Samuel Johnson said, “No man was ever great by imitation,” but in show business, it’s a fine place to start. For Wong Kar-wai, imitation was a means by which to forge his own, unmistakable style. In his feature debut, As Tears Go By, Wong drew heavily from Hollywood genre pictures and New American Cinema. He based his male lead on DeNiro’s Johnny Boy from Mean Streets and his female lead on Eva, the outsider-waif from Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise. The comparison ends there, however, because Wong transforms these cinematic “types” into something distinctively his own. Almost 30 years after its release, As Tears Go By remains a bombastic punch to the senses. It’s a chaotic debut filled with blood, urban brawls and one of the most intense makeouts in film history.

While Scorsese and Jarmusch deserve credit as inspirations, Wong’s father does too. He was a nightclub manager in Hong Kong, and when Wong was growing up, he shadowed his dad during late-night shifts. It was perhaps that experience which gave Wong his affection for the nocturnal urban settings that would dominate his early films. When As Tears Go By begins, the opening credits flash over the dingy, neon-lit streets of Hong Kong. This is clearly a milieu where Wong feels comfortable.

Wong’s camera quickly jump cuts to Wah (Andy Lau), a handsome debt collector who’s such a night owl that he can barely get out of bed during daylight hours. It’s not like he has a job to worry about. He’s a full-time rebel with a white undershirt, a swooping haircut and an infinite supply of cigarettes in the pocket of his denim jeans. When his cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung) arrives from a small town in the country, he doesn’t even bother with a hello. And yet, with these two heartthrobs sharing the same, cramped living space, an inevitable, though unacknowledged, romance ignites.

Before you start thinking this is a romance, Wong introduces about a dozen gang members, and the influence of Means Streets is on full display. Wah knows how to avoid the truly bad guys, but the same isn’t true for his younger brother, Fly (Jacky Cheung). Fly pines to be accepted into the cool gang world, and he gambles on a game of pool with Tony (Alex Man). When he loses, Tony and his crew beat Fly to a pulp. He’s dropped on Wah’s doorstop, and Wah cleans his brother’s wounds and gets Fly a job selling fish balls on the street.

Interwoven into this gangster fare, Wong returns to the love story between Wah and Ngor. In the film’s overwrought romantic climax, Wah and Ngor separate at a ferry terminal only to run into each other’s arms and kiss in the street a moment later. The scene is set to a Chinese-language rendition of “Take My Breath Away,” and the result is almost embarrassing. It’s like a weird music video. Following this kiss, Wah stays with Ngor during a brief period of bliss.

Back in Hong Kong, tension between Tony and Fly is reaching deadly heights. Wah returns to the city and faces off with Tony in a violent fight, defending his brother. Wah is hit with a shovel, smacked with a bat and shot in the thigh. It’s gruesome and, at times, hard to watch. While Fly is lying on the floor, he pees on himself in fear and shame. Wah touches his cheek. “It’s alright, alright,” he says. The scene perfectly captures how Wong, even in his earlier work, managed to bridge ultra-violence with tender emotions.

Upon its release in the states, Tears received little critical attention. In China, however, the film was a hit, and its success helped finance Wong’s next feature, Day of Being Wild (1990). But it wouldn’t be until Wong’s fourth film, Ashes of Time, that his career as a filmmaker would come full circle. Martin Scorsese reportedly used that film as a model for the battle scenes in Gangs of New York. The imitator becomes the imitated.

The first time we meet Yuddy (Leslie Cheung), we see only his back. Director Wong Kar-wai’s camera follows him through an empty hall and even though we can’t see his face, he’s got panache. When he emerges from the shadows to get a bottle of Coke, we see his handsome face and the cigarette that dangles from his lips. Yuddy is so cool that it’s practically a lifestyle. In Days of Being Wild, that Bogart/Brando inspired persona is a blessing as much as a curse. Coolness is the essential quality of a Wong Kar-wai hero but it’s a persona based on concealment, carrying as much melancholy as it does sex appeal.

