An Analysis of Wong Kar-Wai's Use of Time and Emotion in His Films

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Film director Wong Kar-Wai is undoubtedly one of the best Hong-Kong film directors of the 1990s. Much of his success can be attributed to his unique cinematography style to which scholars have dubbed him as an ‘auteur of time.’ Critics have noted on his ability to simultaneously manipulate the concept of linear time while weaving in a cohesive narrative. However, what many critics have not noted is how Wong also uses time as a representative symbol of emotion. Notably, the emotion of Wong’s characters often coincides with cinematographic techniques of time manipulation.

This technique is similar to Wong’s use of Hong Kong, Argentina and various other settings that also play a role in enhancing character’s emotions. By analyzing Wong’s use of time throughout his films, it is clear that Wong’s manipulation of time is a symbol that can represent and enhance character’s emotions.

When talking about the majority of movies ever released throughout history, narratives are often bound by linear time.

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Film plots are characterized by a beginning, middle and end with a build up, climax and resolution woven within. Wong completely breaks this mold. Not only does Wong challenges his viewer’s conception that time is linear, but he also does not constrain his films with a beginning, middle and end. Ma perfectly sums up this idea by stating that Wong uses “a common agenda of complicating the materiality, or the visuality of time…challenges our experience of time as a linear succession of moments, as well as the rudimentary notion that time’s trajectory is that of past, present and future.

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” (Ma 124). For example, Wong’s films such as Chunking Express follow this principle. In most generic films, character’s explicit motives, history, and passions are generally clearly defined to the viewer through cinematography, script, etc.. However characters in the Chunking Express are introduced vaguely and disappear vaguely because Wong’s manipulation of the linear time line does not allow for clear explicit character development. Instead, he implies implicit interpretation of his character’s motives in his films. This is most notably with the blonde-wigged woman who debatably is just as mysterious in her disappearance as she was in her introduction. However, in the same manipulation of time, Wong also uses time as a tool to help interpret his character’s storylines.

Out of all of his films, Chunking Express is most representative implicit interpretation through the manipulation of time. Wong uses the date, May 1st to represent various emotions of his characters. The two scenes in the film most represented by this is the scene with Cop 223 and the eating of pineapples and the deadline for the drug trade by the blonde-haired women. In this iconic scene with the cop, the date May 1st is the last day that Cop 223 has given his girlfriend to return to him. On that same day, the thirty cans of pineapples that he has bought expire as well. When his girlfriend does not come back to him on May 1st, Cop 223 sets out to eat all the expired cans. Everything about this scene from the comical factor of eating thirty of cans of pineapple to the sadness of Cop 223 is enhanced by the date, May 1st. Similarly, the urgency of the blonde haired woman’s search for the faithless Indians is portrayed more urgently with May 1st as the deadline. Akbar recognizes this by stating, “He sets May his own private deadline of May 1st to come back to him. She does not, and he eats the thirty cans of pineapples in mourning for a faithless girlfriend, at the same time that the blonde-wigged woman is shooting in revenge the faithless Indians.” (Erotics 70). The use of words such as ‘mourning’ and ‘revenge’ are directly intertwined with the emotion that is brought about by the May 1st date.

In both of these scenes, the emotive value is enhanced by the date May 1st. In the example with Cop 223, his constant reminder and the eventual arrival of the May 1st deadline reflects his sadness and loss. Not only is it his constant reminder, but the viewers’ as well. With the deadline that Cop 223 for his girlfriend hopeful return, the viewer is also overcome with anticipation and ultimately left in disappointment much like Cop 223. Clearly these feelings are evoked and manipulated because Wong has manipulated a point in time as an emotive tool. Additionally this is also felt in the example with the blonde haired woman. While the scenes where she is frantically running around in search for the Indians are enhanced by shaky cameras and strong acting, the scenes are also overcome with the idea of a deadline. Again, Wong has used May 1st cleverly not only evoking strong emotion in the blond-haired woman, but in the viewer as well. The viewer innately wishes for her to succeed in finding the traitors, but with the deadline looming, the sinking feeling of failure sets in. Brilliantly, Wong is manipulating time is such a way that this day moment in time outweighs all other days and moments and clearly represents the power that May 1st has over the emotions of the characters the film as well as the viewers watching it.

