Yearning For a Lost Era: Cultural Identity, Nostalgia, and the Transience of Time in the Films of Ozu Yasujiro and Wong Kar-wai

If there is one question that cinema has sought to answer, it is invariably “What does it mean to be human?” Cinema then, is a quest for identity, an expression of values, ideas, and experiences informed by the past. Ozu Yasujiro and Wong Kar-wai share a refined sensibility toward what they feel defines identity, what it means to live, and express this most evocatively through an acute awareness of time’s transience, imbuing the cinematic image with a sense of nostalgia, loss, and the ephemerality of life. If man is a product of his circumstance, then we can largely understand him through his life and works. If the past informs present circumstance, then surely time informs our being. A study in identity is never a conclusive one. Hence the intention is not to come to an absolute conclusion, but to provide a platform for further discussion, all the while attempting to avoid conventional occidental analyses of ‘East Asian’ cultures and cinemas. With this in mind, the aim is to unveil why the past is so important to Ozu and Wong in the context of their respective cultural backgrounds. Only then is it possible to comprehend why they yearn for the past.

This yearning may ascribe to the feeling of nostalgia that exudes from their work. Nostalgia is a particular psychological informer of our identity, linking the past to notions of the self. Davis has observed that:

…nostalgia is a distinctive way, though only one among several ways we have, of relating our past to our present and future, it follows that nostalgia (like memory, like reminiscence, like daydreaming) is deeply implicated in the sense of who we are, what we are about, and…whither we go. In short, nostalgia is one of the mean – or, better, one of the more readily accessible psychological lenses – we employ in the never ending work of constructing, maintaining, and reconstructing our identities (1979:31).

In Japan, the past has always been an important part of contemporary identity. However, unlike individualist societies of the West which encourage individual expression and action to fulfil individual needs, Japan is a collectivist society which values subordination to hierarchy for the greater good of society. This acts as a means of upholding the status quo, conserving traditional values and customs. This is enforced by the Emperor, a highly influential political figure who is seen as a descendent of Amaterasu (the goddess of the sun) and is an embodiment of kokutai (national consciousness). He is one of the reasons why past customs and traditions are valued so highly in Japan as “the continuing existence of the old kokutai enforces the use of the past as the only authentic source for understanding the present” (Mellen 1976:7). Old customs and values continue to permeate Japanese life, in the home and society. This is true even in modern Japan, where “both traditional culture and imported Western culture coexist…in such a complicated fashion that it is difficult even for the Japanese to distinguish between them” (Sato 1982:31). Thus the importance of past tradition is part of the Japanese national character.

Ozu Yasujiro was born in Fukagawa, Tokyo, in 1903. In 1913, he moved to his ancestral hometown of Matsusaka, a city in Mie Prefecture, where he was raised primarily by his mother. He was educated at a boarding school but had no interest in studying. He would often skip classes in order to visit the local cinema to see films from all over the world, particularly Hollywood productions. These films proved to be a great form of escapism for Ozu, prompting him to enter the film industry in 1923 and later having a profound stylistic influence on his work, particularly his silent films. Starting out as an assistant cameraman at Shochiku working under Tadamoto Okubo, a director mainly working in thenansensu-mono genre (nonsense comedy films), Ozu eventually became an assistant director at the studio in 1926 after a brief military stint. By 1927, he had the opportunity to direct his first feature, Sword of Penitence.

He was born and raised in the Meiji era (1868-1912), a period emphasising the need for Japan to enter the modern world to compete with the economically prosperous countries in the West such as Great Britain, Germany and the United States. This period induced great social, political and economic change in Japan as a result of increased interaction with the West. The government introduced several land reforms such as the construction of more railroads and roads in preparation of greater trade and travel, along with educational reforms which encouraged Western thoughts and modes of practice. Thousands of Western scholars were employed to teach subjects that became crucial to the modernisation of the state, such as science and mathematics. These foreign government advisors (oyatoi gaikokujin) also provided Japan with technological advancements which were important for Japan’s modernisation.

With the death of the Meiji Emperor in 1912, the Taisho era began. Adoption of Western theories and practices continued to be highly influential in politics, science, economics, education, technology and art. If the Meiji era fostered an admiration of all things Western, then the Taisho era can be said to have fostered a wariness: a rise in thoughts to the contrary, an appreciation of all things traditional and ancestral. Perhaps it was during this era that the homogeneous identity of the Nihonjin (Japanese people) was being questioned collectively in society. Given that Japan’s interaction with the foreign was at its zenith at this point in history, cultural identity became threatened by Westernisation. Japan feared losing its own heritage. Hence, the question that dominated social discourse was: how does one embrace modernisation, with all its Western connotations, without losing tradition? Accordingly:

Artists, responsible for visualizing values, were intensely invested in the debate over the future of Japanese culture. Designers of all kinds faced a choice between adapting old forms and motifs now reified as tradition, or the new Western techniques and patterns identified with progress. Making art necessitated choosing a style, and since different styles were affiliated with either Japanese or Western modes, to make art was to make a statement about culture. (Brown and Minichiello et al. 2001:18)

The Taisho era saw Japan enter the First World War and emerge from it victorious, expanding its colonial grip across other Asian territories. Japan was now recognised as one of the most powerful industrial and military powers in the world. Despite the rise of liberal movements such as “Taisho democracy” which helped create a more representational government in the Taisho era, the Showa era (1926-1989) would instigate huge changes in Japan. The early Showa era was plagued by the rise of nationalism and an increasingly powerful military, whose involvement in political and social affairs led to the Second Sino-Japanese War and culminated with Japan’s defeat in World War II. Japan’s loss created profound changes in the social and geopolitical landscape, and the American occupation rapidly enhanced its westernisation, reforming its nationalist agenda through the enforcement of democratic, ‘modern’ legislation and reform, initiating profound social, political, educational, and economic change. The war became a reference point which most Japanese films of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s would inevitably allude to as a source of both criticism and nostalgia.

Under exceptionally different circumstances, Wong Kar-wai was born in 1958 in Shanghai. At the age of five, he moved to Hong Kong. Speaking only Shanghainese, he felt isolated from the Cantonese-speaking environment and regularly watched films with his mother at the local cinema. In 1980, he graduated in graphic design from Hong Kong Polytechnic College and subsequently enrolled in the Production Training Course at Hong Kong Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB). By 1982, he was working as a full time screenwriter in the film industry for Wing-Scope Film Production. He became a partner at actor-producer Alan Tang’s newly formed In-Gear Film Production Company and subsequently received funding to direct his first feature film As Tears Go By in 1988.

Hong Kong’s origins lie as a fishing village. However, the beginnings of its contemporary social identity lie in Britain’s colonisation of Hong Kong in 1842 following China’s loss in the First Opium War. Following the Second Opium War, China ceded Kowloon to the British in 1860 under the Convention of Peking. In 1898, the New Territories were leased from Qing China to Britain for 99 years in the Second Convention of Peking. In 1941, the British surrendered Hong Kong to Japan after losing the Battle of Hong Kong. Following Japan’s loss in World War II, the British regained sovereignty over Hong Kong. In 1949, thousands of refugees fled from China to Hong Kong after the Communist Party came into political power. The influx of migrants complicated communications between those who spoke Cantonese and those who spoke other Chinese dialects. Nevertheless, they consisted of entrepreneurs, productive low wage workers, and financially prosperous individuals that would aid Hong Kong’s industrialisation. The textile industry boomed in the 1950s and the manufacturing industry diversified further with the manufacture of goods such as electronics in the 1960s. The global counterculture of the 1960s also occurred in Hong Kong1. Meanwhile, living standards remained poor with low GDP and wages.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Hong Kong evolved from a manufacturing-led industry to a leading financial centre. However, the 1980s provoked collective fear for Hong Kong citizens following discussions over the 99-year lease Britain possessed over the New Territories, which was to expire in 1997. Cultural identity became an issue of significance particularly after the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984. China would assume sovereignty over Hong Kong from British rule as of July 1st 1997. The thought of a future under Chinese rule caused widespread fear and distrust towards the motherland. Under colonial rule, Hong Kong had evolved from a fishing village to a global economic powerhouse. While the colony instigated several injustices in Hong Kong, such as segregation between colonial subjects and the colonised, it brought economic prosperity, better education, further job prospects, and acted as a safe haven for refugees to migrate to. Hong Kongers typically viewed China as backward, with its Communist leadership dictating strict censorship laws and propaganda, thus restricting economic and social freedoms. But China was feared especially following the devastation caused by the ten years of Cultural Revolution in 1966, as well as the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, not to mention the earlier 1967 riots in Hong Kong instigated by Chinese leftist groups. Discussions over the Sino-British Joint Declaration were exclusively between the Chinese and British governments. Hong Kong was given no say in regards to their own future, making them effectively powerless. Hence the issue for the Hong Konger becomes one of identity.

The Hong Kong identity is one of an indigenous affiliation with the Chinese, through traditional values and customs that still dictated home life, while the British influence remained elsewhere in everyday life such as in education and commodity culture. Although human activity in Hong Kong dates back over 30,000 years, its colonial history has been the primary informer of its contemporary identity. However, China’s political history has also shaped contemporary ideas of identity, taking “pride in a culturalist version of tianxia [Chinese world view] combined with a fairly sceptical attitude towards regimes of national state power” (Teo 1997:111), which is similar to Hong Kongers, who “remain distant from ‘their’ state while retaining pride in the cultural values allegedly embodied in their tradition” (ibid.). But China’s political history has been wrought with ideological change, complicating what it means to be Chinese:

“China” refers to at least five different Chinese political entities that either existed in the past or still exist: the Middle Kingdom (with multiple identities) under imperial rule before 1911; Republican China led by the Nationalists; socialist China under the Communists after 1949; Taiwan under the Nationalists after 1949; and Hong Kong ruled by the British since 1842…in most people’s minds, all these “Chinas” signify one and the same nation – Zhongguo (the Middle Kingdom)…the motherland where Chinese peoples of the past, present, and, conceivably, the future believe that they share a civilization, a written language, a general culture, and a continuous history (Yau 1996:182).