Su (Maggie Cheung) stands behind the counter with the same listless boredom later seen in Faye Wong’s snack bar girl from Chungking Express. Cheung was also featured in Wong’s debut As Tears Go By and it’s a pleasure to see her again. She’s exchanged the one-dimensional good girl for a tougher, even noir-ish type of woman. Her presence behind the counter is also more suited to Wong’s style since work is an essential part of his character’s lives. Whether they’re policemen, food vendors, gangsters or prostitutes, his characters are defined, at least in part, by the way they earn their living.

When Yuddy asks for her name, Su doesn’t blink. “Why should I tell you?” Yuddy isn’t the sort of guy who loses sight of a woman like Su, so he leans into her ear and says, “You’ll see me tonight in your dreams.” The shot is framed so tightly around their faces that if you leaned in, you’d probably kiss them. Wong savors this kind of intimacy, especially when it’s between strangers. While some audiences might snicker at the gumption of Yuddy to say such a thing about “dreams” to a girl he just met, for Wong, passion like this is no laughing matter.

Yuddy visits Su every day for one minute because they’re “one-minute friends.” Eventually one minute turns into an hour and soon they’re in bed. “How long have we known each other?” Su asks, lying beside him with her fingers gently resting on his lips. “Long time,” he says. “I’ve forgotten.” He’s looking off into the distance. As much as he likes Su, he’s a playboy with faraway thoughts. Maybe he’s thinking about the cabaret dancer he’s already dating (Carina Lau). Maybe he’s thinking about what his mother said the other night about how he was adopted. The break-up happens fast because Su wants to get married and Yuddy doesn’t.

When the lovers meet again in a dingy alley, the scene is rampant with sexual tension. It’s a result not only of the actor’s natural chemistry but also the vividness of the urban setting and Christopher Doyle’s bleak, sensual cinematography. Yuddy can’t commit because he’s loved too many woman and, “I won’t know while I love most ‘til the end of my life.” Su waits while Yuddy retrieves her things. The only problem is that the cabaret dancer is over and she’s wearing Su’s slippers. When she refuses to hand them over, Su walks in and understands immediately what’s happening. In this instant, Cheung almost steals the picture. The look on her face says more than words ever could.

Faster than Yuddy can light a fresh cigarette, Su leaves and on the street, she’s frozen in sorrow. Her eyes, beautifully lit, stand out against the dark. A kind night watchman lends her money to take the bus home and when she returns to pay him back, they become friends. The relationship is random but that’s exactly what Wong likes about it. He often fills larger narratives with smaller stories built around the interconnecting lives of strangers. One night, Su visits the watchman to talk and delivers one of the most moving soliloquies about love and loneliness in film history. “I thought I would be okay,” she says. “I kept telling myself, ‘Don’t tell others you’re unhappy. Work hard. Go to bed early.’ I want to go home, but my home is in Macao. I don’t know how to get through these long nights. I can’t sleep.” The speech is disjointed and filled with breathy indecision. It’s shot in a single take and Cheung’s performance is perfectly complemented by Doyle’s dark, moody atmosphere.

Time is one of Wong’s foremost preoccupations throughout the film. If the characters aren’t looking at clocks, they’re talking about how much time has passed or what time feels like. When Su walks with the watchman and recalls her “one-minute” friendship, she comments on time’s elasticity: “I used to think a minute could pass so quickly. But actually, it can take forever.” For Wong, time is abstract and objective but it’s also amorphous. When it’s internalized, it becomes filled with meaning.

While Su and the cabaret dancer grapple with their damaged emotions, Yuddy becomes obsessed with finding his real parents. He coaxes it out of his mother (Rebecca Pan) and as soon she tells him, she wishes she could take it back. Like Su and the cabaret dancer, she too is afraid of being alone. “I should never have said anything…I know sooner or later you’ll leave me.” Yuddy takes off for the Philippines and the dense forest we saw in the opening credits finally starts to make sense.