The idea of manipulating one point of time and making it more important than other instances is also portrayed in the Days of Being Wild. In this film, the main character Yuddy begins an affair with Su Lizhen at exactly 2:59pm. Initially, this date is representative of the happiness of the relationship with Yuddy stating, “One minute before 3 p.m. on April 16th 1960 you were with me. Because of you, I will remember this minute.” This moment in time portrays the innocence as well as the happiness of the young lovers. Mazierska and Rascaroli also recognize this in their essay by stating, “this point in time gave meaning to their being together rather than the other way round, the beginning of their love affair giving meaning to a particular date.” (9). The two being together and their inner emotion are represented by this particular moment. Later in the film when Yuddy and Su Lizhen have broken up, Lizhen reflects on the moment they met. She is simultaneously feels direct sadness at the loss of her relationship with Yuddy as well as indirectly feels the power of moment at which she met him. Lizhen can never forget the time of 2:59pm and this time will haunt her the rest of her life. Again Wong is placing more importance of various points of time over others to enhance the emotive value of his characters.

Many scholars also believe that Wong has objectified the idea of time. This is true because many characters refer to moments of as a gateway or barrier into relationships. This is relevant when Lizhen reflects on her failed relationship with Yuddy. The distance in the intimacy between Yuddy and Lizhen is again attributed to the objectification of 2:59pm as an emotive device. Akbar elaborates on this point by saying, “all intimate relationships are mediated by structures alien to the cultivation of intimacy, whether it is clock time, or objects like the pair of expensive earrings.” (Akbar 53). In this instance, 2:59pm is not only an object that represents the failure of the relationship; it is also a powerful emotive cue for Lizhen. Whenever reminded of the time, she is reflective on the loss and overcome will feelings of disappointment and sadness. Not only that, Akbar argument is further reinforced because the objectification and symbolic meaning of 2:59pm also causes Lizhen to be oblivious of Tide, the friendly cop. 2.59pm blinds Lizhen in seeing the possibility of another relationship and thus becomes a barrier between her and Tide. Again through this example is very clear that Wong’s use of time is symbolic in that it plays a role in the emotions of his characters.

Wong also takes different approaches in his manipulation of time to bring out his character’s emotions. In the aforementioned examples, Wong’s use of particular days and moments in time serve as reminders that can be reflected on in the past, present and future.  To elaborate, these moments in time are not only reminders of events in the films, but rather these moments are also anticipated by Wong’s characters. In this way, various emotions are evoked by the anticipation and thereafter reflection of the moment in time. This is different from Wong’s use of time in one instance during the film, Fallen Angels. He Zhiwu, a mute outcast, watches film of his father to evoke emotions of remembrance, appreciation and love. Wong is using solely past events to bring forth emotions in the present. Scholars note, “These video images, in a film of carefully made images, have a frail, unmade quality to them. The father dies soon after the video is made; but watching it again, in the father’s absence, the son can feel happy.” (Erotics 78).  The captured images bring forth no feelings of anticipation because the film was caught solely in the past.

While these moments in time are captured by Zhiwu to be watched and appreciated, it is important to note that these moments are strictly in the past. There is no association of future anticipation of things to come, rather the video serves to represent how past events enhance emotions in the present. Mazierska and Rascaroli also comment on this by saying, “Wong Kar-Wai makes us believe that thanks to the video his character remembers his father longer, more tenderly and accurately.” (14). Again, rather than anticipating future emotions and events through one moment in time, He Zhiwu is overcome with feelings of happiness and remembrance through moments in the past. As stated, this is different from Wong’s films that use anticipation of moments to evoke emotion. Wong is showing how he manipulates time in different ways to bring out the full emotion in his characters.

This idea of past events effecting present emotions also takes place in the film Happy Together. Despite Ho’s indecent and disrespectful ways, it is clear that he loves Fai. To represent this love, Wong uses time to capture one of Ho’s most tender moments. This is true when Ho is looking at pictures from their past and feels overwhelming emotion that causes him to weep. Mazierska and Rascaroli comment on this in their essay saying, “the photographs in Wong’s films are true documents, testifying to real events and emotions. They also have the power to revitalize old or strengthen current emotions.” (12).  The photos, similar to the video that Zhiwu watches in Fallen Angels, represent past moments in time that enhance, in this case, Ho’s emotion and nostalgia.

What is also interesting in Happy Together is how Wong also uses technology to capture time and represent the emotion of his characters. This is most relevant when Fai leaves Chang a tape-recording at Tierra del Fuego. The capturing of the Fai’s crying represents the sadness of the relationship Chang and Fai could never have, while simultaneously allowing Fai to truly be honest with his emotions and thus allowing him to return to Taiwan and move forward with his life. Mazierska and Rascoaroli again comment on this idea by stating, “Chang plays the tape with Fai’s weeping, and Fai, who is already in Taipei at the time after month or perhaps years of anguish, eventually feels happy.” (15). Again, Wong is showing how this captured moment of time through technology represents the complex emotions of Chang’s and Fai’s relationship. The recording of Fai enhances the emotions of sadness, but also show how Fai has, through his struggles, been able to move on with his life.