The Chinese identity becomes particularly problematic to define because of its long, erratic history and huge geographical reach. As 99% percent of Hong Kong’s population is Chinese, it is important to understand the Mainland Chinese identity. During the 1930s, Hong Kong became further isolated from the motherland as part of the growth of a “Central Plains syndrome”, instigated by Chinese intellectuals who, along with Nationalist governmental agenda and communist ideology striving for anti-imperialism, upheld the prominence of a shared ancestry of Han Chinese living in the mainland (Fu 2000:200). Hong Kong was of course marginalised geographically, but was largely seen as weak and inferior because of its subordination to, and ideological ambivalence towards, colonialism. Fu believes that after the war, Hong Kongers assumed a hybrid identity due to being ostracised in nationalist and colonialist discourses, being “caught in between identification with the past and the present, with the centralizing nationalism of the mainland and the hybrid tradition of Hong Kong” (2000:200-201).

The identity crisis of Hong Kong remains a significant issue due to the lack of education on contemporary Chinese and Hong Kong history in school curricula, resulting in a “loss or dispossession of collective memory, a fundamental criterion for building identity” (Lau 2000:172). Along with the lack of political autonomy, this has led to:

…an almost schizophrenic triple split of the subject into (1) a political nonidentity with neither China nor Britain nor Hong Kong, (2) a “confused” cultural identity mix of Hong Kong and China, which provides only precarious references insufficient for serious self-reflection, and (3) an economic identification with capitalism, which has proven to be “successful” but unsatisfying (ibid.).

The need to establish an absolute identity before 1997 gave rise to the thematic concerns of the Hong Kong New Wave2. Discussions over the 99-year lease prompted Hong Kong New Wave filmmakers such as Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, and Tsui Hark to assert Hong Kong’s own cultural identity before it would vanish with the assimilation into China in 19973. The assertion of a local identity came to be best expressed through making films in Cantonese. The rise of filmmakers such as Wong Kar-wai in the late 1980s and 1990s continued this tradition as part of the Hong Kong Second Wave. 1997 became a deadline of freedom to fully express and discover what it meant to be a Hong Konger. 

The signing of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration offered a paradoxical opportunity based on fear; the disruption of self-identification could be resolved through regression to a past. Whether this past was authentic or imaginary made no difference, the point was to escape present anxieties over an uncertain future through revisiting a safe and familiar past. Interest in local history amplified while documentation of local history and memory evocations of the past became sacred, dominating 1980s mainstream culture. These representations in art and academia asserted a localised and ‘authentic’ identity to overcome the prospect of it vanishing with the assimilation into China. 1997 became a deadline to discover and cherish everything that informed what it meant to be a Hong Konger. Hence, Hong Kong culture revelled in a collective nostalgia during the 1980s and early 1990s. Using Boym’s terminology:

Nostalgia (from nostos—return home, and algia—longing) is a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but is also a romance with one’s own fantasy….A cinematic image of nostalgia is a double exposure, or a superimposition of two images—of home and abroad, past and present, dream and everyday life (2001:xii).

On the surface, however, “nostalgia is a longing for a place, but actually it is a yearning for a different time—the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams” (ibid. xv). This serves as a particular paradigm for the films of Ozu and Wong, for in the former we see more explicit longings for youth and childhood, while in the latter dream-like temporal rhythms are evoked. Given their very different cultural, historical and geopolitical backgrounds, why is it that both Ozu and Wong share an obsession over the past and time’s passing?

Ozu Yasujiro

If nostalgia is part of the Japanese national character, then it is important to understand how it manifests itself in both Japan and the Ozu film. Bordwell asserts that it is a space that the Japanese yearn for, observing that “Nostalgia comes in two main varieties in Japan: longing for one's rural hometown (from which most urban Japanese are only a couple of generations removed) and longing for chic, cosmopolitan Tokyo.” He claims that Ozu yearned for the latter (1988:7) and “was born into nostalgia, for his childhood neighborhood of Fukugawa exuded the atmosphere of old Edo” (ibid. 40-41 ). Indeed, Ozu was born and grew up in Fukagawa, Tokyo, before moving to his father’s hometown of Matsuzaka, Mie Prefecture, in 1913. During this time he would frequently skip classes at school to go to the local cinema. He disliked school and cinema was his form of escapism. He returned to Tokyo in 1923 and directed his first feature film in 1927 during the start of the Showa era, a time of great confusion over national identity. Japanese cinema at this time, perhaps beginning with Minoru Murata’s Souls on the Road in 1921, began to explore cultural identity in the face of rapid social change incurred by Western modernisation. Indeed, the entire history of Japanese cinema has looked toward ancestry and tradition as a means of understanding contemporary cultural identity. Mellen is correct to say that:

The Japanese director turns to the past in search of what it means to be a Japanese. It is a quest undertaken in the hope that its outcome will begin to fill the moral vacuum of the present. More Japanese films are set in the past than those of any other country….There is a faith in this culture that its history, if faithfully perceived, can be relied upon to reveal the way back to the kokutai, the national essence now lost (1976:59).

Cultural identity is only appreciated and sought after when posed with the threat of its extinction. Tucker makes the observation that many directors in the early 1930s indulged in nostalgia as a means of escaping the ravages of war. Realising “the weakness of nostalgia”, several “plotless” films were made such as Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds(1973:23). One would assume that such nostalgia films would influence Ozu to make his own at this time, but during the 1920s and 1930s, Ozu’s films largely addressed contemporary social issues. His silent films do not evoke a yearning for the past which we experience consistently in his later work, particularly his postwar films. Perhaps age is the reason, for when one gets older, one has more memories to recall, reconstruct and romanticise. Hence, the intention is to focus on his later works, particularly his postwar films.

The home is an important space that is perhaps the first signifier of our identity. There is the home as a nation, a signifier of one’s cultural identity and ancestral heritage, but also the more intimate home, the living quarters of a family. The home is one’s first source of interaction within a consistent space, itself full of routine and repetition one acknowledges and accepts, for it is an everyday occurrence one gets used to. If a space is inhabited consistently and for a significant period of time, a perceived understanding of it ensues, thus becoming intimate. Space becomes so intimately associated with its inhabitants that the notion of individual identity becomes inseparable from spatial origins. In Japan, the home is of particular importance as a source of identity as “one’s sense of self depends to an important extent upon those with whom one lives, studies or works. An identification with family (or with clan, nation, school, or company) is necessary for a complete identification of self” (Richie 1977:4). Hence why the “dissolution of the family is a catastrophe” (ibid. 4) in Japan. The identity of the contemporary Japanese is also fostered by two other important homely spaces: the school and the office (ibid. 1). Indeed, these environments inhabit all of Ozu’s films.

Ozu uses spaces within the home as evocations of memory. In An Autumn Afternoon, Shuhei Hirayama (Chishu Ryu), an ageing widower, aims to marry off his daughter Michiko (Shima Iwashita). She eventually does marry and leaves home. We get to know the rooms within the home well, particularly Michiko’s room and the ima (living room). The home is introduced on six different occasions throughout the film. The first time, we are introduced to Michiko and Shuhei’s youngest son, Kazuo (Shinichiro Mikami). Michiko greets her father at the genkan (entryway), takes his hat, places it on the holder and takes his briefcase before remarking “You stink of booze again.” The second time, it is used to reinforce a sense of routine through the repetition of shot compositions seen earlier of the corridor, genkan and ima(living room). Actions and dialogues are also repeated, for example, when Michiko greets her father in the same manner as before—she takes his hat, places it on the holder, takes his briefcase and says “You’ve been drinking again”, to which he repeats what he had said before; that he has not had much to drink. Already members move about within familiar spaces; primarily the genkan, corridor and ima. The third time we see the home space, Michiko is ironing, enhancing the sense of routine. She quarrels with her father over the concept of getting married. The fourth time, Shuhei and his eldest son Koichi (Keiji Sada) discuss further marriage prospects following an unsuccessful attempt to marry off Michiko. Michiko’s room is revealed as the father tries to console her. The fifth time, the family is getting prepared for the wedding ceremony in the ima. They see Michiko in full wedding dress in her bedroom. In Ozu’s famous use of ellipsis, we are not granted access to witness the wedding, and this is the last time we see Michiko. The sixth and final appearance of the household is the most important, for it displays an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. After the wedding ceremony, the father returns home to see his two sons and daughter-in-law at a table in the ima. After Koichi and his wife leave, Kazuo goes to sleep, while the father stays awake. Ozu cuts to several shots of home spaces we have seen before such as the corridor and Michiko’s room, all of which are devoid of human presence. Every home space now feels empty. We then see the father who, as if to affirm the sense of loss and emptiness, looks up at the staircase leading to Michiko’s room and cries.

The father cries because he knows that things will never be the same again. When he looks up toward Michiko’s room, he realises it will no longer be inhabited by the character that informed its being. The purpose of the space changes from the physical to the mental; it now exists to recall past memories. What once was taken for granted is now cherished, for though the space exists more overtly than ever before, it no longer contains the personality that informed its character and made it intimately homely. At the beginning of the Ozu film, we feel like guests of the household, its space possessing little meaning. Through the progression of the film, we witness interactions within the home space and become intimate with characters that infuse it with an identity so that by the end, the space becomes imbued with meaning as a result of our memories of what happened there. Thus the home space is an aura that generates memory recall. The beauty of the home is realised only in retrospect. For Ozu, and for us, the home is nostalgia.

