One Good Thing: Two ’90s Asian Films That Capture the Loneliness of Modern Life

Years before watching my first film by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, I found a collection of photos on Tumblr of his 1994 film Chungking Express. I reblogged the images on my blog without any prior knowledge, just based on the aesthetics of the film. The footage showed one of its protagonists, a handsome young Takeshi Kaneshiro, holding a corded phone to his left ear with a listless gaze. Below it, the captions read: “The password is ‘I love you for 10,000 years.'”

This peculiarly romantic line of dialogue is among a handful of recognizable Wong Kar-Wai scenes that, years later, frequently appear in my social media feeds. Stills like these have helped spark modern online intrigue regarding a certain East Asian film genre and the directors (mostly male) that make up that category. While the average American cinephile doesn’t seem to have much of an appetite for foreign films, a subset of Western viewers seems to be more receptive to East Asian works — at least according to social media.

In recent years, too, more Asian-American directors are producing films that pay stylistic homage to influential East Asian works. One of the multiverses in Everything everywhere at the same timefor example, was heavily inspired by the work of Wong in a mood of love, a film about two beautiful people who silently yearn but never act upon their unrequited love. (Several Twitter posts went viral for showcasing the two works’ stylistic parallels.) Alan Yang tiger tailreleased on Netflix in 2020, attempted to emulate the sprawling domestic drama of an Edward Yang film through an expansive multigenerational storyline.

There are many great East Asian directors, but recently I have found myself drawn to the impressive work of two sinophone filmmakers: Wong Kar-Wai and his lesser-discussed Taiwanese contemporary, Tsai Ming-Liang. Two of his first feature films, despite being produced more than two decades ago, capture the unbearably dark mood of life in 2022. Their overall vibe, so to speak, is suffused with melancholy languor, featuring characters who are so close, but they remain eternally distant from the inner life of other people.

Tsai’s debut in 1992 Neon God Rebels and Wong 1994 Chungking Express Both chronicles the lives of rebellious urban youths coming of age during an economically prosperous but politically uncertain period. Set in Hong Kong and Taiwan respectively, the films, released just a few years apart, hint at the looming forces of globalization and the new political hierarchies introduced at the turn of the century. These films also address themes that resonate with an audience affected by the pandemic: alienation, nostalgia, homesickness, unfulfilled romance and a sense of boredom with current events. And despite predating social media, Tsai and Wong manage to presciently capture the loneliness in modern relationships.

from Tsai Neon God Rebels is split into two parallel stories featuring four young townspeople – two thieves, a student and a skating rink employee – whose lives overlap in strange and unexpected ways.. Hsiao-Kang, a disgruntled high school student, is in trouble with his parents for dropping out of cram school. He frequents an arcade that is robbed after hours by two boys his age who live off petty theft. In a fit of road rage, one of the thieves breaks Hsiao-Kang’s father’s side view mirror and sets off at high speed on his motorcycle, with his girlfriend (the track worker) in tow.

similarly, Chungking Express follows a cast of characters. The film is split into two sequential stories featuring two disparate Hong Kong couples whose lives intermingle fleetingly. Officer 223 roams the city buying cans of pineapples with an expiration date on May 1, the day he hopes to get over an unrequited love. He meets a woman in a bar wearing sunglasses and a blonde wig, who is secretly a drug dealer. The next vignette introduces us to Officer 663, who is heartbroken after his relationship ended with a flight attendant girlfriend. He befriends a waiter at a local food stall he frequents. The server, unbeknownst to the officer, is in possession of an extra set of keys to his apartment, which was left behind by his ex.

Cop 663 (Tony Leung) and the server (Faye Wong) in Chungking Express.
Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

It’s worth noting that Wong and Tsai are generally not discussed comparatively, despite the complementary nature of these specific films. (Tsai is often characterized as an experimental author, mentioned in line with Taiwanese contemporaries such as Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien; meanwhile, Wong has achieved a level of success in the industry that grants his work wider international recognition.)