On the other hand, the relationship between Fai and Ho brings up another interesting question regarding if the past in Wong’s films means anything to his characters. Jean Ma comments how, “time itself becomes irrelevant, a casualty of a throwaway society that finds no value in the past, no redemption in memory.” (137). In Happy Together, Wong provides evidence for this point as he provides the viewer a look into an absolutely abusive and hopeless relationship. Each moment of time that Ho and Fai experience together is filled with detest and hate for each other. Even though each other deeply care for each other, the immaturity of Ho is just too destructive for the relationship to continue. The moment when Fai moves back to Taiwan, there is a moment where the relationship with Ho seems like a “throwaway.” There is a sense that the moments in time that encompassed Fai and Ho’s relationship is ultimately irrelevant and that there was no value in the relationship whatsoever. In this instance, time is representative of the feelings of disappointment that Fai has for his failed relationship with Ho.

Wong eventually pulls the idea of the power of moments in time and combines it with the power of past events to evoke emotions of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan in the film The Mood for Love. In regards to the power of past events to evoke sentimentalism, Ma comments, “A mood of sentimentalism and longing for the past is also expressed across the visually vibrant surfaces of Wong’s films, in particular In the Mood for Love.” (138). Both the lovers are driven by the desire to recreate the relationships that have failed with their current spouses. This is why Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan constantly refer to how their respective spouses “would do one thing” or “never do another thing.” This connection each character has to the past to recreate the events in the present causes the emotions of desire, longing, and love to be enhanced. Like with He Zhiwu in Happy Together, Wong is manipulating time to show that past nostalgia experienced by Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan can evoke the feelings of the present.

On the other hand, Mr. Chan and Mrs. Chow’s emotions In the Mood for Love are also represented by various chance coincidental moments that happen throughout the film. These moments are strictly present in nature with no association with the past. Ma supports this point by saying, “The coincidence establishes a rhyme between the two couples that is developed in the course of the film…the two main characters…are left to each other for emotional comfort.” (139-140), Coincidences range from the first meeting of Mr. Chan and Mrs. Chow to the connection of Mr. Chan’s wife owning a Japanese purse that Mrs. Chow’s husband brought back from Japan. These coincidences characterize the driving forces that move the relationship forward. These coincidences also bring forth the emotions of desire and longing that each character starts to feel for each other. It should be noted that Wong’s use of coincidences as well as the past events both work in unison to represent the emotions of the two characters.

Moments of tenderness from films like Happy Together to moments of urgency like in Chungking Express would not be as powerful without Wong’s manipulation of time to enhance these emotions. As Wong Kar-Wai continues to manipulate the concept of time in his films, he has undoubtedly become an auteur of emotion as well. The manipulation of time truly brings out the full emotive spectrum held by his characters as well as his viewers. Whether it be through chance moments or past nostalgia, it is clear that Wong expertly manipulates time and uses it as a symbol to represent his character’s and his viewer’s emotions.

Work Cited

Primary Sources

  1. Abbas, Ackbar. “Wong Kar-wai; Hong Kong Filmmaker.” Hong Kong; Culture and the Politics of Disappearance(1997): 48-62. Web.
  2. Lalanne, Jean Marc, David Martinez, Ackbar Abbas, and Jimmy Ngai. “The Erotics of Disappointment.” (n.d.): 39-81. Web.
  3. Ma, Jean. “Chance Encounters and Compulsive Returns.” Melancholy Drift; Marking Time in Chinese Cinema(2010): 123-46. Web.

Secondary Sources

  1. Mazierska, Ewa, and Laura Rascaroli. “Trapped In The Present; Time In The Films Of Wong Kar-Wai.” Film Criticism 2 (2000): 2-20. Academic Search Complete. Web. 1 May 2014.

Films Mentioned

  1. Chunking Express. Dir. Kar-Wai Wong. Perf. Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro. Jet Tone, 1994. DVD.
  2. Days of Being Wild. Dir. Kar-Wai Wong. Perf. Leslie Cheung and Maggie Cheung. In-Gear Film, 1990. DVD.
  3. Fallen Angels. Dir. Kar-Wai Wong. Perf. Takeshi Kaneshiro and Leon Lai. Jet Tone, 1995. DVD.
  4. Happy Together. Dir. Kar-Wai Wong. Perf. Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung. Jet Tone, 1997. DVD.
  5. In the Mood for Love. Dir. Kar-wai Wong. Perf. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung. Jet Tone, 2000. DVD.
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An Analysis of Wong Kar-Wai's Use of Time and Emotion in His Films. (2021, Sep 16). Retrieved from

An Analysis of Wong Kar-Wai's Use of Time and Emotion in His Films

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