If the home is the staple of Japanese family life and identity, one will naturally find it difficult to part with. Travelling is a constant theme in the Ozu film, evident most notably in shots of passing trains. As in the West, the train was an important part of Japan’s industrialisation in the Meiji era, offering greater trade prospects and providing faster and more accessible transport to commuters. But for Ozu, the train, like the cinema, is more than a mere Western commodity. He values its aesthetic qualities, its growing reliance in (and invasion of) everyday life, and its function as a bridge that both divides and unites the nation and with that, the family. Travelling is a bittersweet sign of maturity but also a departure from family and friends. As we have observed in An Autumn Afternoon, when the Ozu character moves home, there is a particular sense of sadness felt from their passing. We might ascribe this to the Japanese expression of mono no aware (“the pathos of things”) which describes the feeling of sadness induced by an awareness of, and sensitivity to, mujo (the impermanence of all things). But it is not sadness alone, for beauty is realised in transience. In Ozu, the train is transience. Journeys, particularly those that conclude an Ozu film, always signify a beginning. In Tokyo Twilight, the mother of Takako Numata (Setsuko Hara) is leaving on the night train for Hokkaido and anxiously looks out of the train window, hoping her daughter will see her off. The platform is filled with people bidding their friends and relatives farewell. But her daughter never comes. At home, her father tells her that she still has enough time to see her mother off at the station but she never goes. The chance of restoring family dissolution has passed with the train. For the mother, the train functions as a beginning; a move toward the future, a place of refuge far away from her past and present. She does not embellish the past as a means to escape the present, for her past is not only traumatic but tragic. Instead, she succumbs to whatever the inevitability of time will bring. The train leads her to a new beginning, having brought an end to family proximity. In There Was a Father, the train is the embodiment of the son’s moving on from his father’s death, affirmed by the urn placed on a rack above. The train is optimism. It is constantly on the move, seeking refuge in future stops. Ozu is telling us that although life is ultimately sad, we should not dwell on it, for there is much to live for. In this sense, he cherishes the present as much as he does the past.

The train creates its own temporality as it provides new beginnings. For some Ozu characters, the train journey may provide the beginnings of a conscious awareness of and sensibility to nostalgia and time’s transience, since moving away from home may be the first instance of nostalgia one overtly recognises. During the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution made processes of communication quicker than ever before, leading to an increased interest in future prospects and an awareness of time. Living through such perpetual change prompted a desire to revisit the stability of past times (Radstone 2007:5). With the rapid Westernisation of Japan during the Meiji era, and the immense changes wrought by World War II during the early Showa era, Ozu’s constant evocations of time’s transience become particularly resonant. If Ozu’s main theme can be said to be the dissolution of the family, and the train an emblem of modernity, then his repeated use of trains becomes particularly significant in the context of postwar Japan as “geographical mobility, which went hand in hand with industrialization, served to weaken the family…family members more often than not were now working outside the family unit and even began moving away from their hometown” (Desser 1997:31). The train in the Ozu film embodies social change and amplifies the discrepancy between tradition and modernity, old and new. More importantly, it highlights the main theme of his works; the dissolution of the ie (stem family).

However, nostalgia for home is not the only context prompting the Ozu character to yearn for their past. Perhaps the most common environment for the Ozu character to recall their past is at school reunions. Typically patriarchs reminisce about their experiences during the war, as in There Was a Father, The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice, Early Spring, Equinox Flower, Late Autumn, and An Autumn Afternoon, finding common recourse through song. This upbeat nostalgia is interesting because it relates to past traumatic events, namely the war, but is not surprising since “the birth of the nostalgic ailment was linked to war. In the twentieth century, with its world wars and catastrophes, outbursts of mass nostalgia often occurred following such disasters” (Boym 2001:28-29). In Freudian terms, some traumatic memories are repressed as a means of coping in everyday life. But in the Ozu film, we find that traumatic past memories are either confronted head on with a sense of sadness or, as is common in the postwar films, glossed over. If identity is informed by the past, a traumatic past may disrupt a stable sense of self. Nostalgia acts as a defence mechanism that reconstructs the past through a romanticism of memory recall so as to allow one to cope in the present world. Ozu himself went through several traumatic experiences; the death of his father in 1934 (of whom he would romanticise his relationship with and reconstruct his death to painstaking accuracy in There Was a Father in 1942), conscription to China as an infantry corporal in 1937 during the Second Sino-Japanese War (Richie 1977:226), and to Singapore in 1943 where he became a prisoner of war for half a year in 1945 (ibid. 231-232), returning to a largely destroyed Tokyo in 1946 after the Japanese surrendered, and perhaps of most significance, the death of his beloved mother in 1962. Additionally, his hometown of Fukagawa had been majorly destroyed after the war (ibid. 232). The Ozu character recalls the past to temporarily divert attention away from its catastrophic consequences. Recollections of war reincarnate dead relatives, friends, and colleagues so that they live in present day life. Yoshida argues that during the war, Japanese people became aggravated by their inability to comprehend what was going on, and this showed that “human beings cannot capture the present and clearly talk about it, and they can freely remember the past but cannot live in it” (2003:141). In this sense, Ozu’s war patriarchs recall the past to both understand the present and escape from the discomfort of its ambiguities. However, the space of the school reunion, like the home, may also be an important trigger of nostalgia. Citing British psychologist D. W. Winnicott, Boym observes:

…the concept of a “potential space” between individual and environment that is formed in early childhood. Initially this is the space of the play between the child and the mother…[which] has the potential of becoming a space for individual play and creativity….Perhaps what is most missed during historical cataclysms…[is] this potential space of cultural experience that one has shared with one’s friends and compatriots that is based neither on nation nor religion but on elective affinities (2001:53).

The Ozu character also recollects memories of youth and childhood, a time free from the stresses and responsibilities of everyday life. We see this in Tokyo ChorusAn Inn in TokyoThe Only SonBrothers and Sisters of the Toda Family,There Was a FatherRecord of a Tenement GentlemanA Hen in the WindEarly SummerTokyo Story, Early SpringTokyoTwilightEquinox FlowerLate AutumnThe End of Summer, and An Autumn Afternoon. In Early Summer, ageing parents Shukichi Mamiya (Ichiro Sugai) and Shige (Chieko Higashiyama) sit in a park and talk about the family. Shukichi says “This may be the happiest time for our family. We’ll be sad when Noriko leaves us to get married.” Shige agrees and shortly after, Shukichi says “How time flies. Koichi got married, our grandchildren were born and now Noriko’s getting married. This may be the happiest time of our lives.” They both watch a balloon drift away into the sky before Shige says “Some child somewhere must be crying. Remember how Koichi cried when he lost his balloon?” They look back at the ascending balloon. The movement of the balloon is a metaphor for the members of the family drifting away from the nuclear family—in this case, the marriage of their daughter, Noriko (Setsuko Hara). It is also a metaphor for their irretrievable past and the transience of time. Time literally does fly. But the balloon itself is an embodiment of childhood, and it serves as a cue for Shukichi to recall past memories of his own child losing his balloon. More importantly, it is a symbol of childhood escapism. In The End of Summer, childhood escapism becomes a source of refuge for Manbei Kohayagawa (Ganjiro Nakamura).

Despite his age, Manbei acts like a youth, playing several games and pranks. Suspicion is aroused following numerous departures from the home and a worker in his company is sent to spy on him to discover where he has been frequenting. As the worker Roku (Yu Fujiki) continues to look for Manbei, he is given a shock when Manbei jumps out from behind him and calls out his name. Manbei knows that he has been followed, yet playfully says “Where are you off to?” As if to emphasise the inside joke with himself, he says “Quite a coincidence, running into you”, to which Roku makes up the excuse of having to collect taxes. Manbei revels in watching Roku become anxious after his incessant questioning. After he is found out to be seeing an old flame, his daughter Fumiko (Michiyo Aratama) complains to her brother that he should act his age. Later, he is cleaning the floor and giggles like a child. He also plays catch, rock-paper-scissors and, briefly, hide-and-seek with his grandson. Like a youth, he is mischievous and carefree. He re-enacts childhood to avoid the adult responsibilities of the declining business of the Kohayagawa family business and the marriage of his daughters, as well as fears of an impending death. This is similar to Ozu’s early comedies, where “In the post-Meiji context, childhood is a period when all seems possible, before one realizes the futility of individual effort and the hollowness of official promises. The adult can escape by a return to childhood. Hence the infantile behaviour of Ozu’s dejected college youths and salarymen” (Bordwell 1988:43). Likewise, this longing for youth is also reflected the earlier film titles such as Dreams of YouthDays of Youth, and Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? More literally, it is evoked in The Only Son, when Ryosuke (Shinichi Himori) fingers his baby’s bottle after his mother returns home, signifying a longing for his own childhood. Given that Ozu lived with his mother all his life until her death in 1962, one cannot help but wonder if he too longed for childhood. Indeed, many characters in Ozu’s films, particularly elders, make positive remarks about sprightly young children, even if they act disrespectful or show a lack of filial obedience.

The most obvious metaphor for transience is the clock. Ozu is fascinated by them. Clocks appear in almost all of his films, many of which are drawn attention to through close ups and medium shots. But even when they are not onscreen, they can be heard. We hear them in the office, in the home, and even at wakes. In Tokyo Story, Shukichi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu) and his wife Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) decide to visit their grown children in Tokyo. They are snubbed by their children, too occupied with their own lives. The only child who treats them with kindness is Noriko (Setsuko Hara), their widowed daughter-in-law. After returning home, Tomi falls ill and dies. Recognising his daughter-in-law’s kindness, the father gives her a pocket watch that belonged to Tomi as a keepsake. It is fitting that Noriko is given a pocket watch as a keepsake as it is the very objectification of her Tomi’s wish for her; to move on from the death of her son and to marry someone else. It marks the feud between holding onto the past and letting go, moving towards the future. This temporal movement is emphasised through Noriko travelling on a moving train—the only character we witness doing so, despite several train journeys occurring. Only through letting go of past memories dragging us down in the present can we look towards the potential of a brighter future. This is affirmed when Noriko embraces the pocket watch within her palms—she has finally moved on.

