What Wong Kar-wai’s Films Meant to Young Asians in America
Wong Kar-wai’s films showed me how to navigate that liminal space between tenderness and loneliness, connection and alienation, East and West.
In the Mood for Love,
20462046 In the Mood for Love
Then there was Steven, a filmmaker who only ate food he saw in movies, listened to music he heard in movies, and dated women who, in his mind, resembled the archetypes he saw in movies. I was a mix between Faye Wong in Chungking Express and Michelle Reis in Fallen Angels, he told me. A classic manic-pixie-meets-sadgirl. I wanted to tell him that not all women enjoy being muses, but it was a compliment, he said.
Once, over Japanese takeout, we were discussing the web series he was making, a thinly-veiled bildungsroman based on his own life. It came with a curious feature: Steven was Filipino American; his leading protagonist was a charming Englishman.
“I don’t want to make it about race,” he explained to me. “I don’t wanna make it an Asian thing.”
I nodded my head and looked into my bowl of rice. He slurped his extremely Asian tonkotsu ramen.
Wasn’t Wong’s work—at least for us—first and foremost an ‘Asian thing’? Didn’t his films inspire us to make beautiful things, to pursue creative lives, to seek connection with each other? Steven had been seen by Wong’s work, just as I had been seen, but now he refused to reveal himself truly. Maybe he was afraid of getting things wrong; the pressure of representing so varied a concept as Asian American identity—let alone East Coast Asian vs. West Coast Asian—could be stifling. But Steven was literally writing about his own life. His refusal, to me, was a refusal to pay it forward onto the next generation. It was an act of erasure.
Slurp! I began to plot my escape.
One evening, I went to see a 10 p.m. showing of Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou at The Cinefamily. Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and Marianne (Anna Karina) are two lovers on the lam, traversing across Europe in a crime-ridden romp. Towards the end of the movie, as they encounter a group of American sailors, they agree to put on a play for them in exchange for money. In the play, Ferdinand dons a white captain’s hat, drinks whiskey from the bottle, and in an emphatic, exaggerated drawl, blurts “Oh yea!” and “Naw Yawk!” against the backdrop of explosion sound effects. Marianne mirrors Ferdinand’s farcical role-play, only she is in yellow face. Her face is painted a lurid bright yellow, her eyes lined with thick black kohl. On her head is a rice paddy hat.
Marianne emits a shrill string of incoherent squawks, then screeches—an imitation of Vietnamese. More explosions sound off in the background.
In Western movies, not seeing myself represented on-screen was par for the course. Old-school yellow face, however, was something else entirely. It was a crude and overt cruelty that I had more or less never contended with before, the exception being Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Living among other hip Asians had shielded me from the historical racism our parents’ generation had endured. I was comfortable. I was lucky. I wondered what other auteurs saw when they looked at people like my mom and dad, who spoke broken English and wore Crocs unironically. And how, in turn, did that affect what I saw? I did not grapple with these questions after watching Wong’s films, I realized, because even though his films were an amalgamation of languages, countries, and moods, he was first and foremost a Hong Kong auteur telling stories about Hong Kong and China. He did not have to contend with the cultural politics of living in America.
Stiffening in my seat, I tried to assuage my discomfort with reason. It was satire, I told myself. A critique of American imperialism. Pointed commentary wrapped in one of Godard’s non-sequiturs. I understood that art was supposed to disturb the comfortable, or something like that. Still, when the camera cut to Marianne donning yellowface, I could not stop my face from burning with shame. Please, let this be over. I sat in the darkness of that screening room and wondered if anybody else in the audience had felt that way too. After it was over, I left the theater with my UC Santa Barbara film school friends and observed the sparse, all-white crowd.
With the exception of the widely-panned My Blueberry Nights, Wong’s films feature Asian actors by default, not by design—that was a part of their allure for me. As I continued to move through white spaces, I thought about the comfort that feeling seen had afforded me. I also recognized its limitations. What did I know about Yellow Peril? About the Hays Code and anti-miscegenation? What did I know about the lasting impact of the Immigration Act of 1965, how it shaped the majority-minority suburb I grew up in, how it made possible my own parents’ migration to North America? What did I know about the political history of my own hyphenated identity? That night at The Cinefamily, I saw my own privileged ignorance. I saw remorse, anger, an urge to educate myself, to respond, to defy. I guess you could say I was inspired.
Sometimes when I visited my parents in the SGV, my mom would roast me. It was her way of showing affection.
“Hiiip-ster! Hiiip-ster!” my mom liked to chant, elongating the vowels so it sounded like a curse.
She pointed her forefinger at my blunt bangs and ripped jean jacket and smiled, pleased with how she had used this new English word of hers in the proper context.
“That is what you are,” she concluded cheerfully in Mandarin.
I laughed, told her she wasn’t wrong.
