Travel and Culture in the Films of Wong Kar-Wai


Globalization has placed most regions on the global map regarding art, culture and entertainment. According to Wong and McDonogh in their book, Global Hong Kong, Hong Kong is a depicted as a center of the flow of global capital as well as trade with the region being painted as an archetypal place that is at the intersection of the West and the East. Hong Kong cultural prowess and power have also become evident in the recent past with the transfer of the country’s popular culture through the film industry (McDonogh and Wong). Wong and McDonogh focus on Hong Kong regarding its transnationalism, globalization and postcoloniality as they explore the new culture and the transformations that have taken place in the contemporary Hong Kong. This paper does an analysis of two contemporary films in Hong Kong; In the Mood for Love and Chunking Express by applying the opinions and arguments of writers who have explored the Hong Kong film industry. The paper argues that more films not necessarily by Wong Kar-Wai need to be done so as to give an aesthetic value of the films which will orchestrate their vectors as related the global dynamism. The paper will make a conclusion characteristic of Wong Kar-Wai films by highlighting the status of the territory as both neocolonial and postcolonial and also demarcating the territorial identity and framing the global culture.

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In the film, In the Mood for love, Wong Kar-Wai gets back to a Hong-Kong setting while also making an exploration of the boundaries regarding regional identification. The film is set in the 1960s and is gives the story of an awkward friendship which grows between two neighbors who their partners are in an affair. The neighbors, Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow, begin to follow up and understand how their spouses began the affair and in the process start to fall in love themselves (Cameron). This raises fear and suspicion amongst their neighbors on their friendship which gives them much pressure and forces them apart, but they still cross paths several times in the subsequent years. Mr. Chow later finds himself in Cambodia during a state visit, and while he was aimlessly walking around the ruins of the Angkor Wat temple, he whispers into an old stone wall what seems to be a secret he had been keeping.

In the Mood for Love has a formula for narration depicting a love between a couple which is pitted against the society. The movie also borrows from the nostalgia film genre of the U.S which makes an approach of the past in style rather than by applying history. In the Mood for Love pushes the history to the margins and foregrounds the details of period exemplified by scenes such as the brilliantined hair of Mr. Chow and the printed dresses of Mrs. Chan (Cameron). The film depicts an intrusion of history into the character’s worlds especially the romance while making a nostalgic representation of the past. There is a recreation of the past in a manner likely to juxtapose the everyday life which creates suspense through ellipsis.

In his examination of In the Mood for Love, Teo points out the importance of references in Chinese especially in the deployment of nostalgia and melodrama. Teo gives an example of a film known as Spring in a Small City as a genre that is found in the mainland Chinese film industry (Teo). The film gives a story of sacrificing time to be with her ailing husband rather than her former lover. The film just like In the Mood for Love makes an emphasis on restraint and quality of honor. In the Mood for Love has a nostalgic evocation of the culture of the West, which equals the profusion of the references from China, which dates back to the early periods of the 1940s which recalls the various glories of Chinese cities by making reference to music and fashion.

At the same time, the movie has a claustrophobic atmosphere which can only be tracked back to the soap operas of the 1960s in Hong Kong, which had the main focus on housing problems and families which live under the same roof (Teo). The film has several connections with the Chinese literature especially excerpts from Chinese novella by Liu Yichang written in 1972. The novella talks about two strangers who are brought together by city life which is a depiction of many films produced by Wong Kar-Wai (Abbas). Wong has also applied several antecedents from Chinese literature such as his film of Ashes of Time which borrows largely from The Eagle-Shooting Heroes by Jin Yong, a martial arts literary piece. The film In the Mood for love has an elevated consciousness of the relationship of Hong Kong and the regions that border it.

In the Mood for Love makes a foreground of the cultures of China in a direct manner than most of other Hong Kong movies and this can be related to new transnational Chinese cultures which are a way of identification that makes a blur of the boundaries that exist between locals and the global environment while still retaining the focus within the region (Cameron). The film does an exploration of the regional spaces that exist in Asia and it does this by referring beyond China to Japan. On the same note, the characters also physically travel past Hong Kong while visiting Singapore and Cambodia where Mr. Chow accepts a job and visits Angkor Wat ruins respectively. The ending of the film is quite melancholic with Mr. Chow aimlessly walking while making reflections among the ruins.

