Towards a Postmodern Avant-Garde: The Temporality of the Refrain in Three Films of Wong Kar-Wai

By Crompton, Nils | Metro Magazine, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Towards a Postmodern Avant-Garde: The Temporality of the Refrain in Three Films of Wong Kar-Wai


Crompton, Nils, Metro Magazine


IN ASHES OF TIME (Wong Kar-wai, 1994, hereafter Ashes), Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar-wai, 1990, hereafter Days) and In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000, hereafter Mood), a form of temporality is crystallized in the use of musical refrains--in the Deleuzio-Guattarian sense. (1) These refrains are indicative of a broader temporal mode that Adrian Martin calls an aesthetic of repetition. (2) The refrain disrupts the naturalization of historicist narratives, the deterministic cause-effect logic in the linear narratives of commercial genre traditions such as the exotic romance (Mood), the martial arts movie (Ashes) and the young rebel film (Days). My broader point then, is that through the temporality of the refrain, these films trace an avant-garde impulse within postmodernism in general. (3)

As Asian films, Days, Ashes and Mood can and do speak to western post-structural theories of temporality. This paper is written primarily in the context of the enormous international influence of Hong Kong cinema and the politics of this absorption into both western arthouse and Hollywood commercial industries. It is precisely this reterritorialization of cultural/temporal spaces I wish to investigate in these films through the temporality of the refrain.

A notion of divergent and multiple modernities is also of crucial importance to this project in regards to its incorporation of non-western film in discussion of the broader field of (post)modernity(s). Audrey Yue engenders this approach in her reading of Mood in terms of the intersections of Hong Kong modernity with mainland China; she argues that 'the regionality of Shanghai rendered in the [Hong Kong] film complicates the chronology and shows the incommensurability of Chinese cultural history: the film functions as an axis of divergence revealing a Hong Kong modernity also shaped by the social imagination of Shanghai'. (4)

This paper departs from predominant readings of Wong Kar-wai's early films as allegories for the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from British colonial rule to Mainland China governance. See, for example, Stephen Teo's characteristic historical analysis of second wave Hong Kong cinema, which describes Days as 'a highly personal "chamber" film that is both nostalgic and contemporary, presenting lost youths as an allegory for the plight of Hong Kong people as they prepare for the transition to 1997'. (5)

Such a departure is prefigured in Ackbar Abbas' reading of Wong Kar-wai's early films through their culture of disappearance,

   a sense of the elusiveness, the slipperiness,
   the ambivalences of Hong Kong's
   cultural space that some Hong Kong
   filmmakers have caught in their use of
   the film medium, in their explorations of
   history and memory, in their excavation of
   the evocative detail--regardless of subject
   matter. [emphasis in original] (6)

The temporality of the refrain is clearly one such 'excavation of evocative detail'. Abbas moves toward a reading of the cultural space of Hong Kong that is not founded on positive national terms, rather he suggests the films 'go beyond allegory to challenge the definition of Hong Kong culture itself by questioning and dismantling the way we look at things'. (7) Days, Mood and Ashes then, are not read as expressions of a national identity and modernity (temporality) but as problematizations of the construction of these very narratives in general.

It is problematic, then, to limit a reading of Mood, Ashes and Days exclusively to discussions of Hong Kong cinema. Such an approach risks essentializing the films as expressionist products of a unified geography. Rey Chow, in a paper on Happy Together (Wong Kar-wai, 1997), sees a

   tendency, whenever a non-Western work
   is being analysed, to affix to it a kind of
   reflectionist value by way of geopolitical
   realism--so that a film made in Hong Kong
   around 1997, for instance, would invariably
   be approached as having something to
   do with the factographic 'reality' of Hong
   Kong's return to the People's Republic of
   China. … 

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