Wong Kar Wai is the famous auteur of dreamy Asian films supported by striking imagery, colors, and masterful camerawork. His version of Hong Kong has been framed with his signature visual treats of non-linear camera cuts and thematic rich colors. But what really sets his films apart from other Hong Kong filmmakers is his usage of music that sets the mood for each frame and explores the feelings and relationships between his film characters.
In the Mood for Music
Perhaps the next film auteur you can compare Wong to is Quentin Tarantino, who also is a brilliant curator on picking music for his films. Wong is a master at setting the tone and mood for each scene with the perfect song. He uses old classical jazz from Billie Holiday in ‘Chungking Express’ to Latin music in ‘Days of Being Wild.’
Wong’s Affair with Latin America
Although Wong's music selection for his movies is diverse and Western-influenced – from the Mamas & the Papas (Chungking Express in 1994) to Laurie Anderson (Fallen Angles in 1995) to Frank Zappa (Happy Together in 1997), it is his passion for Latin American music that illuminates most of his most memorable movies and cinematic scenes.
His love for Latin American Music has a connection with his childhood. Wong was only five when he followed his parents from Shanghai to Hong Kong. He seldom saw his father, who was a sailor and frequently away for work. His mother took care of his cultural education and brought him to the cinema and lunches at Western restaurants. These joints were often playing Latin American music, imported via the Philippines to Hong Kong.
Rumbas, Congas and Tangos
Wong has shared in interviews how songs he heard from his childhood has shaped his period movies. No wonder his first breakthrough artistic outing ‘Days of Being Wild’ featured these songs, as Wong used his childhood influences to unearth the protagonist’s childhood. Played by Leslie Cheung, Yuddy is a spoilt twenty-something brat raised by an affluent aunt played by Rebecca Pan, who has kept his mother’s identity a secret lest he abandons her. The film’s mood is set by tunes from Xavier Cugat and Los Indios Tabajaras with its loose and free-spirited architecture.
Wong’s film characters are surrounded by others but yet throb with loneliness. While mambo plays in the background, Yuddy’s longing for his mother is tainted with a sense of restlessness. He finally finds out his mother lives in the Philippines, but she refused to see him. Drunk and disheveled, Yuddy plays Cugat’s hit ‘Siboney’ before a shootout in a restaurant sends him on a final train ride into the jungle.
Music as an Escape
In Wong’s more acclaimed ‘Chungking Express’, his characters are loners who resort to music to escape to places they miss or have never visited. Faye Wong’s connection with The Mamas & the Papas’ 1965 classic ‘California Dreamin’ is used to underscore Faye’s desire to visit California. The tune allows her to create her own dreamscape when she secretly visits a police officer’s flat, which she makes a habit of cleaning and redecorating while he is away.
Wong has claimed that his soundtracks are all selected during pre-production and the tunes become the references for his films’ overall mood. This is clearly evident in his romantic film ‘In the Mood for Love’. Wong played Shigeru Umebayashi’s ‘Yumeji Theme’ during the shoot so that the cast could bathe in the waltz’s atmosphere and inform Christopher Doyle and Mark Li Ping Bing’s camerawork.
The result is a film where the sounds and visuals coexist in a spellbound symbiosis. Every movement, tracking shot, and pan are synched to Umebayashi’s strings that the visuals seemed to grow out of the film’s music.
Learning music is not restricted to those interested in music. It is also a great tool for aspiring film directors for some of the best film auteurs like Wong, pace their movies with the music they love.