I used to hate how my parents watched Jean Claude Van-Damme movies and not real cinema. But seeing Anna Karina in yellowface made me feel very protective of them. Seeing Anna Karina in yellowface humiliated me more than they ever could. So, we started our old routine again. We settled down on the leather living room couch, in front of my dad’s greatest household luxury—a big screen floor-TV—and watched together, my mom leaning lazily into my dad, me with my legs tucked in. We sifted through our bootleg DVDs and collectively chose a title for the evening. I fed the disc into the region-free player and listened to the high-pitched whir of the machine.
In Fallen Angels, lead protagonists Leon Lai and Michelle Reis are undeniably stylish and good-looking, but their performances remain forgettable. In fact, many fans consider Takeshi Kaneshiro to be the true star of the film, specifically citing the scene where his comic relief character replays a home video of his late father cooking. The intimate scene gives the bleak film a touch of much-needed warmth. Only when I started reconsidering my own parents, did I understand its appeal.
In my mid-20s, I met Jason, a film editor from the East Coast. Jason was like a New York version of myself: a trend-conscious Chinese American, only more cultured and depressed. He was attractive in that sickly way—thin, tattooed body; pale, boyish face; and a hoarse voice that sounded rusty, like it hadn’t been used in a while. Our initial conversation was all small talk, which, in L.A., meant movies. He asked me who my favorite director was, and when we both agreed on Wong, I mentally ticked off a checkbox. We were obviously meant to be.
Whenever Jason stayed over at my apartment in Koreatown, he would tell me, after sex, that life was suffering. He said it in a performative tone of irony, even though he meant it in all seriousness.
“Hooray,” I replied before dozing off. I always fell asleep before him.
When Jason broke things off, he told me he didn’t feel any butterflies in his stomach when he was around me. In fact, at that point, he told me he was feeling generally anhedonic toward almost everything in his life.
“Life is suffering,” he said again, this time more cryptically. “But you’ll be okay, I’m sure of it.”
His words did not comfort me.
I was seventeen all over again, watching movies by myself in the dark, seeking answers through familiar faces, through familiar yearning. This well-acquainted place comforted me, but it didn’t present me with any solutions. It was as if I was pressing against my own bruise, just to feel the sensation, just to see the colors change. The novelty was starting to wear off.
Like most of Wong’s films, the premise for In the Mood for Love is simple: Two next-door neighbors, Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung), discover their spouses are having an affair with each other. They attempt to understand why, while simultaneously trying not to fall in love with each other. What the narrative lacks in story, the cinematography makes up for with its lush color palette of reds and golds, its dream-like slow-motion visuals, the precision of every frame: Every figure, prop, and angle is deliberately arranged so that every shot contains a story that stands alone as a single photograph. These shots are repeated over and over again throughout the film, reinforcing the lyricism that permeates the entire runtime.
Wong’s detractors say he is all style and no substance. But these detractors overlook how intimacy can be established through silence, gesture, and a pointed look alone. How these very same gestures emulate heartbreak. It’s why I came back to his films again and again throughout my teens and twenties: I wanted a companion, one that understood the intoxication of a new romance, the tragedy of its crash. I wanted a guide that could show me how to navigate that liminal space between tenderness and loneliness, connection and alienation, East and West. But representation can only go so far. Life imitates art until life catches up.
Life imitates art until life catches up.
I remember slipping In the Mood for Love out of my dad’s pile of bootlegs for the first time and seeing the cover: a woman stood trance-like against an orange-lit wall, her eyes shut in a state of ecstasy; a man with black, slicked-back hair was embracing her from behind, his face against the nape of her neck, her hands gently clasped against the backs of his. It was an image to behold, this Asian couple in such a compromised state of intimacy. My parents were right, though. In the end, nobody ends up with each other. Not Mr. Chow or Mrs. Chan, or Ferdinand or Marianne. Not me or any of my Wong Kar-wai lovers. Those lost boys and I, we were too similarly preoccupied for things to have worked out. We were busy idling at the Café de Goldfinch, staring hard at each other from across our seats, waiting for something to happen, waiting to become ourselves.
Hollywood Video has long since disappeared from the suburb I grew up in, though its building still stands. I recently drove past it, now a Chinese bank, while visiting my parents and felt that strange old yearning again—only this time, it wasn’t over a boy. I yearned for the Asian kids I grew up with, who must have also yearned for home, just as their immigrant parents had yearned before them. I guess I have always been in the mood for love, though not necessarily the kind between two lovers. I have always longed for a love born from a shared experience, a shared history. A love born out of a kind of shared loss.
I yearned also for the Asian kids who lived there still, curled up in their beds, building selves from their flickering screens, wondering what was missing in them, wondering when they too would finally feel seen. I want to tell them that one can only rely on art to feel seen for so long, because art cannot inherently see; it can only make its viewers feel seen. The inspiration that emerges—the yearning, the rapture, the revolt—comes entirely from within. It is our own extraordinary creation.