Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Food in the films of Wong Kar Wai
Nothing captures the particular flavour of Hong Kong coolness like the films of Wong Kar Wai. If you have ever wondered why someone would abandon North America for a life in Asia, watch Chungking Express and its pseudo-sequel Fallen Angels. Both of these films are early examples of the now formulaic structure of portraying the lives of several unconnected people whose paths cross in unexpected ways. Other examples of films that adopt this formula include Shortcuts by Robert Altman, Magnolia by Paul Thomas Anderson, Crash by Paul Haggis, and most recently, Babel by Allejendro Gonzalez Anarritu. Isn't it interesting that all of these films are of the highest quality. Perhaps this formula is suited to capturing the ungrounded isolation of the individual in the post-modern city, and how this collective isolation has become the defining trait of contemporary culture.
Both Chungking Express and Fallen Angels are masterpieces of late 20th century film. They are that rare species of film that can be watched over and over with new details and layers of meaning emerging with each viewing: The portraits of Hong Kong streets, buildings and interiors; the collection of subcultures and archetypes; the terse wit of the dialogue; the mix of languages; the costumes that drift into sexual fetish; the use of numerology; the soundtracks; and the groundbreaking cinematography of Christopher Doyle. One could write a thesis on any of these aspects of these two films. It is no surprise then, that even after repeated viewings, I failed to realize the thematic presence of food in both Chungking Express and Fallen Angels.
Much of Chungking Express takes place in a diner with a great segment of dialogue focusing on the boss convincing Tony Leung, playing a policeman, to buy both a club sandwich and a chef's salad for his girlfriend. He uses the reasoning that perhaps she would like the choice of something different. Leung later returns to the restaurant after being dumped by the girl in question, he notes that perhaps she really did like the choice of something different. Another two scenes have Faye Wong, playing a worker in the restaurant, interrupting Leung while eating his roadside lunch of charsui barbecued pork to help her carry a big basket of vegetables to the restaurant. She later breaks into his apartment and switches the labels on his canned food. Takeshi Kaneshiro plays a love-lorn detective that goes on a bizarre eating binge of canned pineapple, based solely on the expiry date of the cans. In each case, food is somehow connected to desire and loss.
Fallen Angels is even more focused on food. Scenes include Leon Lai (Li Ming), playing a hit man, eating a burger and fries in an empty 24hr McDonald's as Karen Mok, playing a half crazed woman with a blond wig, comes over, sits down and proceeds to pick him up. Not a word is spoken through the whole scene. This is by far the best advertisement for McDonald's ever made. Another scene has Michelle Reis eating noodles in a semi-stupor as a full out brawl goes on behind her. By far the most interesting and hilarious food scenes involve Takeshi Kaneshiro, as a mute petty thief, hassling people and amusing himself in a traditional market after closing time. Kaneshiro's silent slapstick recalls the comedic greatness of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. One scene has him giving a full massage to a pig carcass, in another he tries to force the sale of vegetables on an unsuspecting woman. He thrusts a skinny eggplant at the woman, and she evades the purchase by saying "I'm single, what would people think?" he then produces a massive melon instead. Later, he breaks into an ice-cream truck, kidnaps a man and forces him and his family to eat ice-cream as he happily drives around the city. We later find out that his mother was killed when she was hit by an ice-cream truck. This scene is neither sad nor maudlin, it is presented simply as part of the inexplicable course of events that make up our lives. In one of the final scenes, Leon Lai walks into a Japanese barbecue joint where Kaneshiro is now working. Kaneshiro's comedic genius shines again as he manages to make the act of cooking meat on a stick ridiculously funny.
Why the persistent references to food? As with the other aspects of life that Wong delightfully and poetically records, food is a reflection of culture. Food is as much a reflection of who we are as the buildings around us or the clothes we wear. And just as Wong's characters are romantic archetypes of film and culture: the policeman, the waitress, the hit man, the stewardess, the restaurant owner, the petty thief. So are the items of food that are depicted: the club sandwich, the chef's salad, barbecued pork, burger and fries, ice-cream. These are not so much specific items as food, as they are archetypes of food. Like Wong himself, they are ultimately romantic.