Years before watching my first film by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, I came across a collection of stills from his 1994 film on Tumblr. Chung King Express. I reblogged the footage to my blog without any prior knowledge, based solely on the aesthetics of the film. The footage featured one of its protagonists, a handsome boy Takeshi Kaneshiro, holding a wired phone to his left ear with a listless gaze. Below him, the captions read, “The password is ‘I’ve loved you for 10,000 years’.”
This particularly romantic line of dialogue is one of a handful of recognizable Wong Kar-Wai scenes that, years later, appear frequently on my social media feeds. Stills like these have helped spark a modern online intrigue towards a certain genre of East Asian cinema and the (mostly male) directors who make up this category. Even though the average American moviegoer doesn’t seem to have much of an appetite for foreign films, a subset of Western viewers seem to be more receptive to East Asian works – at least according to social media.
Also in recent years, more and more Asian American directors are producing films that pay stylistic homage to influential East Asian works. One of the multiverses of Everything everywhere all at oncefor example, was heavily inspired by Wong’s love mood, a film about two beautiful people who quietly yearn, but never act on their unrequited love. (Various posts on Twitter have gone viral for featuring 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, multi-generational storyline.
There are plenty of great East Asian directors, but recently I was drawn to the startling work of two Chinese-speaking filmmakers: Wong Kar-Wai and his less discussed Taiwanese contemporary, Tsai Ming-Liang. Two of their first feature films, despite being produced over two decades ago, capture the unbearably dark vibe of life in 2022. Their overall mood, so to speak, is steeped in melancholic languor, featuring characters so close, but who remain eternally distant from the inner lives of others.
Tsai’s first feature film in 1992 neon god rebels and Wong 1994 Chung King Express both chronicle the lives of wayward young urbanites coming of age during an economically prosperous but politically uncertain period. Set in Hong Kong and Taiwan respectively, the films, released a few years apart, allude to the impending forces of globalization and the new political hierarchies established at the turn of the century. These films also address themes that resonate with audiences affected by the pandemic: alienation, nostalgia, nostalgia, unfulfilled romance and a sense of boredom with current events. And despite predating social media, Tsai and Wong both manage to presciently capture the loneliness in modern relationships.
by Tsai neon god rebels is divided into two parallel storylines featuring four young townspeople – two petty thieves, a student and a roller disco rink employee – whose lives slightly overlap in strange and unexpected ways. Hsiao-Kang, a disgruntled high school student, gets in trouble with his parents for dropping out of elementary school. He frequents an arcade that gets robbed after hours by two boys his age who live off petty theft. In a fit of road rage, one of the thieves smashes Hsiao-Kang’s father’s rearview mirror and speeds up on his motorcycle, his girlfriend (the rink employee) in tow.
In the same way, Chung King Express follows a set of characters. The film is divided into two sequential storylines featuring two disparate couples from Hong Kong, whose lives fleetingly intertwine. Cop 223 casually wanders the city buying cans of pineapples with an expiration date of May 1, the day he hopes to recover from 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 cop 663, who is heartbroken after his relationship with a flight attendant girlfriend ends. He befriends a waiter at a local food stand he frequents. The waiter, unbeknownst to the cop, is in possession of a spare set of keys to his apartment, left behind by his ex.
It’s worth noting that Wong and Tsai aren’t usually discussed comparatively despite the complementary nature of these specific films. (Tsai is often characterized as an experimental author, mentioned in the lineage of Taiwanese contemporaries like Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien; during this time, Wong achieved a level of success in the industry that gave his work greater international recognition. wide.)
Wong tends to romanticize his characters, weaving dreamy, music-laden interludes into their day-to-day activities. There is, on the contrary, little glamor in the lives of Tsai’s protagonists. The thieves live in perpetually flooded and damaged apartments. They hang out in internet cafes, gambling halls and cheap motels and often get drunk. They spend their nights committing acts of debauchery and theft to get by.
neon god rebels is set in Taiwan after martial law in the 1990s, where citizens enjoyed far more civil liberties than before. Yet Tsai’s protagonists respond with little joy to these new freedoms. Hsiao-Kang is clearly disinterested in going to college and seems fascinated by the lives of delinquents his age. It may be an allusion to the “darker underpinnings of Taiwan’s assimilation into the global market,” observed Dennis Zhou of The New Yorker, referring to Tsai’s interest in “the wanderers, the idlers and the insomniacs. at the edge of the global supply chain”. His use of dialogue is also restrained, emphasizing the pointlessness of the characters’ behaviors and the boredom of their lives.
Chung King Express, while decidedly more aesthetic, it also carries slight political undertones. Wong said the film is about Hong Kong in that it “reflects how people felt at that time”. Chung King was liberated 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… unclear environmental setting” as a commentary on the decade’s pervasive uncertainty, heightened by sudden visual shifts between blurry slow-motion shots and close-up facial shots.
rebels and Chung King are not necessarily disturbing films. Still, there’s the underlying feeling that something’s either wrong or slightly off with these realities, even if the stakes seem relatively low. There are no supervillains or potential doomsday disasters to stop. Rather, it is the encroachment of technology or globalization that adds to the pervasive alienation of the characters. A scene in rebels shows the motorcycle thief and his girlfriend having sex next to a television with porn on it. It’s unclear if they’re really interested in sex with each other or just emulating what’s being suggested to them via mass media. In another scene, one of the robbers asks his friend to find him a girl to hug so he can feel the warmth of a woman’s body after being beaten on the street.
Isolation and boredom in Chung King are portrayed in a lighter (and arguably more romantic) way, but the unsettling vibe persists. Filmmaker Michael Blancato wrote that the film is representative “of a culture subject to time compression and telesurveillance – characteristics that define modern globalization. [Wong’s] the films illustrate that the national cost of participating in a modern global economy is the emotional discontent of citizens.
It’s a little ironic, then, that scenes of Chung King Express have become so widely circulated on the internet, reaching audiences around the world who discover within these characters something to identify with. Wong’s iconic photos are colorful and captivating, easy to capture in shareable content. Even seen out of context on a Tumblr or Instagram feed, the visual force of its cinematography, coupled with the muted dialogue between the characters, enchants the viewer. (Stills 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.)
Although Tsai’s work is less shared than Wong’s, a similar sentiment applies. The current streaming ecosystem makes his films easily accessible to mass international audiences, despite how Tsai, who considers himself a non-commercial director, has struggled to attract mainstream Taiwanese audiences.
Social media compresses their old works into something consumable and relatable for Western audiences, sometimes stripping away the film’s naturalistic cadence. (rebels is significantly slower than Chung King, with Tsai deliberately dwelling 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 Chung King Express, two separate films about alienation in urban spaces, can be watched alone in the privacy of one’s home. As lonely as it may seem, I find it comforting; there is a common sense in the individual experience of rediscovering cult classics that reflect so deeply how isolating life is, no matter how connected we seem to others.
neon god rebels is available to stream on First video. Chung King Express is on HBO Max. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the A good thing archives.