If one subject cuts across all of Wong Kar-wai’s feature films, it may well be the subject of longing. Whether searching for a new partner, occupation, or destination, Wong’s characters are frustrated by a surrounding environment that seems to promise and deny fulfillment simultaneously. Fragmented narrative design, abrupt temporal shifts, nostalgic musical cues, and off-center compositions all contribute to a sense of loss and disempowerment, of characters at odds with the limiting demands of time and space. Scholars and critics have commonly framed the tensions between characters and their surroundings in national, cultural, and economic terms. Whether it is Hong Kong, Shanghai, New York, or Buenos Aires, the setting poses obstacles to characters who prefer to avoid conventional occupations and relationships and seek instead the freedoms associated with travel, irregular employment, and random, secret encounters. The characters’ consistent failure to realize their liberative fantasies may point either to a melancholic liberalism in Wong or perhaps even to a cautionary conservatism.
However, given one particular narrative and audiovisual motif in Wong’s films, it may be useful to frame (or re-frame) the tensions between character and environment in terms of consciousness rather than in terms of geographical, cultural, or socio-political context. What of those moments, in every Wong film, when characters are simply unconscious of space and time? Sleep, a biological necessity that serves little narrative function in commercial cinema, breaks the waking-life cycle of frustrated desire. Characters may be immobilized and oblivious to their surroundings while asleep, but the satisfaction of urges to sleep, even when caused by intoxication or narcotic side effects, appears as a welcome state.
Sleep in Wong’s cinema is at times a crucial matter of plotting or characterization. Drinking the magic wine of forgetfulness in Ashes of Time (1994), for example, puts characters in a temporary sleep state. Elsewhere, sleep functions as an action or activity that puts a character’s otherwise perpetual motion on “pause.” Significantly, sleepers are often joined by another character, who tends to be more awake than asleep. Scenes and shots that bring the waking and sleeping characters together create a tension different than that of the characters’ sense of entrapment in the spatiotemporally defined setting. The tension appears to be between the sleeping characters who have momentarily succeeded in escaping, and the waking characters, who appear self-conscious, reflective, or even frustrated by their state of wakefulness.
“Wong Kar-wai’s Sleepers” collects these moments of unconsciousness—whether experienced alone or in the company of another—from As Tears Go By (1986) to The Grandmaster (2013). Using superimposition, split screen technique, and occasional slow or fast motion, the essay puts the films in a selective synchronization. This approach combines the format of multi-film analyses like Rowena Santos Aquino’s “Dance in Wong Kar-wai’s Films” with the multi-screen design of Catherine Grant’s “INTERSECTION” (on In the Mood for Love, 2000). The films are joined and yet somewhat blurred, fluctuating in a cinematic mode of “sleep/wake.”
The focus on sleep departs from a consideration of dreams and dream-like visions and experiences, all of which in Wong’s cinema are defining characteristics of the waking world. Day-dreaming characters are either acutely aware of the boundedness of their waking life, or else, like Faye (Faye Wong) in Chungking Express (1994), they simply deny that the waking world is anything but a dream.
The significance of sleep in cinema has not, to date, received much critical or scholarly attention. Art historian Jonathan Crary has argued that the “profound uselessness and intrinsic passivity” of sleep is directly opposed to “the demands of a 24/7 universe.” “Sleep,” he writes, “is an uncompromising interruption of the theft of time from us by capitalism.” Such a concept of sleep may apply to cinematic works, especially those identified as “slow cinema”—films directed by, among others, Andrei Tarkovsky, Chantal Akerman, and Chris Marker. Song Hwee Lim has studied sleep in Tsai Ming-Liang films as “an extreme form of diegetic (in)action,” showing subjects and objects “trespass[ing] various boundaries.”
Individually, the sleep scenes in Wong’s films may not appear to serve the anti-late-capitalist functions of slow cinema—or “contemporary contemplative cinema,” as Harry Tuttle defines it. Wong’s films narrativize sleep according to cinematic convention, as a brief inactive state. The pace may slacken momentarily to focus on the sleeping subject, but the audience does not drift along with the characters to the point of contemplation. It is rather the frequency and consistency of sleep patterns across Wong’s films, and not their contemplative duration, that distinguishes Wong, in that regard, from works designated as “slow cinema.”
“Wong Kar-wai’s Sleepers,” however, attempts to frame conventionalized sleep patterns in Wong’s films as contemplative. By isolating brief moments of genuine escape, the video aims to place Wong’s characters in a heretofore unexamined position: the fulfilling state of unconsciousness.
1. In English language criticism, three early book-length studies established the “environment” of Wong’s films as contemporary (1990s, pre-handover) Hong Kong: Lisa Odham Stokes & Michael Hoover’s City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema (London: Verso, 1999); The Cinema of Hong Kong: History, Arts, Identity (eds. Poshek Fu & David Desser, Cambridge University Press, 2000); and David Bordwell’s Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000). Subsequent scholarship and analysis of Wong’s films have largely, though not entirely, adhered to this regional/cultural approach, with Hong Kong (and Wong himself) exemplifying broader trends in globalization and late capitalism.
2. Rowena Santos Aquino, “Dance in Wong Kar-wai’s films (2016),” FilmStillLives, Vimeo, 14:22, https://vimeo.com/363152283. Catherine Grant, “INTERSECTION,” Vimeo, 3:02, February 2014, https://vimeo.com/89239589.
3. Tsung-yi Michelle Huang, for instance, has characterized the Hong Kong of Chungking Express as “a space of fantasy for its walkers to inscribe their own desires and dreams.” Huang, Walking Between Slums and Skyscrapers: Illusions of Open Space in Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Shanghai (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2004), 32.
4. The 2018 conference of the Society of Cinema and Media Studies featured a panel titled “Sleeping, through the Image,” with participants Jennifer Fay, James McFarland, Kimberly Icreverzi, Jean Ma, and Jacques Khalip, which promises some current and future work in this area. Ma has previously argued that Wong presents characters who “nearly project themselves out of the present moment by the force of their longing.” The “nearly” suggests that the characters cannot entirely escape their present, which is an apt description of their waking lives. Ma, Melancholy Drift: Marking Time in Chinese Cinema (Hong Kong University Press, 2010), 125.
5. Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London: Verso, 2013), 10.
7. Song Hwee Lim, Tsai Ming-Liang and a Cinema of Slowness (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2014), 106, 115.
8. See Harry Tuttle, “Slow films, easy life,” Unspoken Cinema, May 12, 2010, http://unspokencinema.blogspot.com/2010/05/slow-films-easy-life-sight.html.
Ken Provencher teaches film and media studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. His work focuses on the transnational Hollywood industry, especially in relation to East Asian media industries and popular cultures. He is the co-editor of Exploiting East Asian Cinemas (Bloomsbury, 2018), and has previously published in The Companion to Wong Kar-wai (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016), The Quarterly Review of Film and Video, The Velvet Light Trap, and Film Quarterly.
Jiro Plutschow is Associate Professor of Sound Design in the Department of Media Studies at Josai International University, Japan. A composer and musical engineer specializing in jazz, Latin, and 20th century classical, Plutschow has previously worked as conductor, guest performer, and backup artist in Asia, America, and Europe.