Wong Kar Wai’s needle-drops: a journey through his melancholic soundscapes

Combining nostalgic ballads, Latin easy listening and Cantopop, the soundtrack choices of Wong Kar Wai are keyed into his films’ unique feeling of melancholy and longing.

20 February 2021

By Kambole Campbell

Chungking Express (1994) © Courtesy of Janus Films

Wong Kar Wai’s world of heartbreak and melancholy is defined by sumptuous visuals and elliptical storytelling. Yet just as vital is his use of music. His frequent incorporation of songs from around the world – of vintage pop, romantic ballads, traditional music and easy listening – is just as specific as his visual focus on abstraction and sensation. 

The multicultural sounds of his films evoke a sense of the past, often conjuring memories as his lonely, heartbroken characters dream of potential connections or ones they once had. He pulls from a history of popular and traditional music as well as a history of cinema soundtracks, including – in one instance – a theme borrowed from another film. 

As Tears Go By (1988)

As Tears Go By (1988)
© Courtesy of Janus Films

Wong’s debut feature is his most generic, an 80s Hong Kong crime film cut from the template established by directors such as Ringo Lam and John Woo. But his signature touches shine through in the doomed love story between Ah Ngor (Maggie Cheung) and Wah (Andy Lau), particularly in a moment involving the film’s biggest needle drop. That would be Sandy Lam’s Cantopop cover of Giorgio Moroder and Berlin’s original song for Top Gun (1986), ‘Take My Breath Away’. Wong wrings genuine emotion out of the overwrought ballad, the corny lyrics managed by the film’s melancholy. 

The song fits in snugly among the other 80s synthpop cues, including songs from the film’s own Andy Lau (himself and co-star Jacky Cheung, who plays his triad brother, are both known as part of the ‘Four Heavenly Kings of Cantopop’). Lau’s power ballad ‘Chi Xin Cuo Fu’ is reprised at key moments in Wah’s struggle to save his brother.

Days of Being Wild (1990)

Days of Being Wild (1990)
© Courtesy of Janus Films

The first part of an informal trilogy including In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004), Days of Being Wild saw Wong begin to incorporate a more international sound into his films. Opening with ‘Always in My Heart’ by the Brazilian guitar duo Los Indios Tabajaras, the film’s romantic songs create irony and a sense of distance, as main character Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) seeks refuge in casual relationships, only to soon abandon them and break hearts as a result. 

‘Maria Elena’ is another cue – although Los Indios have an instrumental version themselves, this one is performed by Spanish bandleader Xavier Cugat, with multiple tracks played repeatedly throughout the film. Wong’s cues of other Cugat arrangements – ‘My Shawl’ and ‘Siboney’ – convey a longing that we can’t read on Leslie Cheung’s often impassive face, a longing that only becomes apparent towards the film’s closing. 

Days of Being Wild is a formative film for Wong both in visual and sonic terms. His attraction towards Latin music and his use of it to convey unspoken and unseen emotional angst is becoming ever more clear. 

Chungking Express (1994)

Chungking Express (1994)
© Courtesy of Janus Films

With just a few songs, this might be the quintessential playlist movie from Wong (even the CD jukeboxes are filmed with a kind of holy reverence). The first of those is Dennis Brown’s reggae track ‘Things in Life’, which plays 4 times in the film’s first half, the significance changing from character to character. For Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), Brown’s easygoing track represents a break from routine; for the woman of his affections, it symbolises a more literal escape.

The Mamas and the Papas’ version of ‘California Dreamin’’, another escapist song, is associated with the daydreaming of Faye (Faye Wong) as she encounters 663 (Tony Leung) and begins to lift the heartbroken cop out of his malaise, with the song eventually finding its way into his apartment. 

Dinah Washington’s ‘What a Difference a Day Makes’ and Faye Wong’s own cover of The Cranberries’ song ‘Dreams’ – here titled ‘Dream Lover’ –  close out the film. Both are outright love ballads. Within the film, these songs are keyed into the characters’ idealistic longing and dreaming for a happier life. Writer Maya Ho has put this sense of longing in the context of Hong Kong’s handover. One of Wong’s few films to be set in the present, it suggests a longing for a different, hopeful future, which sets it apart from other Wong films, in which music often represents lingering attachment to an ephemeral romance in the past. 