We have already observed that the past is important to Ozu, for it informs who we are and can never be recaptured. Furthermore, the present becomes intimate through our lifelong interaction with it. So what of the future? Boym claims that “Nostalgia is not always about the past; it can be retrospective but also prospective. Fantasies of the past determined by needs of the present have a direct impact on realities of the future” (2001:xvi). There are moments of prospective nostalgia in Ozu, although as Richie notes, “Any question of the future in Ozu’s films usually is also firmly dragged back to present circumstances” (1977:53). Discussions over what will happen in the future are not important for Ozu because whatever happens is inevitable. It is not something we can actively change. The past, however, is relatively changeable: we reconstruct our past so as to accommodate our present. However, the future becomes important when viewed in a past context. In Equinox Flower, the Hirayama’s go on a family outing together in Hakone. The mother, Kiyuko (Kinuyo Tanaka) and her husband Wataru (Shin Saburi) reminisce about World War II and the past. Kiyuko urges her husband not to play golf despite the good weather, observing that “This may be our last outing together.” Kiyuko not only cherishes the past, but the fleeting present, for it too will become a past memory in the future. Indeed, “part of the poignancy of the passing instant comes from the premonition of the nostalgia that one will later feel. This sort of ‘anticipated nostalgia’ is central to many Ozu scenes” (Bordwell 1988:50). Past and future become linked through nostalgia. This coexistence is emphasised further in Late Autumn when Akiko Miwa (Setsuko Hara) is on a final vacation with her daughter Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa) before she gets married. Akiko says “Do you remember when we were evacuated here during the war?” to which Ayako nods. “Your father would come back every Sunday. Everything was scarce back then, but he’d always bring a gift for you. He was a good father. This will probably be our last trip together. Be happy. You’re beginning a new life, and so am I. I’ll always remember our meals here together.” The reason Akiko knows she will remember these memories in the future is because she knows her present circumstances have been informed by the past. Self-consciously asserting that she will remember the memory of the present moment works to preserve it for future memory recall, extending its duration. Akiko’s nostalgia of the times experienced during her daughter’s childhood is enhanced through the young school students posing for a kinen-shashin (commemorative photograph) in the previous scene, and who sing a song about the transience of time—recalling Ozu’s earlier film Tokyo Story.

Just as Ozu would remain fond of old films in his later years, so too would he be fond of his own silent works. He would go on to remake I Was Born But… as Good MorningA Story of Floating Weeds as Floating Weeds, and Late Springas Late Autumn. The decision to remake some of his most fondly remembered films perhaps reveals a desire to revisit past milestones of his career as all three films won the Kinema Jumpo First Prize. In Equinox Flower, following his daughter’s marriage, Wataru Hirayama (Shin Saburi) talks to his friend Shukichi Mikami (Chishu Ryu) about their children on a bridge. Shukichi says “We’re getting old. To think that we’re talking about our children at a reunion. “But ever with us are the dreams of our youth.”” This is, of course, a reference to Ozu’s silent film Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? It is interesting that Noda and Ozu would give this dialogue for Ryu to speak, given his appearances in 52 of Ozu’s 54 films, including Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? In this scene, Ryu speaks for Ozu, answering the question he posed in his own youth. Ozu never viewed his films as individual films but rather each as complementary to the other. Repetition of the same themes and plots using repeated locations, motifs, actors, character names, and dialogue emphasises this continuity. Moreover, Ozu may have used repetition as an extension of stasis; the past is comfortable in its familiarity of monotony, while the present is chaotic, forever changing. Repetition acts as the past, providing comfort in its patterns of the familiar, and thus offering a form of escapism from present change. Furthermore, “Repetition, understood as ritual, provides connection to ancestry and tradition, it situates the individual in an imagined community that spans historical time” (Felski in Radstone 2007:4). Yoshida believes that Ozu used repetition and difference to understand life, observing that:

The only way to overcome the cruelty of the ever-changing present is to repeat it, to stop the linear flow of time, and to express it in the past tense. For Ozu-san, it is human time that he dreamed, slightly differentiating these repetitions and discreetly extending the present into the future so that it may continue forever (2003:141).

Ozu used repetition through a cyclical structure. Time, like life, is cyclical. Of Early Summer, Ozu said “I wanted in this picture to show a life cycle. I wanted to depict mutability (rinne)” (Richie 1974:237). The cyclical structure best represents change. Change is an important theme for Ozu, after all a preoccupation with time’s transience and nostalgia cannot exist without it. In Japan, one of the most notable evocations of change and mono no aware is the seasonal weather. The seasons become an important motif for Ozu, particularly in his postwar works, which his film titles attest (Late Spring, Early Summer, Early Spring, Late Autumn, The End of Summer, An Autumn Afternoon4). As if to evoke real-time beyond a cinematic representation, “Ozu’s 1950s films, released every fall, enfolded the audience into a seasonal rhythm: the film offers itself as a record of Tokyo life in spring or summer, seasons that the audience ‘lived through’ with the characters…[evoking an] acute sense of evanescence” (Bordwell 1988:49-50). Thus the seasons are used as a representation of the past. But the seasons are also cyclical. Just as one mourns the passing of one season, one knows it will return at a later date, but it will be different. Many of Ozu’s films have a cyclical structure, with several ending where they began. For example, A Story of Floating Weeds and Floating Weeds begin with arrival and end with departure on transport; Early Spring and Equinox Flower open and close on a train motif; Record of a Tenement Gentleman begins and ends with the adoption of an abandoned boy; The Only SonLate Spring, and Tokyo Story end in rooms where they began. A circular structure provides warmth due to its return to the familiar (ibid. 162) and in this sense it is similar to nostalgia.

Much of Japanese art is informed by the pictorial beauty of seasons, from woodblock prints to poetry. Ozu references traditional Japanese art in many of his films. We witness performances of kabuki in A Story of Floating Weeds, Kagamijishi, What Did the Lady Forget?, Early Summer,and Floating Weeds; Noh in Late Spring;Rokyoku (narrative singing) in Passing Fancy;shigin (chanted poetry) and the sounds of nagauta (lyrical musical accompaniment for kabuki) on the radio in Equinox Floweryakusha-e (woodblock prints or paintings of kabuki actors) in A Story of Floating Weedsand Floating Weeds; and farting gags in Good Morning that recall He-gassen (Japanese scrolls from the Edo period depicting fart battles). The Taisho era raised serious concerns over cultural identity. The question was how to become modern without threatening the existence of Japanese traditional values. Furthermore:

Taisho culture often dilates on the loss of the past and its recovery. Historical and literary themes are a reinvestment in Japanese tradition, as is the placement of kimono-clad women in traditional spaces, their association with specific seasons…When these subjects are rendered in styles that are at least minimally modern, the implication is that the customs depicted are not simply preserved, but live on as an integral part of the culture (Brown and Minichiello et al. 2001:24).

If we look at shin-hanga (“new prints”), for example, we find that the purpose is to continue conveying the impermanent, fleeting world as in ukiyo-e (woodblock prints and paintings depicting the pleasures of an evanescent, “floating” world) but with Western art influences, particularly Impressionism. Romanticised fukeiga (landscapes),meisho (famous places), bijinga (beautiful women), yakusha(kabuki actors), and kachoga (flowers and birds) are common visual themes. As in Ozu, some visual themes are ambivalent, while others such as bijinga “served to bridge the gap between present and past…idealized women as emblems of native culture became the thematic essence of shin-hanga in the late 1920s and 1930s” (ibid. 66). Indeed, Ozu’s films incorporate such visuals, most commonly through his still life shots. His still life’s do not just act as evanescent transitional devices between scenes. They become the embodiment of traditional Japanese fine art so as to highlight the beauty of the past. For Deleuze, “the still life is time, for everything that changes is in time, but time does not itself change” (1986:16). As if wanting to make his own traditional art, the Japanese title of I Was Born But… translates as “A Picture Book for Adults”. Moreover, female protagonists of the Ozu film are almost always beautiful, like those in bijinga, and serve to highlight the ambiguity and conflict between tradition and modernity, most notably in The Munekata Sisters. Thus in Ozu we find a deep appreciation for traditional art as a means of both highlighting the beauty of cultural heritage and time’s transience, contributing to the discussion of tradition and modernity in contemporary society.

But Ozu’s appreciation of past cultural expression is not limited to fine art. Even in the decorative arts, “there is a corresponding spirit of adoption, rejection, or synthesis of traditional and Western idioms…[sharing] the varied creative and commercial motivations that encourage reinvestigation of the native past….[constituting] not just the commodification of culture, but the acculturation of commodities” (Brown and Minichiello et al. 2001:25). In fact, Japan became a commodity culture earlier in the Meiji era, peaking in the postwar period, as evident in Ozu’s postwar films where commodities command a greater presence. The commodity is important to the Japanese for it, like the train, is a signifier of modernity and change. Additionally, “the Japanese as a nation have always tended to ‘keep things’: once it’s in the house, once it’s proved it’s usefulness, you never throw it away” (Burch 1979:32). Indeed, the commodity can be used to recall past traditions. In Equinox Flower, for example, Kiyoko Hirayama (Kinuyo Tanaka) listens tonagauta on a contemporary radio. The commodity is also used to recall past memories, with food and alcohol in particular acting as stimulants for indulging in nostalgia and the past in Tokyo ChorusBrothers and Sisters of the Toda FamilyThere Was a FatherRecord of a Tenement GentlemanLate SpringEarly Summer,The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice, Tokyo StoryEarly SpringEquinox FlowerLate AutumnThe End of Summer, and An Autumn Afternoon. Of significant relevance to Ozu’s patriarchs, “Many people are reminded of war through their memories of food. What deprivations, what extremes people went to and were forced into, and what people ate during times of war are easily recollected and have a profound impact on their memories” (Masters 1994:3). This is evident at a reunion in Early Spring, when a war patriarch says “Remember those Changhsien days? We ate that dog meat sukiyaki”, to which his friend replies “Tasted good too, I remember. Nothing finer since coming home.” The importance of taste cannot be overstated for Ozu, given the abundance of eating in his films. Ozu claimed he and Noda did not “rate story very highly. Content, social relevance, and story logic aren't what we're after....What we seek to leave is a good aftertaste” (Bordwell 1988:174). This aim is evident in the Japanese title of An Autumn Afternoon which translates as “The Taste of Mackerel”. In Ozu, commodities are cultural artefacts embodying social change, acting as memory retrieval cues.

One of the most important commodities for Ozu is the kinen-shashin which plays an important role both in Japan and the Ozu film. It implies endings and with that, beginnings; the end of the collective posing for the photograph and the beginning of individual offshoots. Students, friends and family gather for the kinen-shashin in Record of a Tenement GentlemanThere Was a FatherBrothers and Sisters of the Toda FamilyEarly Summer, and Late Autumn. The kinen-shashin not only signifies the impermanence of those standing before it, but it acts to stop time in its very documentation. It records the present authentically and clearly so that it may last forever, unaffected from the visual blur imposed by memory recall. The stills photograph is the only invention that can manipulate time and distort it, thus becoming entirely self-referential for the cinematic image. In this sense, Ozu’s passion for cinema comes from the pleasure of manipulating time and creating change which is otherwise uncontrollable and inevitable.