It would me a mistake not to mention the remarkable technical and narrative improvement between Wong’s first feature (As Tears Go By) and Days of Being Wild. His shots are longer and more fluid. He melds genres in a new and important way. He references legendary directors like Douglas Sirk by placing flowers and fruits bowls in Yuddy’s mother’s apartment. The script reads like a series of poems, each one more moving than the next. The intensity of the emotions onscreen and the way they fuse with the wardrobe, setting and photography turn Days into Wong’s most under-appreciated gem.

In a 1995 interview, director Wong Kar-wai said to Cahiers du Cinéma, “There’s one thing that doesn’t ever change, and that’s the desire people have to communicate with others.” Wong’s films don’t always communicate effectively; his 1994 wuxia film Ashes of Time confuses even the director’s fans. But the movie he made during a two-month break from editing that failed genre exercise communicated his artistry with an almost instinctual glee that transcended language.

Chungking Express revealed an ephemeral magic in the most mundane of big city locations: a Hong Kong fast-food counter. The setting is thousands of miles away from the shores where American moviegoers first discovered it, but it seems perfectly familiar. These are the kinds of place where thousands of strangers pass by every day, most of them never to encounter each other. In this microcosm of Hong Kong, set three years before the handover to China, two thwarted love stories transpire.

In the first story, Cop 233 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is an undercover officer who’s not ready to admit that his relationship with May, whom we never see, is over. He contrives an unusual test to determine when to let go: for 30 days, he goes to his neighborhood Circle K and buys a can of pineapple that expires on May 1, 1994. In the middle of this perishable consumer countdown, he falls for a mysterious woman in a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin), who happens to be a drug smuggler.

In the film’s second and more appealing narrative, a uniformed officer we know only as Cop 663 (Tony Leung) places an order at a fast food counter we see in the first story. He orders a chef salad for his girlfriend every day, but the shop owner suggests he get her something different. Unfortunately, after the cop brings her fish and chips, the choice in food makes her realize she has a choice in men, and she leaves him. But this lovelorn law enforcer has another choice in the form of new snack bar worker Faye (Faye Wong), who’s obsessed with the Mamas & the Papas hit “California Dreaming” and falls for the uniformed regular.

The movie is filled with small gestures that immerse us in a cinematic world filled not just with sound and vision, but smell. On a hot night at the shop, Faye turns a portable fan on her face as 663 walks away from the counter, as if luring him in with her scent. She wipes down a glass partition as Leung is on the other side, as if she’s caressing an image on the television. In one of the film’s most striking shots, the camera holds on a long shot of Faye at one end of the counter, yearning for 663 on the other end; crowds pass before them in a blur, but they remain still as if in a living tableau. It’s a poetic encapsulation of romance, and it’s also something of the film’s mission statement: if you could focus on two people in the middle of the passing crowd, what beauty would you see?

The story of Cop 233 and the cans of pineapple, reportedly handled by cinematographer Andy Lau, is shot at the breakneck, grainy pace of a crime thriller with the camera weaving in and out of spaces almost instinctually, as if involved in a dance with the film’s actors just to get out of their way. But the story of Cop 663, reportedly helmed by Wong’s regular cameraman Christopher Doyle, is more fluid, following its characters more gently.

The divide between the film’s two narratives seems abrupt at first, but it has been suggested that the stories take place at the same time. Both Faye Wong and Tony Leung make brief appearances in the first story, the former memorably walking out of a shop with a gigantic stuffed Garfield the Cat. It’s a cute pop culture reference, but the Monday-hating feline resonates with another Mamas & the Papas hit, which fits seamlessly with the film’s grand theme of time. The two narratives seem like back-to-back episodes of an unusual television show.

Chungking Express was Wong Kar-wai’s US breakthrough and it’s easy to see why: from its photogenic actors to its pop soundtrack and breezy visual style, the movie is a lighthearted thrill, visceral, romantic and fresh. Its characters may be fixated on the ravages of time: Cop 233’s obsession with expirations dates, Cop 663’s lamentations over a worn bar of soap and a frayed washcloth. But love transforms all, as we see when Faye sneaks into 663’s apartment, redecorating and switching out labels on the canned food in his pantry: when he eats a mislabeled can of sardines, it’s as if he was trying them for the first time. It’s the funniest part of the movie, and the most profound: she’s changing his taste buds, and his life. Despite familiar themes and images, Chungking Express doesn’t taste quite like any other movie; it’s as if the director had changed labels on the viewer and allowed us to discover something new.