One can easily argue that Wong Kar-Wai made an alteration with the nostalgia film since after the lovers had parted ways; there came a series of meetings which was followed by a sojourn of Mr. Chow to Cambodia. In this specific scene, there is a depiction of footage of De Gaulle’s visit to Cambodia and later shows Mr. Cow wandering among the ruins while whispering a secret into the stone. The ending of the film has tracking shots shown in the ruins with Chow not being seen. There is uncertainty in the ultimate fate of the characters as much as there is no hope of re-uniting the lovers or re-igniting the romance between them (Bordwell). Furthermore, even the characters themselves seems to have disappeared in comparison to Les Parapluies de Cherbourg film which ends in an agonizing conclusion between two lovers with the onscreen union giving a sense of the characters belonging together. There is a specific sadness in In the Mood for Love during the separation of Mr. Cow and Mrs. Chan, but there is an ultimate turning back on characters which leads to nothing transcendent within the relationship that is of importance.

Another film that gives a cultural view of Hong Kong is Chunking Express, which has a blend of romance, comedy and film noir while giving two adjacent tales. The film follows a cop commonly referred to as ‘Cop 223’ who has been dumped by his girlfriend. The twist in the film is depicted when the cop spends a platonic evening with a woman who is a drug trafficker. The other tale within the film depicts another plainclothes cop officer 663 who has developed a habit of talking to household objects with no life (Abbas). The cop also does not realize that a cashier at his favorite takeaway bar has fallen in love with him. He does not notice that she would break into his apartment regularly and clean the house until he finally catches and the two agreeing to a date. The cashier leaves the town for California and returns after one year to give him a ‘boarding nap’ which has a paper napkin.

The film just like many of Wong Kar-Wai films makes an emphasis on international travel with the characters often in a traveling or about to leave for another nation. It also has a constant recurring imagery of airplanes, airports, air hostesses and passports (Cameron). Besides the physical movement across nations, there is also an emphasis on the cultural mobility that moves across the countries in the process of traveling. There is an active portrayal of ideas of identity within the film through investing in foreign materials of culture. There is a close correlation between the international and intercultural trajectories and can be regarded within the context of the formation of identity.

There is also a display of various foreign cultural references within Chunking Express as much as it is grounded in the mainstream Hong Kong cinema context in the genres of action, romance, and comedy. The tone of the film is predominated by the modernist artistic cinema of Japanese and European with a specific disregard for the structure of the plot as well as frequent interludes of music and emphasis of the piecemeal structure of the film which reveals the affinity of Wong to the writers from South America particularly Manuel Puig and Gabriel Marquez. Similar to the novels and short stories of Haruki Murakami, the film Chunking Express also has references from pop culture and has a feature of the ordinary folks which passes as mundane and absurd (Cameron). An example is the obsession of Cop 223 with pineapple cans. The film also borrows from the tradition of U.S film noir with the influence being manifested in several ways such as raincoat for an unidentified woman and her persona. At the same time, there are also the two cops with confused opinions and perspectives as well as deadpan voiceovers. Other manifestations of the influence are shown in the drug running plot and the urban setting foregrounding. The film is also reminiscent of the romantic comedies set in the U.S as exemplified by the relationship between the cop 223 and his cashier lover mostly due to its tone lightness and missed connections.

Chungking Express has borrowed largely from the U.S culture as the film is filled with U.S music and commercial products. Some authors extend the emphasis on commodification to the characters in the film to the point where the characters themselves become commodities (Cameron). This is exemplified in the failed relationship of the cop 223 with his girlfriend being embodied in Del Monte cans which have seemingly expired. At the same time, there is a repetition of a song ‘California Dreaming, which is an item being consumed as well as highlighting the desire of the cashier to leave Hong Kong.


Wong Kar-Wai has been one of the most outstanding film directors in Hong Kong with most of his films receiving international accreditations on the basis of their themes and settings. He enjoys a large audience and enthusiastic reception in most Asian countries as well as the West apart from Hong Kong itself. Most of his films have been popular in foreign countries due to the tendency to borrow cultural referents from foreign countries including Japanese fiction of film noir to novels from South America. This paper analyzes two films directed by Wong including In the Mood for Love and Chunking Express by making references to various authors who have examined his work. The paper argues on the articulation of the identity of Hong Kong and the process of appropriation as well as global reception.

The two films that the paper discusses have dealt mostly with the translation of culture and travel. The films also tackle the relationship that exist between culture and travel and has a different trajectory of identification. In the mood for love is a film that largely portrays nostalgia and identification of regions. The film has a Hong Kong setting in 1960s and depicts the relationship that occurs between two neighbors whose partners are having an affair. In the Mood for Love has a formula for narration which is quite reminiscent of the melodramatic U.S films and European theatre. The film also borrows largely from the nostalgic films of the U.S which makes an approach to the past in a more stylistic manner rather than applying history. Chunking Express is also another film by Wong which blends romance, comedy and film noir while two adjacent tales. The first tale in the film tells the story of an undercover policeman who has been dumped by his girlfriend. His melancholic mood is interrupted after he interacts with a woman who is a drug trafficker. The second tale within the film follows the life of another lovelorn plainclothes officer who has developed then habit of talking to objects without life.

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