Wong Kar-wai

In the mid-1980s, a collective sense of nostalgia enveloped Hong Kong in all forms of art and academia. Popular forms of discourse such as television, films, and journalism, increasingly focused on Hong Kong’s past. 1997 was seen as the beginning of the end for what it meant to be a Hong Konger, so its historical background was seized on. This return to the past was not only a form of escapism from the impending doom of 1997, but also sought to restructure the past through the rose-tinted glasses of memory and nostalgia. Audiences flocked to revisit Hong Kong’s past. The golden age of Hong Kong cinema (1985-1995) coincided with the popularity of the nostalgia film. In the nostalgia film, it is important to note that “The historical past…is reconstructed not to produce a sense of authenticity as historical film does but to remake the past from the present time in order to foresee the future” (Hung 2000:256).

Nostalgia cinema constitutes an important part of postcolonial nostalgia and postmodernism which “subverts the meaning of historicity through the intertextuality of the time past and the time present…the historical past is reproduced by the media and high tech” (Hung 2000: 258). In nostalgic performance “what is mourned is the memory of the deep memory, what is enacted is a nostalgia for nostalgia” (Jameson in ibid. 263). But nostalgia cinema only exists as part of a collective need for it. Davis claims that collective nostalgia, as opposed to private nostalgia, is a social phenomenon which arises under certain conditions which affect those “symbolic objects…of a highly public, widely shared and familiar character” (1979:222). Nostalgia films acted as a departure from the suppressive, official histories of Hong Kong dictated by colonial government textbooks in education and the “grand narrative[s]” of national history written by mainland Chinese scholars, allowing Hong Kong to assert its own subjective history. The nostalgia film selectively reconstructs the past to fit present needs of resistance toward both the suppressive powers of Britain and China (Hung 2000: 266-269). Hence, collective nostalgia lead to a sense of nationalism in Hong Kong and the nostalgia film aimed to reinforce a strong, individual sense of cultural identity before 1997 was to threaten its existence.

Four types of nostalgia film have been identified:

The first group reconstructs the history and social scene of 1960s Hong Kong….The second group includes those films that represent 1930s Hong Kong and China….The third group refers to those that recycle the film titles or story events of 1950s and 1960s Hong Kong cinema….The final type aims to re-create the ancient history in China in terms of the costume genre… (ibid. 257).

By this categorisation, Wong’s Days of Being Wild5 and In the Mood for Love are part of the first group, while Ashes of Time belongs to the final group. Days of Being Wild is his own romanticised vision of Hong Kong in the 1960s, a time he grew up in, while Ashes of Time is a nod toward the wuxia tales he was fond of during childhood. Similarly, In the Mood for Love is full of Wong’s romanticised childhood recollections, such as gossiping neighbours and cheongsam-clad women.

The importance of the past is evident in all of Wong’s films. Like Ozu, he is obsessed with time and the ephemerality of life. Motifs such as clocks consistently feature in his films, and stylistic techniques such as step-printing, slow shutter speeds and jump cuts puncture any clarity of narrative time. Characters often recollect past events in their lives through voiceover. The past tends to be a burden for many of Wong’s characters; Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) longs to find his long lost mother in Days of Being Wild, Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Cop 663 (Tony Leung) try to get over past lovers in Chungking Express, Ashes of Time is dominated by characters attempting to escape from their pasts, Wong Chi-Ming (Leon Lai) forgets his past lovers and colleagues in Fallen Angels, Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung) and Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) repeatedly try to “start over” in Happy Together, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) tries desperately to get over his lost love Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) in 2046 and both yearn for each other by the end of In the Mood for Love. The past is a place where lovers lose their beloved. Undoubtedly, the main theme of Wong’s works is unrequited love and the consequences of loss. Perhaps the best example is in Days of Being Wild, where Yuddy longs for motherly love, while every other character longs to be loved by those infatuated with someone else—Su Li-zhen longs for Yuddy, Tide (Andy Lau) longs for Su Li-zhen, Mimi/Lulu (Carina Lau) longs for Yuddy, and Zeb (Jacky Cheung) longs for Mimi/Lulu. In Ozu, characters are certainly saddened by unrequited love but soon get over it. In Wong, however, characters live to be loved, and cannot function when lingering memories of past lovers plague them in present day life. They thus fail to assimilate into present day life and become social outcasts. Fantasies of the past become so much a part of their existence that they become anachronistic artefacts, obsolete in a world having no use for them. Wong’s characters burrow deeper into their past as a means of escaping present day existential nihilism. For Wong, the ultimate reason life is sad is because unrequited love is inevitable. You cannot choose who you fall in love with, nor control the intimate feelings of others. They are unchangeable like the geographical circumstances we were born into. The sadness of life lies in our lack of control over present and past circumstances.

In Days of Being Wild, characters constantly ask for the time, watches and clocks serving to remind them of their loss and fleeting encounters with others. Time is an intimate creator of purpose in life, governing memories and relationships. Time and memory are inseparable, as Yuddy highlights at the beginning of the film while trying to seduce Su Li-zhen, when he says “The 16th. April 16th. April 16th, 1960, one minute before 3:00. We were here together. I’ll always remember that minute because of you. From now on, we’re one minute friends.” This specific time remains an important memory for three of the film’s protagonists. For Yuddy, it is an event he remembers until he dies, implying that Li-zhen was the woman that meant the most to him. For Li-zhen, it is a reminder to forget Yuddy. For Tide, it is a fond memory of the stories he and Li-zhen would tell each other during their walks together. Yuddy and Li-zhen’s recollections of the date also mean that they still think of one another, affecting Tide emotionally because he is also in love with her. Time creates a web of unrequited love breeding conflict between the characters but also poses a challenge—how to adapt to life following loss. Yuddy projects his pain onto others, sleeping with women and then leaving them as part of an oedipal desire to find his long lost mother. He has nothing to live for after discovering his mother does not want to meet him. His incapability to cope with loss causes him to live carelessly in an uncaring world. Mimi cannot get over losing Yuddy, and travels to the Philippines to find him. Unlike the Ozu character, Wong’s characters do not indulge in nostalgia when past memories exert themselves in the present, painfully reminding them of their loss in everyday life. Memories become the cause of melancholia, exaggerating time’s presence and making it last forever. Characters become powerless, drifting in stasis, succumbing to time in the hope that it will instigate change. In stasis, life becomes meaningless, and this ironically prompts the past to become the primary source of conversation and interaction, as if to imbue the present with existential meaning.

The past governs one’s personality and life path in Ashes of Time. Although characters become incapable of love after the object of their desire falls into the terrain of past memory, the past still remains important in the present. As Blind Swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) is about to go blind, past memories become the only visual cues he will ever have to remind him of his former lover. If his image of “Peach Blossom” fades, so too will his existential purpose. Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) attempts to transcend the clutches of time by drinking a magic wine that makes the drinker forget their past. His constant consumption of the wine makes him a tragic figure, unable to cope in a world where life is informed by past memories. Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) remains selfish and lonely after his woman (Maggie Cheung) leaves him and marries his brother. The schizophrenic Mu-rong Yin/Yang (Brigitte Lin) suffers from self-delusion due to broken promises of marriage from Huang Yaoshi. Existence without reciprocated love is far too traumatic for her and thus she creates another personality to provide her with someone to care for and love. The present comes to stand for past trauma where repressed memories exert themselves and linger along with the diasporic characters. If the Ozu character succumbs to the ultimate sadness of impermanence and inevitability of life, the Wong character strives to transcend it by acts of delusion or death. But Wong suggests that past loss is unchangeable and thus any will to change it is ultimately wasted. In Ashes of Time, characters torture themselves by dwelling on the past, either by trying to actively escape from it or by letting it invade their thoughts and dictate their actions. Ouyang Feng’s former lover is a tragic figure because, like Huang Yaoshi and Mu-rong Yin/Yang, she is unable to move on from loss. The past is an inaccessible desire that tortures her conscious, while fears of her son growing older and leaving her prolong feelings of desolation and existential nihilism. Life loses meaning for her because it is ever changing. Before dying, she says “During the best years of my life, the person I love was not by my side. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could go back to the past?” Her failure to understand that the present offers the potential of growth, an opportunity to learn from mistakes made in the past, is ultimately her downfall. In the final voiceover of the film, Ouyang Feng remarks “The more you try to forget, the better you’ll remember. People say when you can’t have what you want, the best you can do is not to forget.” His realisation of the importance of past memories makes him one of the least tragic figures in Ashes of Time.

As if to preserve his own memories of youth, Wong shot Days of Being Wild and Ashes of Time as soon as the opportunity arose. Brunette has suggested that Wong was eager to shoot Days of Being Wild after he became aware of his own passing youth, with Wong saying “I wanted to evoke the things that I was afraid of forgetting later” (2005:20). For Wong, the moving image is an important asset to document ideas and memories at a particular moment in time. But it also acts as an important recording device of fragile spaces on the brink of extinction. Wong uses film as geographical and architectural documentation in Fallen Angels. It was largely filmed in Wan Chai, an area possessing “a bizarre mixture of modern buildings and some very old ones”, in Wong’s own words, consisting of:

Small newspaper shops in building entrances, laundries that date back to the fifties and sixties, Chinese restaurants that saw better days years ago… and I realized these things would disappear from our world very soon…things like geographical factors affect me a lot. It was like I was trying to preserve something from perishing” (Wong in Lalanne et al. 1997:85-88).

