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Chungking Express Micro analysis and Wong’s Auteurship

November 29, 2010

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Chungking Express

Revisited

On its release in the UK in 1995, Chungking Express was described in Sight & Sound by Tony Rayns as:

 

… a director’s film. The level of invention in the plotting and the film language is almost profligate and the wit of the writing leaves the average Tarantino dialogue sounding like sitcom filler.

(1995, p48)

The techniques used in Hong Kong films seem to be far more overt than in most Hollywood films. In the case of Chungking Express, the film draws attention to itself through the use of: – jump cuts – hand-held camera – stop-motion photography

At A2 level, you are expected to have an in-depth knowledge of the film. This should reflect its production and audience context, as well as its textual properties. You should be able to use appropriate terminology with reference to the film as evidence.

KEY TERMS FOR TEXTUAL ANALYSIS

Cinematography

Editing

Sound

Mise-en-scène

 

CINEMATOGRAPHY

In his book The Language of Cinema, Kevin Jackson offers the definition of the work of the cinematographer as:

… the person in charge (generally after consultation with the director) of lighting the set and actors; setting up and moving the camera; selecting appropriate lenses, stocks, filters; establishing the composition of images and so on; in general, then, the person who helps create what can loosely be called the ‘look’ of a film, its visual identity. (1998, p.48)

This definition clearly affects the concept of ‘authorship’. A director often works collaboratively with a cinematographer, editor or producer over a number of films.

For example, Martin Scorsese has had a long-term collaboration with his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, and she has contributed to his auteur signature, through developing a distinctive style and look.

Similarly, the tensions present in Alfred Hitchcock’s working relationship with producer David O Selznick while working in Hollywood had a marked effect on the outcome of his films and, by extension, his auteur status.

EDITING

By controlling time and space within the film narrative, editing plays a central role in constructing the film in its final form. Continuity editing often creates the illusion of a seamless transition over time and locations. Editing enables scenes to be constructed so that they make sense to the viewer. It can also control the positioning of the viewer in relation to characters through, for example, point-of-view shots.

More experimental forms of editing have been linked with Art cinema. For example, an Art film may employ an editing style that disorients the viewer, subverting the process of ‘becoming lost ‘ in the narrative by interrupting conventional narrative flow.

While continuity editing makes the construction of the film invisible, allowing the viewer to focus on the narrative, some filmmakers may choose to draw attention to the film as a constructed text, consciously highlighting the editing process through style and technique.

This kind of editing is a trademark of New Wave films, although experiments with editing date back to the earliest days of filmmaking. The Russian director, Sergei Eisenstein, famously experimented with editing in his films, including The Battleship Potemkin (1925, Russia), to create a special effect and to enhance the impact of key sequences, notably the Odessa Steps montage sequence. In this example, the jarring effect of jump cuts and the juxtaposition of shots contribute to the creation of meaning in the film – drawing to the subject matter.

Increasingly, mainstream films have employed a more obviously constructed style of editing, with the use of dissolves and jump cuts becoming acceptable devices to manipulate time and space.

Cross-cutting

This is used as a means of creating a sense of the narrative event ‘meanwhile’ in a film. It is usually apparent that this is happening and easy for us to make the connection in out minds.

Yet in the case of Chungking Express, the cross-cutting at the beginning of the film gives us little sense of a connection between the characters and events that we see.

This seems to act as a metaphor for the lives of the characters within the narrative and enables us to interpret the film quite differently viewings.

JUMP CUTS

An intentionally visible form of editing used as a stylistic device, the jump cut can be compared with the use of continuity editing as a narrative device. It was most famously used in Jun-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle (1960, France) and is common feature of New Wave films, as well as music videos. Rather than disorientating the viewer, it is now almost a convention, in the sense that it epitomises New Wave films.