Frequently cited as the film in which Wong Kar-wai parodies himself, Fallen Angels, released in 1995, shares more than a few structural, stylistic and narrative choices with Chungking Express. In fact it grew out of a storyline that was ultimately cut from that film. It’s the closest to a gangster film the director had come since As Tears Go By. But the crux of its message stakes a vital place in Wong’s oeuvre of films about unrequited love and alienation in a dizzying, bustling world.

As in Chungking Express, Wong interweaves two stories. Hired assassin Wong Chi-Ming (Leon Lai) rarely sees his partner (Michelle Reis), who is hopelessly in love with him. Mute prison escapee Ho Chi Moo (Takeshi Kaneshiro) it entangled with Charlie (Charlie Yeung), a perpetually sobbing girl still hung up on her ex. The latter carries on the wacky free-spiritedness that was so integral to Faye Wong’s character in Chungking, with Ho Chi Moo living a madcap slacker existence breaking into other people’s businesses at night and forcing unwilling customers to pay him (usually to rein in his insane behavior and leave them alone).

The two stories couldn’t be more dissimilar, and Wong employs distinctive style choices for each. His beloved blurred background shots that alienate his troubled protagonists naturally make appearances throughout, as do some jump cuts. Christopher Doyle once again handles the cinematography, but Wong Chi-Ming’s story is told in a series of dark, nearly chiaroscuro scenes that fight the urge to revert to slow-motion at every turn. The director’s languid R&B music cues further emphasize the cool noir aesthetic. The film’s many bloody shootout scenes alternate between frenetic camerawork and gratuitous slo-mo. Segments that feature Ho Chi Moo, however, exhibit much more visual stability. A consummate slacker, Ho’s complacency is driven home by relatively stagnant shots of him manning various food stalls or the handheld camera that tracks his teary interactions with Charlie.

Fallen Angels is also notable for its heavy use of voice-over narration (another Wong trademark), which allows viewers to go that much deeper into the characters’ psyches. Traditional dialogue is almost completely absent here, but Wong makes the decision work to his benefit in recounting these stories, with that vignette structure lending itself to an omniscient narrator. As a character, Ho Chi Moo requires such an exemption from dialogue. While voice-over narration is common in Wong’s films, it’s interesting that the awkwardness of Ho’s silence is strikingly, even glaringly, obvious in the scene when he first meets Charlie. We see him attempting to hand out flyers for God knows what business and mime what looks like drinks. He looks rightly insane. But he’s a convenient shoulder for Charlie to cry on. Sadly, that’s all he ever is to her.

As ever, the director infuses this film with a heavy dose of unrequited love, but Fallen Angels has the honor of ending on the best visual encapsulation of Wong’s philosophy on the nature of human intimacy. Wong Chi-Ming is perfectly aware that his partner has feelings for him, but the two separately conclude that, to function as efficient killers, “partners should rarely get emotionally involved with each other.” Like the director’s other protagonists, Wong surmises that relationships that don’t last are merely instances of people on prolonged stopovers, eventually to reach their final destinations. It’s a sentiment that speaks to Wong’s larger belief that, just as most relationships will end, every moment should be appreciated until that end.

Fallen Angels ends with Wong’s partner grabbing a ride home on Ho Chi Moo’s motorcycle, musing “I hadn’t ridden on a motorcycle in a long time. Actually, I hadn’t been that close to a man for a while. The road wasn’t that long, and I knew I’d be getting off soon. But at that moment I felt such warmth.” The camera drifts upward as a trail of Ho’s cigarette smoke dissipates into the Hong Kong night air. If love is fleeting, resolve to treasure the feeling of both having it and losing it.