His highly stylised aesthetic is not so much an ‘authentic’ documentation as an interpretation of a space on the cusp of expiration. The aim is to preserve his own interpretation of what this space means to him at this particular point of his life, but also to preserve the collective memory of a space through the ‘authentic’ nature of photographic documentation. Unlike the historical film “in which authenticity of historical reference is emphasized” (Hung 2000:256),Fallen Angels acts similarly to the nostalgia film in its highly stylised rendition of Hong Kong’s geographical landscape. In this sense, it does not contribute to what Abbas terms a “culture of disappearance” (1997:7). Representations of Hong Kong, in the historical film for example, are “familiar and plausible” and thus contribute to a “culture of disappearance” because they ascribe to a mainstream, formulaic vision of Hong Kong’s past. Wong uses “disappearance to deal with disappearance…inventing a form of visuality that problematizes the visual” in order to “make images disappear in clichés” (ibid. 8). Wong’s use of wide angle lenses in Fallen Angels distorts space and thus makes us scrutinise what we are seeing; characters paradoxically feel nearby yet distant. Similarly, his use of slow shutter speeds and step-printing complicates temporal perceptions of the visual. Hence, Fallen Angels becomes a subjective interpretation of Hong Kong’s vanishing places, and in turn, creates an unconventional, ‘authentic’ representation of a real environment. Wong’s intention to prolong deteriorating spaces in Hong Kong and preserve them on film is thus adequately realised.

For Wong, the deterioration of environment is important because spaces inform both collective and individual memory. Unlike Ozu, for Wong, any inhabited space acts as a home. We may ascribe this to his early migration to Hong Kong in which he was forced to adapt to a foreign environment outside his birthplace of Shanghai. In Ozu, the home is a private space whereby arguments and serious discussions can take place without losing face, whereas in Wong, any space acts as a private space. Indeed, the characters in his films occupy public spaces like private spaces and behave in them incongruously. For example, in Chungking Express, Faye (Faye Wong) repeatedly plays ‘California Dreamin’’ by The Mamas & the Papas loudly at her work space—a public space where tatemae (socially acceptable behaviour) is the norm in both Japan and the Ozu film—and dances along to it, and in Happy Together, Lai and Ho engage in sexual acts in public toilets. Wong has said “there is always part of me in every character I create, they all have something I can identify with, a human side that I cherish” (Lalanne et al. 1997:106). We find his characters are all misfits in some way or another, never quite fitting in with their environment or following social norms. Wong’s own isolated childhood has perhaps influenced his characters, and the discrepancy between public and private spaces means little to him, for home is a place one occupies temporarily. After all, Hong Kong “is not so much a place as a space of transit…a port in the most literal sense—a doorway, a point in between” (Abbas 1997:4). Thus while Ozu mourns the deterioration of the ie through the private space of the home, Wong’s outcasts exhibit private behaviour in public spaces, suggesting a search for, and confusion over, where and what home is. Wong has said “I did not have a particularly happy childhood. So “home” is a magic word for me” (Lalanne et al. 1997:88). Contrary to Ozu, the definition of a home is complicated further in Wong’s films by the lack of acknowledged family members. We rarely see them, let alone hear anything about them. Never has a whole family been shown together, and typically only one parent is shown or acknowledged. In Days of Being Wild, Yuddy lives with his foster mother as his mother does not want to be with him; inFallen Angels, He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) lives with his father who eventually dies; in Happy Together, Lai Yiu-fai tries to make amends with his father (who is never shown nor heard). This suggests a further confusion over the home and a yearning for stronger, more traditional family ties. Indeed, we may ascribe this to Wong’s own youth, in which he was largely raised by his mother. His father was a sailor, frequently away from home. In this respect, Wong perhaps uses the cinematic image as a form of consolation from loss.

In Chungking Express, Cop 663 resorts to talking to inanimate objects in his home after breaking up with his girlfriend. The objects become a surrogate family, all witnesses to the emptiness of the space following the departure of his girlfriend. They provide Cop 663 with consolation from the loss incurred. As in Ozu, Cop 663 yearns not for a home but for a home inhabited by the person that informed the space and gave it meaning. The Chinese word for nostalgia,huaijiu, literally translates as “missing or reminiscing about the old” (Chow 2001:209). Cop 663’s reaction echoes classical Chinese poetry, in which “the convention for expressing nostalgia was often that of a lack/loss projected onto a physical space. Poets lamented that while the seasons, scenery, architecture, and household objects remained unchanged, the loved ones who once shared this space with them were no longer around” (ibid. 210). However, the household objects do in fact change, but only as a result of Faye’s foray into the home space. By replacing, using and moving items in this space, Faye acts as a surrogate for the lost object of Cop 663’s affection; his former lover. She invades his life and repeats actions which the air hostess had done previously, leaving a ghostly presence of commodified and geographical intimacy. Faye’s invasion of the home space is a distraction that helps Cop 663 move on from projecting loss onto commodities. Moreover, Cop 663’s former lover is the objectification of geographical mobility as she is an air hostess; her leaving him precipitated Cop 663’s yearning for geographical mobility. Faye injects a newfound sense of geographical mobility in his life by invading the home space and later becoming an air hostess herself.

Abbas has suggested that Hong Kong cinema utilises spatial narratives to come to terms with its elusive past history and the decadence of definable human relationships (1997:27). Wong’s films clearly reveal a preoccupation with geography, which can be attributed to his belief that “geographical accessibility is a deciding factor for human relationships. We don’t really choose our friends, people who are around us become our friends” (Wong in Lalanne et al. 1997:88). Present day life offers more opportunities to meet others through quicker and more accessible geographical mobility. This is perhaps one of the reasons why his films set in contemporary life (As Tears Go By, Chungking ExpressFallen Angels, Happy Together, and My Blueberry Nights) end less tragically than those set in the past (Days of Being WildAshes of TimeIn the Mood for Love, and 2046). However, if nostalgia presents itself in the Hong Kong film as “an aesthetic emotion in which the idealization of the past functions side by side with a submission to chance, fate, physiognomy, feng shui (geomancy), and other varieties of shushu (techniques of calculating the unknown)” (Chow 2001:224), then Chungking Express best exemplifies this theme.

Cop 223’s opening narration proclaims “You brush past so many people everyday. Some you may never know anything about, but others might become your friend someday.” When he bumps into the woman in the blonde wig, he says “This was the closest we ever got—just 0.01cm between us. Fifty seven hours later, I fell in love with this woman.” The second narrative begins with a similar discrepancy between the space that governs the relationship between two strangers, when he bumps into Faye at Midnight Express, “That was the closest we ever got—just 0.01cm between us. I knew nothing about her. Six hours later, she fell in love with another man.” This repetition of circumstantial geographical intimacy emphasises that relationships are dictated by the fate of geographical circumstances. Just as one’s past is already set in stone, so too are present and future circumstances. Cop 223’s narration reveals his acute awareness of this, and he sees fateful encounters as an opportunity for love, “assured in the powers of chance to bring about a second meeting with the woman in the blonde wig, at a later point in the story that will retrospectively reveal the significance of this cryptic episode” (Ma 2010:3). Hence the importance of chance encounters dictated by the inevitabilities of life (in this case, one’s geographical circumstances) is only understood retrospectively. In Chungking Express, “nostalgia is…most acutely felt not as an attempt to return to the past as such, but as an effect of temporal dislocation – of something having been displaced in time. Nostalgia is first and foremost a register of the movements of temporality” (Chow 2001:224). In this sense, the woman in the blonde wig, Cop 223, Cop 663, and Faye, are the embodiment of nostalgia, for time is punctured in several of their scenes, through the use of temporal disruptive techniques such as jump cuts, show shutter speeds, time lapses, and step-printing. Wong’s use of step-printing makes time paradoxical; motion is blurred, yet frames are repeated and cut together, leaving the space between frames fragmented. It exaggerates the mysticism of real time by puncturing a stable sense of time in favour of ambiguity. The assimilation of repeated frames in conjunction with slow shutter speeds gives a sense of being lost in time; trapped in stasis and rapid change. The visuals become an evocation of a hazy memory, unable to visualise a comprehensive perception of real time. Meanwhile, voiceovers serve to comprehend filmic time and give meaning to present circumstances devoid of purpose. Encounters with strangers in the past come to be cherished for their immediate and fleeting nature. Similarly to Ozu, the beauty of interactions with others is only appreciated following the recognition that they will never happen again. Chungking Express embodies the importance of chance encounters and cherishes the philosophy of the Japanese phrase Ichi-go ichi-e (“one time, one meeting”) upheld in the Japanese tea ceremony, which highlights the importance of transience as some things occur only once in a lifetime.

This is emphasised further in 2046 when Chow says “Love is all a matter of timing. It’s no good meeting the right person too soon or too late. If I’d met her in another time or place my story might have had a different ending.” He then says “Some years back, I had a happy ending in my grasp, but it’s in the past now.” Fond memories arise from seized opportunities. Missed opportunities, however, forever haunt present day conscious. Wong has stated:

As you go through time, you are bound to look back with hindsight, you begin to reminisce about things that you dreamed about doing but didn’t get to do, you begin to wonder what would have happened on that particular day if you had taken a different turn on the road. You have no answer for sure, but you are distressed by the possible outcome of things you didn’t do. You cannot help but regret (Wong in Lalanne 1997:89).

Wong’s characters are melancholic because they allow previous failures to dictate current potential opportunities. When Wong’s characters learn to never give up searching for opportunities in the present, they transcend the state of being moribund, and this is affirmed in 2046 when Chow notices that Mimi always tries to find love despite having lost the man she loved most. He says “She taught me something. If you never give up, there will always be a chance.” This is the beginning of his process of getting over loss.

This submission to chance and fate is also a reflection of the geopolitically ambivalent Hong Kong identity, succumbing to circumstances so as not to disrupt the status quo. It is a signifier of the rise of a local cosmopolitan urban identity based on:

…face-to-face cross-cultural encounters of strangers in a physical space. In some cases…urban cosmopolitanism is not a feature of the present but rather an element of nostalgia….Urban identity appeals to common memory and a common past but is rooted in a man-made place, not in the soil: in urban coexistence at once alienating and exhilarating....The city…is an ideal crossroads between longing and estrangement, memory and freedom, nostalgia and modernity (Boym 2001:76).

Abbas contends that Hong Kong culture does not ascribe to cultures with definable attributes such as postcolonialism or postmodernism, and thus exemplifies a postculture in which “culture itself is experienced as a field of instabilities” (1997:145). Hong Kong is a rapidly changing city which creates a sense of:

the unfamiliar in the familiar…the experience of the uncanny, when the sense of “I am here,” of the familiar and the homely shades into a sense of “I have been here before,” of the Unheimlich, when what is seen is mixed up with a feeling of the already seen, of déjà vu (ibid. 78).