SOUND: there are 2 basic elements to sound on screen:

Diegetic sound emanates from within the world of the film. This may include ‘visible’ sound such as the dialogue between characters. Sound which is not ‘seen’ but still belongs within the frame, such as off-screen footsteps, or a radio playing within the scene is still diegetic

Non-diegetic sound is added post-production, such as a soundtrack or a voiceover.

It can be useful to select an extract from the film and view it with the sound muted. What expressive devices are now being revealed, in the absence of sound? Editing, cinematography and other aspects of form are now more obvious.

Soundtracks can also act as a narrative device (as in the anti-police song in Kassovitz’s La Haine). Chungking Express uses American popular songs to signpost a recurring theme and to connect with a contemporary audience.

MISE-EN-SCÈNE

Lighting

Setting and props

Positioning of actors/characters and objects

Facial expressions and body language

Costume, hair and make-up

Mise-en-scène is often a defining trademark of a director, but it is also the result of the contribution by a number of people in addition to the director: the art director, set designer, costume designer, lighting director, editor, etc.

In Chungking Express, the New Wave look is largely attributed to its director, but how have others contributed to it, e.g. the cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, and set designer, William Chang? Despite these contributions, how does mise-en-scène remain a defining feature of Wong Kar-Wai’s directorial style?

WONG KAR-WAI AND AUTEURSHIP

An auteur’s body of films will have defining moments which mark this director as distinctive. There will be a consistency in style, themes and approach. They will be more likely to be motivated by the expression of a personal vision rather than fulfilling the needs of a production company.

Useful to the analysis of a director’s auteur status is knowledge of the production circumstances in which they work. What kind of financial constraints, for example, does the director have to work within? Is he or she in control of any creative or financial aspects of their filmmaking, for example, by writing the screenplay or acting as a producer?

So, to what extent is Wong Kar-Wai an auteur? His work is sometimes compared to the early films of Jean-Luc Godard, in particular Chungking Express with A Bout de Souffle. Wong Kar-Wai also operates outside the mainstream film system, at the art-house, low-budget end of the market.

He was one of the first directors to establish an independent production company (Jet Tone), an unusual move for a Hong Kong director. One way he sustains his company is by pre-selling his projects in those markets where his name and those of his stars are considered bankable.

Another way he retains independence is to make commercials, although this may imply a compromise in terms of his auteur status. However, Alfred Hitchcock had to work in the Hollywood studio system to gain financial backing, at the cost of more artistic constraint – a compromise from which, many argue, emerged some of his most highly regarded work.

Directors who work independently face the problem of attracting foreign investors who may impose constraints as a condition for backing the film, by insisting on a genre, star and general bankability. They will also wish to see a script.

This is difficult in the case of Wong Kar-Wai, as he resists the preparation of detailed scripts in advance of shooting. His method, instead, is to write fairly detailed outlines, retaining the option of deviating from them during production, so the film can grow organically.

This may contribute to the look of Chungking Express, which took just three months to make, from shooting to première. Its unscripted style might be seen as an auteurist feature.

A further auteurist feature in Wong Kar-Wai’s work is that, although his films appear quite different in terms of content, similarities can be found across them.

Tony Rayns (1995) has identified some of these factors as:

A reluctance to work within a genre format, something that limits a popular audience for his films in Hong Kong. (His box-office performance there is erratic);

The casting of indigenous stars against type or in unusual roles (they are apparently very keen to work with him);

Unpredictability in terms of what the next film may be like; Chungking Express was made between Days of Being Wild (1991, Hong Kong) and Ashes of Time (1994, Hong Kong/China/Taiwan), and yet it would be difficult to place this film alongside the other two;

Similarities in terms of the themes in his films; all characters experience loneliness, insecurity and the inability to commit (as identified by Wong Kar-Wai himself);

The ultimate test of an auteur – imitation or influence. As Wong Kar-Wai has acknowledged, ‘Too many directors are “doing” Wong Kar-Wai these days, so I have to do something different.’ (The director in an interview with Tony Rayns, Jan 2000)

 

 

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