In various ways, Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together (1997) is a “transitional” film. When it was released, the Hong Kong director was in a state of egress, both stylistically and professionally. As the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum aptly notes in his review of the film, Wong had become somewhat ungrounded as a filmmaker. “Whether this happened between Days of Being Wild (1990) and Chungking Express (1994), during the two years it took to make Ashes of Time (1994), or between the latter two films and Fallen Angels (1995),” writes Rosenbaum, “Wong’s powerful organic flow…had atrophied into a slag heap of individual set pieces.” Perhaps seeking a new direction, Wong turned to a pair of characters similarly adrift. In Happy Together, dysfunctional couple Yiu-fai (Tony Leung) and Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) are once again resetting their relationship, traveling all the way from Hong Kong to “the end of the world” in Buenos Aires in hopes of finding themselves.

There, we watch the two men fall in and out of love with each other. They switch moods and outlooks seemingly without cause and certainly without warning. They express a constant desire for renewal, to start again. They’re difficult to nail down, and sometimes impossible to read, but you get the strong sense that they’re lost. Like the characters it follows, Happy Together is a film in search of a purpose, and it ultimately turns that very search into its sole purpose. Wong, one of the most instinctual filmmakers to ever live, turns virtually every shot into an investigation, and his ability to find and create beautiful images becomes almost unrestrained. If the film verges on self-parody, as some have claimed, it’s because the director is actively investigating what he values in his art and in himself. Happy Together is Wong at his most introspective.

Echoes of Wong’s previous work are felt throughout Happy Together. There are meta references to Ashes of Time and Chungking Express, and the director gives his usual stylistic flourishes extra layers of familiarity, like the fast-motion imagery of downtown Buenos Aires that openly recalls similar sequences in As Tears Go By (1988). Touches unique to the film abound, as well. Aided by cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s technical prowess, Wong unloads his aesthetic bag of tricks, including freeze-frames, color and texture shifts and digressive jump cuts. He doesn’t hold anything back, and to a degree, the film’s style seems to overwhelm every other aspect, creating a sense that if Wong just calmed the hell down, Yiu-fai and Po-wing might actually figure some stuff out.

But then that’s sort of the point. When the critic Shelly Kracier reviewed the film during the 1997 Toronto International Film Festival, she wrote, “The constant theme of Wong Kar-wai’s cinema is that the formal conditions of our experience have changed so radically that they compel us to live an entirely new kind of experience to fill them, to fulfill all of their promise and potential.” Like other Wong films, Happy Together utilizes multiple narrators, and chief among them is the director himself. It’s why his various stylistic quirks rarely feel like conceits or gimmicks; you get the sense that he’s conversing with his characters, as well as with the audience, and he’s using form and aesthetics as a sort of stage.

The idea is wistful, but it’s important to remember that Wong himself is an exceedingly wistful filmmaker, even if he occasionally masks his wistfulness with melancholy and stoicism. Happy Together is a sad and deeply nostalgic film, marked by the characters’ homesickness and deep sense of displacement, both literally and emotionally. The film’s nostalgia isn’t as explicit as the nostalgia found in In the Mood for Love or even something like The Grandmaster, but it is a dominant emotional current throughout. The audience never comes to fully understand just what the characters are nostalgic for, but that only heightens the sensation. Throughout his career, Wong’s most valuable gift has been his ability to tell us stories whose meanings and details evade us but whose feelings penetrate deeply.

There’s a German word for it: Sehnsucht. It can be translated as “yearning” or “pining,” but its emotional implications are tougher to convey. It’s a word for what it feels like to long for a place you’ve never been or an experience you’ve never had. Happy Together deals deeply in Sehnsucht, as Wong creates a formal space and emotional logic that might not exist in reality but seems completely tangible, erotic, sensational and heartbreaking on the screen. It’s the stuff of life, but it exists in a dream, and the best way to experience it, Wong argues, is through the cinema. Rather than “transitional,” perhaps Happy Together is best described as transcendent.

It’s a meticulously recreated time-piece of the ’60s featuring stylish period sets, impeccable fashion, gorgeous stars and romantic longing. It may sound like “Mad Men,” but before that, it was Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 masterpiece, In the Mood for Love. With sumptuous photography by Wong-regulars Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping Bin, whose cameras glide around the film’s smoldering stars to the mournful strains of Mike Galasso’s score, the movie is a feast for the senses. And like Chungking Express, it’s a delicious menu of human desire. What makes this menu so frustrating, so aching, is that this sensuous work of art never lets its characters consummate their sensual desires.