Lee notes that this feeling works “as a mechanism of the return of the repressed, or that which has been forgotten. For the characters in Wong’s films, this process of the uncanny evokes an incomplete recollection. It is a case of “Haven’t we met before?” and, for the audience, “Haven’t we been here before?”” (2008:126). This is particularly evident in the repetitive use of spaces in In the Mood for Love where scenes are replayed but with the smallest of alterations such as a change of dress worn by Su Li-zhen. More importantly, the feeling of the uncanny and déjà vu is evoked for those acquainted with Wong’s films, and 2046 is the culmination of this feeling.

2046 is a sequel to In the Mood for Love, and references it with motifs such as the whispering of a secret into a hole, intimate taxi rides (that also recall those in Happy Together), and intertitles (that echoes silent cinema). More interestingly, explicit references to Days of Being Wild are made. Chow seems to be the same character, again played by Tony Leung, appearing at the end of Days of Being Wild, while Su Li-zhen appears to be the same Su Li-zhen inDays of Being Wild, again played by Maggie Cheung in both In the Mood for Love and 2046. In 2046, Chow encounters Lulu and tells her he has met her before. She claims to have forgotten but Chow reminds her about Yuddy. Lulu then emerges from a curtain while Xavier Cugat’s ‘Perfidia’ swells. This song is of course played repeatedly in Days of Being Wild and is used later in 2046 when Chow is gambling. The re-use of actors seen in Wong’s other films, notably; Chang Chen (Happy Together), Faye Wong (Chungking Express), Maggie Cheung (As Tears Go ByDays of Being Wild,Ashes of TimeIn the Mood for Love), Carina Lau (Days of Being WildAshes of Time) and Tony Leung (Days of Being Wild,Chungking ExpressAshes of TimeHappy TogetherIn the Mood for Love) in 2046 creates a feeling of déjà vu. Similarly to Ozu, it emphasises the feeling that Wong’s films are part of a collective whole; not sequels as such, but continuations of stories and themes we have already been acquainted with in past viewings. References of past films become nostalgic cues for those fond of Wong’s earlier oeuvre, becoming particularly resonant beyond the cinematic image when references to Yuddy’s death in Days of Being Wild are made, as Leslie Cheung had committed suicide a year before the release of 2046. This kind of cinematic self-reflexivity is made more intimate for those within the realm of knowledge, as it is for fans of Ozu whose later films recast actors from his 1920s and 1930s films, such as Kinuyo Tanaka and Chishu Ryu. Through watching these people grow older through the cinematic image, their appearances may change, along with the roles that they play, but the echoes of previous films within a particular oeuvre remains with their existence on the celluloid, making the image tinged with a peculiar mixture of the uncanny, déjà vu, loss and nostalgia.

The title of 2046 is also a reference to China’s promise that Hong Kong’s economic and political systems would remain unchanged for fifty years following the 1997 handover. 2046 is Wong’s most explicit time-themed film to date, where past, present and future all equally come to symbolise loss. The past causes loss, the present forces one to live with its affects, and the future offers the opportunity of escapism. Only in 2046 does the future become a physical place that can be visited to “recapture lost memories”. Thus the future becomes the past, while the present remains melancholic. Hence, change becomes the bearer of bad news. Teo claims that post-1997 Hong Kong “survives on a state of changeless time, which still causes citizens to drift and wander” (2004:142). Wong’s message to Hong Kongers is that they should seize this temporary stasis by introspectively looking at their own history, thus preparing for the significant changes that will occur after 2046 (ibid.). 2046 thus works like 1997; both are deadlines for the Hong Kong citizen to discover past history and contemporary cultural identity. Hence, contrary to his characters who narrate with hindsight, Wong has foresight, and is warning Hong Kongers to look beyond the immediate concerns that governs their culture.

Indeed, Wong’s characters are wanderers. They have no clue as to their existential purpose in life, nor do they know what the future holds. They remain in a daze, waiting for time to provide necessary change. In Happy Together, Lai and Ho are not so much travellers as disaporic wanderers. Their identity corresponds to their movement and actions. They are “partly political refugees…partly sexual exiles, and partly tourists….in Argentina, they assume new identities as illegal workers or even illegal immigrants” (Lim 2006:107). Argentina is the antipode of Hong Kong and can thus be seen as an ideal residence to escape from the effects of the 1997 handover. The foreign environment provides physical and psychological escapism from the past as one is physically detached from home and mentally away from familiar spaces that remind one of past memories. But Lai soon tires of Argentina and wants to return to Hong Kong. Although their reason to go to a foreign place is to “start over”, it soon becomes clear that even this environment cannot save their relationship. Lai pines for home and takes on the role of a domestic housewife in order to compensate for his melancholic nostalgia. Only Lai and Chang leave the film on a note of optimism, assured in the knowledge of where home is, and their intentions to return to it. Ho, however, remains trapped in limbo, unable to sustain any relationships or a home in the long term. When Lai hides his passport, Ho becomes angry and leaves the flat. The passport comes to represent mental and physical freedoms; geographical mobility and stability of identity. Its loss contributes to Ho’s downfall and furthers his bipolarity and lack of control. Lai and Chang insist on the importance of home by living on an indigenous circadian rhythm. They share a temporal identity which provides comfort in its affiliation to home. Lai says: “I’m having trouble sleeping again. I noticed that Hong Kong and Argentina are on opposite sides of the world. How does Hong Kong look upside down?” He embodies the crossroad between past and present, home and foreign. Similarly, he says: “To boost my income, I’ve started working in an abattoir. The pay’s much better and the hours suit me fine. Work all night, sleep all day. I’m back on Hong Kong time.” Soon after, Chang returns to Buenos Aires to say goodbye to Lai. But Lai is nowhere to be found. Chang leaves and says “The day is beginning as I leave. It must be night at Taipei. I wonder if the night market has started.” We then see Lai at the night markets in Taipei. Chang and Lai’s friendship stems from a shared temporal conscious of their homelands. For Ho, however, “Diasporic intimacy does not promise a comforting recovery of identity through shared nostalgia for the lost home and homeland… objects and places were lost in the past and one knows that they can be lost again. The illusion of complete belonging has been shattered” (Boym 2001:254-255). Ho will perhaps continue as he has in the rest of the film as “The foreign backdrop, the memory of past losses and recognition of transience do not obscure the shock of intimacy, but rather heighten the pleasure and intensity of surprise” (ibid. 255). Ho is incapable of maturity because he is forever trapped in stasis, not knowing who he is or where he belongs. On the other hand, Lai and Chang achieve hopes of an optimistic future because they retain geographical and temporal intimacy, simplifying discrepancies between home and the foreign, leading to a self-understanding free from the delusional.

In regards to commodities, while alcohol and food are stimulants used to recollect and rejoice in the past in Ozu, in Wong they serve to block cognitive recall in the hopes of forgetting traumatic memories. In Ashes of Time, Huang Yaoshi drinks a magic wine that makes him forget his past. He asks Blind Swordsman whether he would like a taste, to which Blind Swordsman replies “Do you know the difference between water and wine? Wine warms the spirit. Water only brings on a chill.” The wine stands for artificiality; a man-made product that cures effects rather than causes. The water is pure and wholly natural. By consuming water, Blind Swordsman has chosen to live life as it is with all its pain and tragedy, and has not succumbed to past traumatic memories. In Chungking Express, expiration dates on food products become deadlines, as when the sardine can informs the woman in the blonde wig she has to find the Indians before the 1st May 1994, and Cop 223 claims his love will expire after he consumes a month’s worth of pineapples expiring on May 1st. They represent the deadline of 1997 and emphasise the need to seize time before it is too late.  The “out with the old, in with the new” mentality that Cop 223 complains about emphasises the need for Hong Kongers’ to rise above the immediate concerns of a commodified culture and assert their identity before it expires in 1997. Ironically, this mentality becomes “out with the new, in with the old”, corresponding to the nostalgic political mindset of Hong Kong pre-1997. These deadlines, however, turn out to be gratuitous. The deadline of Cop 223’s birthday no longer means the expiration of love he most feared earlier in the film but rather newfound potential for love. When the woman in the blonde wig pages him a birthday greeting, Cop 223 muses “Now I’ll remember her all my life. If memories ever come in a can, I hope that can never expires. If it has to have a shelf life, I hope it’s 10,000 years.” Her remembrance of him is an appreciative expression giving him optimism to accept and embrace change. Wong thus asserts the need for Hong Kong to accept the changes that will occur after 1997 rather than resist them. As in Ozu, acceptance of things as they are and not dwelling on them becomes a sign of maturity and enlightenment.

Similarly to the moga that command great presence in Ozu’s early works (particularly Dragnet Girl and What Did the Lady Forget?), as well as the bijinga in Japanese art, Su Li-zhen represents the divide between tradition and modernity in In the Mood for Love. She sports a Western hairstyle and wears cheongsams adorned with flowers, evoking transience and the changing seasons, alluding to traditional Chinese cultural themes (Cook 2005:9). The cheongsam becomes:

…a central figure in Wong’s meditation on history, memory and time…it encapsulates past, present and future in a single image, resolving irreconcilable social tensions and contradictions….Yet it is tinged with melancholy, its sensuous, fragile beauty underlining the sense of loss at the heart of Wong’s profoundly nostalgic film (ibid. 10).

This hybrid nature implies the predicament Su Li-zhen faces. She is tied between succumbing to conjugal love and pursuing requited love. Local gossip eventually forces her to abide by social norms, thus preserving her reputation in the community but also upholding the status quo.

