordial understanding of time, itself, is based on the way we construct narratives out of remembered incidents and expectations [7,8].  However, the problem with revisiting a treasured memory is that the past wonderful experience necessarily included expectations and dreams which later either materialized in some definite way or did not. Either way, they no longer retain the magical nature of the accompanying dreams.  Even so, we tend to dwell on our fond memories because of the beautiful dreams that they still invoke.  As film critic Stephen Teo has remarked [3],
“Desire is better felt than satisfied.  It lasts longer. . .”
So our pasts, i.e. all of our memories, are actually narratives that we have constructed.  When we want to physically return to a memory, we cannot really go back there, because its at-the-time accompanying future component has now vanished.  In this way a remembered time is like the year 2046 for Hong Kongers: it has no real future, no dreams that may come true. In 2046 Chow Mo-wan is struggling to come to grips with this realization.

Wong Kar Wai and his production team go over these feelings with sublime elegance in 2046. Because we are dealing with evaporating memories – rather than sitting on the knife-edge of anticipation as in In the Mood for Love – this film is much faster paced. Note also that 2046 was Wong’s first to be shot in cinemascope, and he employed many interesting framings and figure compositions with that format.  For example there are numerous wide-screen closeups with the figure off to one side and facing the short side of the frame.  This runs counter to the convention of balancing the frame “weight” by having an off-centered figure facing into the frame’s open space.  But these closeup frames in 2046 were artfully composed so that the imagery behind the closeup figure’s head was  shadowy and in soft-focus and so did not distract the viewer’s attention.  The overall effect was to enhance, without distraction, the feeling of cramped confinement, which is always a feature of Wong’s crowded but lonely urban environments.  Further contributing to these effects and feelings were
  • the artful short depth-of-focus shots taken in comparatively deep visual fields such that only a part of the subject matter of interest is in focus;
  • the occasional closeups focusing on moving feet or hands of a principal woman, which mysteriously blends well with the moody dance-theme music that pervades the background throughout the film;
  • the numerous well-composed shots with mirrors such that the subject figures are seen from multiple perspectives.
All of these effects and more pull the viewer into Chow Mo-wan’s dreamlike reveries of past memories, most of which recall and evoke past feelings of loneliness and some of which resonate in the mind long after the film finishes.  There are moments of passion, too.  For example just before Chow and Black Spider part for the final time (at her behest, not his), they engage in a passionate 35-second kiss that embodies all his fervor for wanting to be with her.  And there are the intensely erotic scenes with Bai Ling that convey her romantic zeal for Chow.

Like many people with no family, Chow was particularly lonely on Christmas Eve, and the film focuses on his memories of successive Christmas Eves throughout the late 1960s, when he was particularly in need of feminine company.  His 1967 Christmas Eve was spent with Bai Ling.  His 1968 Christmas Eve was with Wang Jing-win.  And he spent his 1969 Christmas Eve in Singapore looking for Black Spider, who, he was only told, had either died or had returned to her original home in Phnom Penh.

For Chow, these women of interest are occasionally conflated in his memories, and he sometimes mixes them up.  Indeed all five of the key women wear their hair in roughly similar ways, as stylish “updos”.  On this topic I can recall being instructed in film school that if your film project scenario is to have a man involved with two women, you should make sure that one of the women is a blonde and the other a brunette.  This would ensure visual distinctiveness.  Here Wong Kar Wai does just the opposite, but it is more realistic.  Men are often attracted to women who unconsciously evoke past memories in their minds, and so there may be physical similarities to the women they seek.  So it apparently was with Chow.

But despite some fashion similarities, Chow’s women in 2046 are very different with respect to their own memories.  Some of those memories are closed off by past events and are only obstructive for future engagement. Lulu wants to forget her memories and wallow in present-moment sensuality.  Black Spider cannot escape her own sad memories.  Wang Jing-wen’s memories of her Japanese boyfriend were for a time thought to have been closed off, too.  But Chow selflessly helped her resurrect those dreams, even though they didn’t involve him.

However, It is Bai Ling’s memories that offer the truly fertile ground of an open future for Chow.  She remembers the joy the two of them had experienced together and wants to continue the engagement.  “Why can’t it be like it was before?”, she begs him.  