It’s Hong Kong in 1962. Journalist Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and secretary Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) move into adjoining rooms in a crowded apartment building. Their spouses (whose faces we never see) are away much of the time, frequently leaving Chow and Su alone at night. As they form a platonic bond, meeting for noodles or simply walking together, they conclude that their spouses are having an affair with each other.

In a seemingly endless supply of stunning dresses, Su carries a colorful thermos back and forth from a noodle stand, and often passes Chow on the stairwell to their building. This is one of a number of shots that Wong repeats throughout the film, identical gestures performed by actors wearing a different suit or dress almost every time we see them. One simple scene of a dinner date involves several changes of clothing, establishing the routine of its characters search to feed their desires, and finding beauty in tired routines traveled among dreary corners of old Hong Kong.

In an infrastructure that looks worn and crumbling, Cheung and Leung dance around each other like the camera dances around them and the viewer gazes at compositions shot in such shallow focus it’s as if we’re peering through gauze to find some hint of salaciousness. What we find instead is a sad longing, perhaps unconsummated.

After the seemingly abandoned spouses learn of their partners’ deception, they act out their own chaste romance. Insisting that they won’t be “like them,” they play on the edges of an affair, rehearsing confrontations with their cheating spouses, even renting a hotel room where Chow simply works on a martial arts serial as Su does her own work.

The number of their hotel room, 2046, points to Wong’s next film, and also reveals the politics that simmers underneath the romance. In 1997 the United Kingdom transferred sovereignty of Hong Kong over to China, who agreed that Hong Kong would be self-governing for a period of 50 years; under the arrangement, the year 2046 will be the last year that Hong Kong will control its own destiny.

This governmental trap is reflected in the social trap in which Chow and Su find themselves. In the film’s most amusing scenes, Su is trapped in Chow’s room when their landlord comes over unexpectedly bringing a group of friends over for what turns out to be an all night mahjong game.

As Wong told Positif in a 2000 interview, “They kept their secret, and this secret to me seems to be the most interesting theme in the film.” Politics obliquely arise at the end of the film as Chow tells his secret to a hole in a wall at Angkor Wat. This is 1966, around the time of the Cultural Revolution in China and not long before Cambodia saw its own cultural purge under the Khmer Rouge.

In the Mood for Love is delicious eye-candy with rich layers of romantic longing and political tragedy. Wong has suggested that the belly-level camera that sometimes follows the lovers as they’re walking is the point of view of a five-year old child—the age Wong was in 1962, when his parents left Shanghai and the Cultural Revolution in China for Hong Kong. The child’s eye sees an enchanting dance that he doesn’t quite understand, and that the lovers don’t quite seem to understand either, lost in an historical moment that threatened to tear them apart.

Fashion can be a decorous extravagance with political meaning. Maggie Cheung wears more than 20 stunning dresses in the film, all of them snugly wound around her limbs and neck, hugging her body and also binding it in much the way she keeps her desires bound—like the way the state binds its people. The exquisite fashions in this film are what led to Wong Kar-wai’s selection as the artistic director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2015 fashion exhibit China: Through the Looking Glass. It’s an apt title that resonates with the words that appear as the movie ends: “He remembers those vanished years. As if looking through a dusty window pane.” The dusty pane of In the Mood for Love is a window through which an elegant almost-love affair and so much more play out.

Whether 2046 is a true sequel to In the Mood for Love—itself a follow-up of sorts to Days of Being Wild—or not, Wong Kar-Wai’s 2004 film has an intricately symbiotic relationship with its predecessor. In the shadow of 2046, In the Mood for Love expands far beyond its almost anecdotal construction and takes on the feeling of a vivid memory. Likewise, however well 2046 works on its own, viewers unfamiliar with the earlier film are missing a crucial piece of the story.