When Chow tells her he is leaving for Singapore, a sense of anticipated nostalgia arises as she cries at the thought of losing him. These feelings are affirmed when she revisits the apartment they both lived in. She looks out of the window and becomes tearful when her landlady says to her “It was so nice then, wasn’t it?” Her looking out of the window and her sadness at time’s passing is echoed in the final intertitle of the film referring to Chow: “He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.” Although it is sad, Wong asserts that this is life, and they are right to cherish their past as it fades into the confines of memory recall. However, fond memories are not enough for Chow in 2046. Memories of past lovers may satisfy psychological fantasies, but these are only temporary, and frustration arises from the lack of physical intimacy with the object of desire. Characters in 2046 brood over the prospect that this desire will never be fulfilled. Chow tries to ease his loss by becoming a womaniser. Women become sexualised objects for Chow to project his sexual frustration onto, and his promiscuity is part of a search to rediscover and re-experience the sexual desire he felt for Su Li-zhen. Every woman becomes comparable to the woman he loved most, and the same happens to Lulu who compares every boyfriend “to a bird that could never land. For all these years, Lulu has been looking for her “legless bird.”” This bird is of course a metaphor for Yuddy, a self-referential phrase he uses in Days of Being Wild. Chow realises that he is projecting past desires onto present lovers when he breaks up with another woman named Su Li-zhen (Gong Li). He says to her “Take care. If you can escape your past one day, come and look for me” and subsequently laments “what I said was actually meant for myself. In love, you can’t get a substitute. I was looking for what I’d felt with the other Su Li-zhen.” Trying to re-live past intimate experiences is impossible and ultimately self-sacrificing. Time is to be lived, not re-lived, and this realisation is affirmed by Chow when he rejects Bai Ling’s advances to “borrow” his time and anticipates the uncertainties of the future. The final intertitle reads: “He didn't turn back. It was as if he’d boarded a very long train heading for a drowsy future through the unfathomable night.” As in Ozu, the train is the physical embodiment of change and the endeavour to move on from loss.


Yearning for the past is not a culturally specific trait. It arises from a basic human need to discover existential purpose, and typically follows loss, rapid social change or anxieties over the future. Ozu and Wong were born and raised in rapidly changing societies. Ozu was born into an era of modernisation in which Japan evolved from a feudal state to modern superpower. Japan experienced inconsistent bursts of rapid change, particularly following World War II. Likewise, Wong experienced rapid change after moving to the unfamiliar geopolitical landscape of Hong Kong. The social and environmental landscape of Hong Kong continues to rapidly change, with social identity attempting to adapt and keep up with the transition to alternating political climates, and the zeitgeist of a commodified culture. This rapidity of change is important because it suggests the difficulty of attachment in present day life. Whilst gradual and consistent change remains invisible and assimilates into the norms of society, rapid social change, however, threatens the existence of a singular, stable identity and culture. Geographical change blurs the definition of home. If interactions with others are dictated by geographical circumstance, and memories informed by familiar spaces, then the deterioration of space significantly affects identity. This has all sorts of implications, such as a lack of intimacy toward others and a lack of feeling in general—in short, a lack of will to live and to love; a lack of purpose—existential nihilism. Nostalgia offers escapism from such troublesome mental and physical states of being, hence its assertion in national discourse and national character in the early Showa era of Japan and in the early 1980s in Hong Kong.

Characters interacting with the past are a common motif in the Ozu and Wong film, upholding the need for permanency. Ozu uses still life’s to display the transience of time. Wong, however, emphasises motion to show the speed of time’s passing. To watch a Wong film is to perceive an evocation of memory. Similarly, in Ozu, the aesthetics of time are so rigorously composed as to be realistic, yet fantastical. Like the slower rhythms of our memories and dreams, they are a compelling form of escapism from present day realities. Time presents itself through change, and this inevitably brings loss, manifesting itself through death and physical departure in the Ozu film, and the displacement of comprehensible time and loss of love in the Wong film. Ozu and Wong share an acute awareness of time to emphasise the need to live in the present. The past is bittersweet, and a great source of both conversation and reflection, but it should not overpower everyday consciousness. Deep attachment to the past can be dangerous insofar as it can plague thoughts and create an inaccurate portrait of life; an existential nihilistic present unable to match the ‘good times’ of the past. Inability to let go of the past leads to a monotonous life drifting in stasis. Though this can be comfortable, it is also self-defeating and ultimately delusional. Actually, Wong’s films are not so much about yearning for the past as yearning for something unattainable. Equally, Ozu’s films do not mourn the loss of the past itself, but the deterioration of the ie, the staple of home life which informs society and what it means to be Japanese.

Nostalgia is a paradoxical emotion; a bittersweet, romanticised vision of the past that offers an excuse for self pity, self-indulgence, and existential nihilism, but also an excuse for congregation and hence interaction with others; a source of individual and collective joy. Succumbing to its charms or transcending its colonial grip is not the point. Ozu and Wong assert that the past is unchangeable and irretrievable. Although we can accommodate needs of the present by reconstructing the past, this is ultimately self-sacrificing and delusional. The key to coming to terms with the inevitability of time’s transience is resignation. Not in the sense of giving up, but in terms of acceptance. Acceptance contextualises knowledge of the past, providing hindsight so as to pave the way for foresight.

Perhaps Wong asserts a more “melancholic nostalgia” than Ozu, ascribing to a more Eurocentric view of the world, not necessarily more pessimistic in tone, but perhaps more cynical in tone than Ozu who ascribes to a traditional Japanese view of the past, which highlights the beauty of sadness in time’s passing. This evocation of mono no aware suggests the importance of resignation to the inevitable laws of nature governing life, as a means of living purposefully in the present world. For Ozu and Wong, acceptance of loss and the irretrievability of the past is a sign of maturity and enlightenment. The past becomes important as a test of character; through overcoming its traumas, and accepting what has happened, one is enlightened with existential purpose, offering the capability of loving others and being loved. Although referring to Happy Together, it seems fitting to end in Wong’s own words, attributable to both Ozu and Wong’s oeuvre: “To me, Happy Together applies not only to the relationship between two persons, but also the relationship between one person and his past. If people are at peace with themselves and their past, this is the start of being able to be happy with somebody else” (Wong in Ong 1998).


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Souls on the Road. Dir. Minoru Murata. Shochiku. 1921.

Sword of Penitence. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1927.

Dreams of Youth. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1928.

Days of Youth. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1929.

Tokyo Chorus. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1931.

I Was Born, But.... Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1932.

Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1932.

Dragnet Girl. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1933.

Passing Fancy. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1933.

A Story of Floating Weeds. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1934.

An Inn in Tokyo. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1935.

Kagamijishi. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1936.

The Only Son. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1936.

What Did the Lady Forget? Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1937.

Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1941.

There Was a Father. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1942.

Record of a Tenement Gentleman. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1947.

A Hen in the Wind. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1948.

Late Spring. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1949.

The Munekata Sisters. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shintoho. 1950.

Early Summer. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1951.

The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1952.

Tokyo Story. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1953.

Rebel Without a Cause. Dir. Nicholas Ray. Warner Bros.. 1955.

Early Spring. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1956.

Tokyo Twilight. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1957.

Equinox Flower. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1958.

Good Morning. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1959.

Floating Weeds. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Daiei. 1959.

Late Autumn. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1960.

The End of Summer. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Toho. 1961.

An Autumn Afternoon. Dir. Ozu Yasujiro. Shochiku. 1962.

I Lived, But.... Dir. Kazuo Inoue. Shochiku. 1983.

As Tears Go By. Dir. Wong Kar-wai. In-Gear Film. 1988.

Days of Being Wild. Dir. Wong Kar-wai. In-Gear Film. 1990.

Chungking Express. Dir. Wong Kar-wai. Jet Tone. 1994.

Ashes of Time. Dir. Wong Kar-wai. Jet Tone, Block 2 Pictures, Scholar Films. 1994.

Fallen Angels. Dir. Wong Kar-wai. Jet Tone. 1995.

Happy Together. Dir. Wong Kar-wai. Jet Tone, Block 2 Pictures, Prénom H Co. Ltd., Seowoo Film Company. 1997.

In the Mood for Love. Dir. Wong Kar-wai. Jet Tone, Block 2 Pictures, Paradis Films. 2000.

2046. Dir. Wong Kar-wai. Jet Tone, Block 2 Pictures, Paradis Films, Orly Films. 2004.

My Blueberry Nights. Dir. Wong Kar-wai. Jet Tone, Block 2 Pictures, Lou Yi Ltd., Studio Canal. 2007.


1 By this time, half of the population was under the age of twenty five. This was Hong Kong’s baby boomer generation, the first generation to spend most of their time away from home working in factories. The increasing lack of time for the family was blamed for the rise of the ‘Ah Fei’ (delinquent youth). The previous generation found their offspring intolerable and unfilial, increasingly allured by the appeal of modernisation. But the younger generation were better educated and wanted to voice their opinions. They considered Hong Kong their home and acted as they pleased, while the older generation remained conservative, as life had treated them better in Hong Kong. Besides, any significant social upheavals may have led to their eviction back to the chaotic motherland. As with postwar Japan, in which generational conflict became more common with the rise of antisocial youth groups such as the taiyozoku (Sun Tribe), generational conflict typified Hong Kong culture of the 1960s.

2 In the 1970s, the television industry in Hong Kong boomed. Broadcasting companies such as TVB (Television Broadcasts Limited) offered training schemes to budding young filmmakers and actors. The Hong Kong New Wave consisted of these filmmakers who had learnt the craft through television practice, while others learnt skills in foreign film schools. Until the 1970s, mainstream Chinese cinema had been dominated by Mandarin films. However, many of the prominent filmmakers in Mandarin cinema, particularly those from Shanghai, had died or retired, paving the way for younger talent.

3 Themes such as generational conflict and family relationships in social realist films emphasised the difference between Hong Kong Chinese and mainland Chinese as if to assert this individual identity, though depictions of traditional values and customs meant there was an inevitable affiliation with China. Crime films and thrillers became popular genres for the Hong Kong New Wave to explore, while some genres were revivals of old popular genres such as martial arts. These filmmakers retained an affinity with films they grew up with, using cinematic conventions and themes popularised by family melodramas of the 1950s and 1960s.

4 It should be noted, however, that in Japan, the title for Late Autumn (Akibiyori) translates as “A Calm Autumn Day”. Similarly, the Japanese title of The End of Summer (Kohayagawa-ke no aki) translates as “The Autumn of the Kohayagawa Family”, while An Autumn Afternoon was released as Sanma no aji, meaning “The Taste of Mackerel”, a reference to the aftertaste Ozu and Noda wanted to leave the audience with after the movie had finished.

5 The Chinese title of Days of Being Wild translates as “The Story of Rebellious Youth”, the same title given to Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause when it was released in Hong Kong, and thus arguably belongs to the third group as well.