There it is, staring him in the face – a romantic future with someone who lovingly offers him her body and soul.  Indeed it is this unnecessarily shortened relationship that is the key to the film and elevates it to greatness.  Without Zhang Ziyi’s soulful depiction of Bai Ling’s passionate ardor, the film would not have ascended into this sublime sphere of Wong Kar Wai artistry.  This is the most moving and effective screen performance I have seen from her.
But Chow cannot extricate himself from both his own self-centered memories and his now customary Casanova-style role-playing. So he coldly lets her go.  At the end a hitherto unheard external voiceover comments:
“It was if he had boarded a very long train, heading for a drowsy future through the unfathomable night.”

  1. Acquarello, “08-28-04: Editions Dis Voir: Wong Kar Wai by Jean-Marc Lalanne, David Martinez, Ackbar Abbas, and Jimmy Ngai”, Journal Notes, Strictly Film School, (28 August 2004).
  2. Chale Nafus, “2046", Austin Film Society, (n.d.).
  3. Stephen Teo, “2046: A Matter of Time, A Labour of Love”, Senses of Cinema, (April 2005). 
  4. Nathan Lee, “Elusive Objects of Desire”, Film Comment, (July/August 2005). 
  5. Ian Johnston, “Unhappy Together: Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046", The Bright lights Film Journal, (31 January  2005).  
  6. "The Lonely”, The Twilight Zone, (13 November 1959), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lonely_(The_Twilight_Zone)    
  7. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, Volumes 1, 2, and 3, (1984, 1985, 1988), The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  8. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (1927), translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (1962), Harper & Row.

Frank Capra

Films of Frank Capra:

“It Happened One Night” - Frank Capra (1934)

It Happened One Night (1934) is not only a classic American romance, but also an iconic representation of “American” virtues.  As such it remains one of the most beloved films, even if some people might dismiss it today as lightweight fare.

The story of the film’s production is interesting in its own right, because there was a kind of Hollywood-style ad hoc nature to the way things were put together [1]. Actors Clark Gable and Claudette (who were not yet, but soon to be, superstars) were far down the list of the producers’ preferred performers.  And the team at Columbia Pictures was continuing to fiddle with the script well into the production schedule.  When the film was first released, it was initially only a modest hit; but as it was distributed more widely, it took off at the box office and became a smash.  It swept the principal 1935 US Academy Awards, winning the five most prestigious Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director (Frank Capra), Best Script (Robert Riskin), Best Leading Actor (Clark Gable), and Best Leading Actress (Claudette Colbert) [2].  And watching the film today, I would say that it hasn’t lost any of its magic.

So to what can we attribute It Happened One Night’s great success?  Well, for one thing it was clearly something of a romantic comedy with star performers.  And it also featured the always fascinating theme of “lovers on the run”, about which I have commented in connection with my reviews of Breathless (1960) and Badlands (1973).  But I would say that some of the film’s special virtues come from the directing style of Frank Capra.  

There are two aspects of Capra’s mise-en-scene that are notable.  For one thing ,Capra – working with his usual partners, script-writer Robert Riskin and cinematographer Joseph Walker – tended to fashion fast-paced narratives that cover a lot of ground in short spaces of screen time.  Capra’s films often jump ahead to the juicy human-interaction parts, leaving it to the viewer’s imagination concerning details as to just how we got there. He seemed to have an intuitive feel for this, since he is said to have often begun his productions, like Wong Kar-Wai of more recent times, without having much of a script in his hand. 

A second aspect of Capra’s films is his feel for “Americana” – the cultural self-image that Americans have fashioned for themselves that feature the virtues of openness, freedom, fair play, and brotherhood.  This involves an appreciation for the common man that eschews any preferential considerations of class and refinement. There are elements of fantasy to this, but not entirely so, and this is widely understood.  In fact it is due to America’s cultural image that so many people from foreign shores dream of coming to live in the US. So Capra’s films often take place in a relatively communitarian context among ordinary people, which was an appropriate setting for the popular social and political themes during Capra’s heyday in the 1930s, the period of the Great Depression. In fact Capra’s Americana theme was even more prominently present in his succeeding films, such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), You Can't Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It's a Wonderful Life (1946) [3]. Here in It Happened One Night this element is much more in the background and primarily serves to provide a contextual shading to the principal male character, Peter Warne.  For this reason I think It Happened One Night is Capra’s best film.