Near the end of In the Mood for Love, Chow Mo-wan, played by the inimitable Tony Leung, leaves Hong Kong for Singapore, having accepted that his relationship with Su Li-zhen, played by a poised Maggie Cheung, can go no further. 2046 catches up with Chow just as he’s about to return to Hong Kong in 1966, perhaps finally ready to move on from the unconsummated love affair he left behind.

Chow, a journalist, processes his feelings about this return (and the women in his life since Su Li-zhen) through his fiction. His new story is science fiction—in it, a man sits on a train leaving 2046, a place where nothing ever changes, where people go to recapture lost time. The actual nature of 2046, both its literal existence within Chow’s story and its metaphorical significance in his own life, is somewhat hard to pin down, though it’s beautifully evocative, nevertheless. Due to a limited budget, the sequences dramatizing Chow’s story are suggestive rather than painstakingly detailed; the rather primitive computer animations of a globe-spanning railway system create an otherworldly mystique even as they fail to look convincing.

Although Chow leaving Singapore is mirrored by his character’s departure from 2046, the latter place can also be understood to represent Hong Kong itself. It’s never mentioned in the film, but the year 2046 will be 49 years after control of Hong Kong was transferred from the British to the Chinese in 1997, which marked the beginning of a 50-year period of self-regulation. The connection between this and the anti-British riots of the ’60s (seen in newsreel footage at the beginning of the film) would surely not go unnoticed by domestic audiences.

But while there is undoubtedly a sociopolitical subtext to this film (Chow’s trip to Cambodia and another character’s hatred of the Japanese are especially suggestive), Chow’s fictional world is more intriguing for the way it parallels his emotional life. We are told that nobody ever leaves 2046, and the protagonist’s seemingly unending train ride away is a poignant metaphor for Chow’s inability to let go of his past. Throughout, we also see Chow working his numerous lovers into the story, cast as androids aboard the train, whose responses have become delayed after years of operation.

Chow is inspired to begin writing the story after a one-night stand with a nightclub singer, Lulu (Carina Lau), whose hotel room number, 2046, reminds him of Su Li-zhen. The number’s significance is revealed near the end of the film, but viewers with exceptional memories will recall this number from In the Mood for Love as the hotel room where Chow and Su Li-zhen worked on a martial-arts story together. After Lulu is stabbed by a jealous ex-lover, Chow asks the owner if he can move into the room. Chow becomes settled in the adjacent room, 2047, while 2046 is being cleaned out.

Chow populates his story with android versions of Lulu and of Wang Jing-wen (Faye Wong), the daughter of the hotel’s owner, who’s in love with a Japanese man (the horror!). Chow gets close to Jing-wen at first by helping her send and receive letters from her lover, and then even more so when they begin to write together, in a way that clearly echoes his collaboration with Su Li-Zhen. Although Maggie Cheung’s character from the previous film is only referred to rarely, and usually obliquely, appearing only in flashbacks, her conspicuous absence explains Chow’s behavior—his desperate, empty affairs devoid of real connection and his deep immersion in writing.

The saucy cabaret girl Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi, at her most alluring) couldn’t be any more different from Su Li-zhen, but here, too, Chow keeps his distance by paying her for every night of fun. Like nearly every other character in this film, she’s nursing a broken heart and has her own way of dealing with the pain. Where In the Mood for Love was deeply focused on just two characters, 2046 opens outward with an ensemble of women, each of whom, while embodying some part of Chow’s past, is also a fully realized character.

Visually, the film out-does all of the director’s past efforts. Energetic yet tightly controlled, the images of Wong’s longtime collaborator Christopher Doyle and two other cinematographers, Kwan Pun-leung and Lai Yiu-fai, provoke anxiety through partially obscured, claustrophobic shots in the hotel’s cramped hallways and then evoke wonder in colorful sci-fi sequences and hypnotic slow-motion shots. All the pushed-down and sublimated feelings of In the Mood for Love explode here, in Wong’s dreamiest, sexiest film. The pair represent the apex of the director’s career, the period when the promise of his early work truly paid off.

Contributors: Erica Peplin, Pat Padua, Drew Hunt, Seth Katz

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