Wong tends to romanticize his characters, weaving dreamy, music-laden interludes into his daily activities. On the contrary, there is little glamor in the lives of Tsai’s protagonists. Thieves inhabit perpetually flooded and damaged apartments. They hang out in Internet cafes, arcades, and cheap motels, and get drunk frequently. They spend their nights committing acts of debauchery and theft to survive.

Neon God Rebels is defined in Taiwan’s post-martial law in the 1990s, in which citizens were given significantly more civil liberties than before. However, Tsai’s protagonists respond with little glee to these newfound freedoms. Hsiao-Kang is clearly uninterested in attending college and seems fascinated by the lives of delinquents his age. This is perhaps an allusion to the “darker underpinnings of Taiwan’s assimilation into the global market,” noted The New Yorker’s Dennis Zhou, referring to Tsai’s interest in “drifters, idlers, and insomniacs on the fringes of the world’s supply chain.” . His use of dialogue is also sparse, highlighting the purposelessness of the characters’ behaviors and the tedium of their lives.

Chungking Express, although decidedly more aesthetic, it also carries light political overtones. Wong said the film is about Hong Kong because it “reflects the way people felt back then.” Chungking was released three years before 1997, when Hong Kong was ceded to mainland China after 156 years of British colonial rule. Critics interpreted the film’s “chaotic, confusing and…dark environment” as a commentary on the decade’s pervasive uncertainty, heightened by sudden visual shifts between blurry, slow-motion shots and facial close-ups.

rebels and Chungking are not necessarily bad omen movies. Still, there’s an underlying sense that something is wrong or a bit out of touch with these realities, even if the stakes seem relatively low. There are no supervillains or potential catastrophes to end the world. Rather, it is the encroachment of technology or globalization that increases the characters’ pervasive alienation. a scene in rebels shows the motorcycle thief and his girlfriend having sex next to a TV with pornography playing on it. It is unclear whether they are really interested in sex with each other or simply emulating what is suggested to them by the mass media. In another scene, one of the robbers asks his friend to find him a girl to hug so he can feel the heat of a woman’s body after being beaten up in the street.

Isolation and boredom in Chungking are portrayed in a more lighthearted (and arguably more romantic) way, but the unsettling mood persists. Film scholar Michael Blancato wrote that the film is representative of “a culture subject to temporal compression and telesurveillance – characteristics that define modern globalization. [Wong’s] films illustrate that the national cost of participation in a modern, global economy is affective disaffection among citizens.

It’s a little ironic, then, that scenes from Chungking Express have become so widely publicized on the internet, reaching audiences around the world that they find within these characters something to relate to. Wong’s striking photos are colorful and captivating, easy to capture in shareable content. Even when viewed out of context on a Tumblr or Instagram feed, the visual force of his photography, coupled with the muffled dialogue between the characters, delights the viewer. (Photos and clips from Wong’s films are often shared on popular film Instagram accounts, including the Criterion Channel, and some are dedicated solely to posting his work.)

While Tsai’s work is less shared than Wong’s, a similar sentiment applies. The current streaming ecosystem makes his films readily available to a mass international audience, though Tsai, who considers himself a non-commercial director, has struggled to appeal to a traditional Taiwanese audience.

Social media compresses his old works into something consumable and relatable for a Western audience, occasionally eliminating the film’s naturalistic cadence. (rebels is noticeably slower than Chungking, with Tsai purposefully focusing on characters doing “normal” things, like walking around or lying in their apartments.) Still, there’s something poetic about this digital transfiguration. Thanks to the popularity of streaming services, Neon God Rebels and Chungking Express, two separate films about alienation in urban spaces, can be watched alone in the privacy of home. As lonely as this may seem, I find it comforting; there is a sense of community within the individual experience of rediscovering cult classics that so deeply reflect how isolating life is, no matter how connected we seem to other people.

Neon God Rebels is available for broadcast on main video. Chungking Express it’s on HBO Max. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the A good thing files.

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