The story of It Happened One Night races through five unequally-spaced segments (covering more than one night, by the way).

1.  Partings
In the opening scene, spoiled rich girl Ellie Andrews (played by Claudette Colbert) is shown sequestered on her millionaire father Alexander’s (Walter Connolly) yacht off Miami, where she is being confined so that she cannot interrupt her father’s efforts to annul her recent marriage to rakish fortune hunter King Westley.  But she petulantly jumps off the yacht and somehow swims ashore, eluding the rescue efforts of her father’s minions.  In the next shots, an instance of a Capra-Riskin narrative leap forward, Ellie is shown, now fully clothed and with a suitcase, furtively buying a bus ticket to New York City, where King Westley lives.  

Separately at the same Miami bus station, newspaper reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) is shown in a pay phone booth drunkenly arguing with his editor in New York.  The exasperated editor tells Peter he is fired and then hangs up on him.

So Ellie and Peter, both now cut off from their past lives, get on the bus to New York and sit next to each other in the last available seat.

2.  On the Bus
Peter is brash and assertive, while Ellie is proud and used to getting her own way.  So their initial interactions are amusingly unpleasant.  At a bus stop, Peter notices a newspaper photo identifying Ellie as a renowned socialite who has gone missing.  When he mentions this to Ellie, she tries to buy him off to preserve her secrecy, thereby offending Peter’s pride.  But Peter, eyeing a big newspaper scoop for himself in the making, decides to attach himself to Ellie, and he gradually takes over as her guardian. There is an amusing scene in this connection where Peter rids Ellie of a fellow bus traveler, Shapeley (Roscoe Karns), who has ludicrously been making unseemly propositions to her.

In the evening, the bus trip is interrupted when they come to a washed-out bridge, and all the bus-riders are compelled to spend the night in a nearby motel.   Due to lack of funds, Peter and Ellie have to stay in a single cabin, so Peter registers them as man and wife.  To maintain some semblance of propriety, Peter strings a rope between the room’s two single beds and hangs a blanket from the rope, which he sarcastically calls the “Walls of Jericho”.  There is a famous scene here where Peter begins to undress in front of Ellie, causing her to flee to the other side of the “wall”.

Up to this point Peter and Ellie are together, but there is no warmth between them. Ellie wants to get back to her husband King Westley, and Peter is looking after her in order to make money.

3.  Getting Closer
In the morning Peter cordially makes breakfast for Ellie, and they begin to open up to each other. Throughout all these scenes, Peter sees himself as the worldly pragmatist and Ellie as a spoiled brat who doesn’t know anything about practical affairs.  He is flabbergasted that she doesn’t even know the proper way to dunk a doughnut, so he tutors her.  And when Alexander’s hired detectives come to the motel searching for Ellie, our errant couple are thrilled that their instantly improvised cover act as a bickering married couple fools the detectives. But Alexander is getting desperate, and he announces in the press a $10,000 reward to anyone who can return her to him.  

Back on the bus (the washed-out bridge problem now apparently solved), the passengers are serenaded by some minstrel musicians who are traveling with them.  This is a purely Capraesque interlude, wherein the disparate collection of bus riders show their inherent fraternity by all joining in to sing “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”.  Even the bus driver exuberantly joins in the raucous chorus, which leads him to crash the bus off the road.  With the bus disabled and Peter more worried about other riders learning Ellie’s identity (Shapeley already knows and is sent packing by Peter), Peter ushers Ellie off the road and into the forest.

Now alone together, there is more bickering and bantering between the always assertive Peter and the complaining Ellie, but they are getting to know each other better.  They spend the night sleeping among some haystacks, and there is a point where the momentarily compassionate Peter almost kisses her.  The next day out on the road, they try hitchhiking, and Ellie surprisingly (and famously) demonstrates to a chagrined Peter that a woman’s way can be better.

