One good thing: two Asian films from the 90s that capture the loneliness of modern life

Years before watching my first film by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, I came across a bunch of snapshots on Tumblr from his 1994 movie. Chongqing Express. I re-blog the images on my blog without any prior knowledge of them, based solely on the aesthetics of the movie. One of its protagonists, the handsome boy Takeshi Kaneshiro, is featured in the photos, holding a wired phone to his left ear with a frosty look. Below it, the translation text was: “The password is ‘I have loved you for 10,000 years’.”

This quirky romantic line of dialogue is among a few of the recognizable Wong Kar-Wai scenes that, years later, often show up on my social media channels. Still images like these have helped spark recent internet intrigue toward a particular kind of East Asian cinema and the (mainly male) directors who make up this category. Although the average American moviegoer doesn’t seem to have a huge appetite for foreign films, a subset of Western viewers seem to be more receptive to East Asian action — at least according to Social media.

Also in recent years, more and more Asian American directors are producing films that pay tribute to the artistic style of influential East Asian works. One of the many universes in Everything everywhere at onceFor example, he was heavily inspired by Wong’s in the mood for love, a movie about two beautiful people who yearn quietly, but never act on their unrequited love. (Various posts have gone viral on Twitter due to the offer of the two works) stylistic parallels.) Alan Yang tiger tailreleased on Netflix in 2020, Try to emulate the sprawling domestic drama of Edward Yang’s film through an expansive, multi-generational story.

There are many great directors from East Asia, but I have recently found myself drawn to the incredible work of two Sinophone directors: Wong Kar-wai and his less-discussed Taiwanese contemporary, Tsai Ming Liang. Two of their first feature films, though produced more than two decades ago, capture the bleak moods of life in 2022. Their overall vibe is, so to speak, drenched in bleak idleness, featuring characters so close, yet still far away. Always about the inner life of others.

Tsai feature for the first time in 1992 Rebels of Neon God and Wong’s 1994 Chongqing Express Both chronicles the lives of wayward urban youth growing up during an economically prosperous but politically unstable period. Screened in Hong Kong and Taiwan respectively, and released within a few years of each other, the films hint at the looming forces of globalization and the new political hierarchies that began at the turn of the century. These films also address themes that resonate with audiences affected by the epidemic: alienation, nostalgia, longing, unfulfilled romance, and boredom with current events. And despite their previous social media presence, both Tsai and Wong were able to capture the loneliness of modern relationships.

Tsai Rebels of Neon God Divided into two parallel stories in which four young city dwellers – petty thieves, a student, and an ice-skating disco employee – their lives intertwine slightly in strange and unexpected ways.. Hsiao Kang, a disgruntled high school student, is in trouble with his parents for dropping out of high school. He visits a gymnasium that is burgled hours later by two boys his age who make a living off petty theft. In a fit of random road rage, a thief smashed Hsiao Kang’s father’s side view mirror and sped off on his motorcycle, being dragged by a girlfriend (skating rink employee).

similarly, Chongqing Express Follows a group of characters. The film is divided into two successive stories featuring a disparate Hong Kong couple, whose lives overlap in passing. Cop 223 tirelessly roams around town to buy cans of pineapple with an expiration date on May 1, the day he expects to conquer an unrequited love. He meets a woman in sunglasses and a blonde wig, who is secretly engaged in drug dealing. The following vignette introduces Police Officer 663, who is grieving after the end of his relationship with his host girlfriend. He befriends a server at a local food stall he frequents. The servant, unbeknownst to the policeman, is in possession of an additional set of keys to his apartment, which he left his ex-wife.

Policeman 663 (Tony Leung) and servant (Faye Wong) in Chongqing Express.
Courtesy of Standards Group

It should be noted that Wong and Tsai are not usually discussed in relative terms despite the complementary nature of these specific films. (Tsai is often described as an empirical author, mentioned in line with Taiwanese contemporaries such as Edward Yang and Hu Hsiao-hsin; meanwhile, Wong has achieved a level of industrial success that gives his work broader international recognition.)