Ellie’s father, Alexander, has now become so worried about his vanished daughter that he finally agrees to stop contesting her marriage with Westley.  All is forgiven, he tells her through the press, just come home.

Back on the road again (now with a car that Peter has commandeered from a thief), Ellie, who is warming to Peter, urges him to stop at motel a few hours short of New York City.  In their cabin with another “Wall of Jericho” blanket in place, Ellie asks Peter across the partition if he has ever thought about love.  He confides to her his dreams, and Ellie is so moved, she rushes around the blanket and throws herself at his feet, telling him she loves him. Peter, accustomed to his chaperone role and always thinking of her as a spoiled brat, is too shocked to respond.  He tells her to return to her bed. Later, in the early morning, though, he realizes that she is truly the one for him.  With Ellie still asleep, he rushes out of the cabin and drives to New York in order to quickly resurrect his job at the newspaper, so that he can return and manfully make a proper marriage proposal.

It looks like they have found their true love.  But there is still one-quarter of the narrative remaining, and it is here that the dramatic tension mounts.

4.  Misunderstandings
Ellie wakes up to find Peter gone, and she assumes he has abandoned her, probably to get the $10,000 reward from her father.  She phones her father, and he and Westley come to fetch her.  When Peter learns that she has returned to Westley, he feels that he was just used all along by Ellie and abandons his hopes.  So both Peter and Ellie have both lost faith in each other.

5.  The Wedding Ceremony
Ellie wants to go ahead and have a formal, high-society-blessed wedding, and preparations are begun. However, Alexander suspects something is wrong and gets Ellie confide to him that she fell in love with Peter, but feels scorned by him.  She says she must go through with her planned life with Westley anyway in order to save face.

Just before the wedding, Peter, still concerned with his manly pride, grumpily comes to Alexander’s office, not to ask for the $10,000 reward, but merely to get paid $39.60 for his expenses with Ellie. As Peter is about to depart, Alexander pursues his suspicions: 

Alexander: “Do you love my daughter?”
Peter: “Any guy that would fall in love with your daughter ought to have his head                      examined.” 
. . .   

Alexander: “Do you love her?” 
Peter: “A normal human being man couldn’t live under the same roof with her without            going nutty.  She’s my idea of nothing.” 
Alexander: “I asked you a simple question: do you love her?” 
Peter: “Yes! But don’t hold that against me.  I’m a little screwy myself.”
Alexander now knows what the viewer has known: Peter and Ellie love each other.  So it is clear to Alexander that with time running out, something has to be done.  The outdoor wedding ceremony is about to begin.  King Westley flamboyantly arrives in his autogyro. The stage is set for the dramatic finale.

What makes It Happened One Night special is the combination of the on-the-road interactions between Peter and Ellie and the melodramatic events of that last quarter of the film (acts 4 and 5). 

The acting in the film is generally appropriate and effective for the fast-paced narrative in which it is situated.  And of course Clark Gable displays his good-humored, virile magnetism.  But I think Claudette Colbert’s performance as Ellie is an even more significant virtue.  Capra apparently found her difficult on the production set, but his improvisational style probably helped bring out what is truly a spirited and emotionally moving performance [4].  All in all, this was one of Hollywood’s most satisfying productions.

One of the interesting dramatic highlights is the role played by Ellie’s father, Alexander.  In many films about a star-crossed young couple, the parents are most often roadblocks to romantic passions. They are usually more concerned about social class and their own interests than about their children’s romantic happiness.  And in the early part of the film, Alexander seems to be just such a typical domineering parent.  But in the end, the greatest romantic in the story is the parent, Alexander. Like the elders’ romantic sensibilities in A Room with a View (1985), we see that it is this aging parent who is revealed to be the truly benign agent of romantic love.

  1. Farran Smith Nehme, “It Happened One Night: All Aboard!”, The Criterion Collection, (17 November 2014). 
  2. There have only been three films in history that have swept the “Big Five” Oscars.  The other two are One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
  3. Nevertheless, Capra was not a supporter of the US Democratic Party, which was the preferred party of the labor unions.  He was a lifelong Republican.
  4. Eric Pace, “Claudette Colbert, Unflappable Heroine of Screwball Comedies, Is Dead At 92", The New York Times (31 July 1996).