Wong tends to romanticize his characters, interspersing dreamy, music-filled interludes in their daily activities. On the contrary, there is very little sparkle in the life of Tsai’s heroes. Thieves inhabit flooded apartments permanently. They wander around Internet cafes, arcades, and cheap motels, and get drunk a lot. They spend their nights committing acts of debauchery and theft to get rid of them.

Rebels of Neon God Set in Taiwan after martial law in the 1990s, citizens were granted far more civil liberties than before. However, Tsai’s heroes respond with a bit of joy to these newfound freedoms. Hsiao Kang is clearly not interested in attending college, and seems fascinated by the life of a delinquent at his age. Perhaps this is a reference to “the darker underpinnings of Taiwan’s assimilation into the global marketplace,” New York’s Dennis Chu noted, referring to Tsai’s interest in “the drifters, the unemployed, and the insomniacs on the fringes of the global supply chain.” His use of dialogue is also insufficient, highlighting the aimlessness of the characters’ behaviors and the boredom of their lives.

Chongqing Express, While it is certainly more aesthetic, it also carries slight political undertones. Wong said the film is about Hong Kong in terms of “reflecting the way people felt at the time.” Chongqing He 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…unobvious environmental setting” as a comment on the decade’s pervasive uncertainty, heightened by sudden visual transitions between blurry, slow-motion shots and close-ups of the face.

the rebels And the Chongqing Not necessarily alarming movies. However, there is a basic feeling that something is wrong or slightly off from these facts, even though the stakes appear to be relatively low. There are no super villains or potential catastrophes ending in the world that must be stopped. Instead, it is the encroachment of technology or globalization that adds to the rampant alienation of characters. one scene in the rebels A motorcycle thief and his girlfriend are shown having sex next to a TV with a porn show on it. It is unclear if they are really interested in having sex with each other or simply mimicking what has been suggested to them through the media. In another scene, a thief asks his friend to find a girl to hug him so that he can feel the warmth of the woman’s body after being beaten in the street.

Isolation and boredom Chongqing It was portrayed in a more subtle (and arguably more romantic) way, but the nagging mood persisted. Film scholar Michael Blancato writes that the film represents “a culture under temporal pressure and remote surveillance—the characteristics that define modern day globalization.” [Wong’s] The films illustrate that the national cost of participating in a modern global economy is emotional discontent among citizens.”

It’s a little ironic, then, that those scenes from Chongqing Express It has become widespread on the Internet, reaching audiences all over the world who are discovering within these characters something about themselves. Wong’s featured shots are colorful and captivating, and they’re easy to capture and turn into shareable content. Even when seen out of context in a Tumblr feed or Instagram, the visual power of his cinematography, along with the muted dialogue between the characters, charms the viewer. (Stills and clips from Wong’s films are often shared on popular film Instagram accounts including the Criterion channel, some of which are solely dedicated to publishing his work.)

While Tsai’s work is less involved than Wong’s, the same sentiments apply. The current streaming ecosystem makes his films readily available to a wide international audience, although Tsai, who considers himself a non-commercial director, has struggled to attract a major Taiwanese audience.

Social media compresses their old work into something consumable and close to a Western audience, sometimes stripping the film’s natural rhythm. (the rebels noticeably slower than Chongqing, where Tsai purposely dwells on characters doing “normal” things, like walking around or lying around their apartments.) There is, however, something poetic about this digital transformation. Thanks to the popularity of streaming services, Rebels of Neon God And the Chongqing Express, two distinct films about alienation within urban spaces that can be watched alone in the privacy of the home. As lonely as that may sound, I find it comforting; There is a sense of collective within the individual experience of rediscovering cult classics that strongly reflect how isolated life is, no matter how closely we relate to others.

Rebels of Neon God Available to stream it Prime video. Chongqing Express running HBO Max. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out one good thing Archives.

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