Fallen Angels (1995)

Fallen Angels (1995)
© Courtesy of Janus Films

This spiritual companion to Chungking Express feels like a seedier version of that film’s freewheeling observation of lovesick, wayward souls. Another flirtation with Hong Kong genre cinema, Fallen Angels is something like his John Woo movie, a gangster film concerned with the city’s lonely weirdos, chief among them a hitman who begins to have second thoughts about his job. 

Unlike the idealistic, escapist dreaming of the Chungking Express soundtrack, Fallen Angels is more interested in ethereal pieces, such as Laurie Anderson’s ‘Speak My Language’, a moody track speaking of the living and the dead, which plays in full over abstract imagery. Along with Shirley Kwan’s ‘Wang Ji Ta’, these tracks emphasise the bleak circumstances of the characters, who seem more like spectres haunting the city than people with lives of their own. 

Closing out the film is The Flying Pickets’ ‘Only You’, perhaps the only track to express hopefulness, as 2 lovelorn characters find a chance to escape from the film’s seemingly perpetual night. 

Happy Together (1997)

Happy Together (1997)
© Courtesy of Janus Films

More than any of his other films, Happy Together is Wong’s break-up movie, and while the influences of traditional and Latin music are still very much apparent, the film sets itself apart sonically by mashing those traditional sounds with the eclectic, hybrid stylings of Frank Zappa.

Zappa’s music dominates a lot of the soundtrack, with the energy and passion of 2 extremely different tracks – ‘Chunga’s Revenge’ and ‘I Have Been in You’ – underscoring the volatile relationship between Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung) and Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung). Their aggressions and love go back and forth, Wong’s elliptical storytelling seeing them apart and then together again, like a dance. It’s appropriate then that the score is also laden with the music of Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla, whose seductive compositions ‘Prologue – Tango apasionado’, ‘Finale – Tango apasionado’ and ‘Milonga for Three’ play over moments of their coupling and their separations, again and again. 

Once again, Wong’s curation makes sense of his character’s relationships when the people themselves cannot, often in ways more painful than already apparent on screen. The closing cover by Danny Chung of eponymous pop song ‘Happy Together’ is ironically even more upbeat than The Turtles’ original, while its lyrics (“only one for me is you, and you for me”) work in contradiction to Yiu-fai’s apparent contentment with his return to Hong Kong. 

In the Mood for Love (2000)

In the Mood for Love (2000)
© Courtesy of Janus Films

Perhaps the most memorable score cue from In the Mood for Love is one borrowed from somewhere else. ‘Yumeji’s Theme’, by Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi, was originally from Seijun Suzuki’s 1991 film Yumeji, but, as with the various Cantopop covers found throughout Wong’s work, its repurposing here finds perhaps even greater emotional resonance. With cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s purposeful obscuring of faces and shots of clandestine meetings, the score does some heavy lifting in terms of portraying the turmoil beneath the central couple’s facade of restraint. 

Besides Umebayashi’s composition, the film prominently features the music of Nat King Cole, his Spanish-sung ‘Te quiero dijiste’ (‘Magic Is the Moonlight’) and ‘Quizás, quizás, quizás’ (‘Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps’) being the most memorable. The latter is a song of desperate romantic longing, expressing sentiments left tragically unspoken by its characters. 

2046 (2004)

2046 (2004)

A rare sequel among Wong’s filmography, 2046 follows on several years later from In the Mood for Love, after the brief encounter between Chow (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), focusing on the former as he hardens his heart against further pain. The film serves as a point of convergence for characters and themes from throughout the unofficial trilogy that began with Days of Being Wild, and unites the sounds of each. Wong also recruited Shigeru Umebayashi to compose 2046’s original score, its main theme recalling the dramatic strings of In the Mood for Love’s track ‘Yumeji’s Theme’ as Chow is haunted visually and sonically by his love for Li-zhen.

Each character from throughout the trilogy carries their heartbreak with them, something externalised in the film’s selection of songs, such as the old Mexican song ‘Cucurrucucú paloma’ or Xavier Cugat (again) with ‘Perfidia’ (a song that links him and Nat King Cole), the latter of which plays over fragmented imagery of returning Days of Being Wild character Lulu. The song ‘Siboney’ (which we heard Cugat’s version of in Days of Being Wild) is also covered here by Connie Francis, and Nat King Cole returns too with ‘The Christmas Song’ – a mixture that only adds to the confusion of emotions and time that makes up 2046. 

Wong Kar Wai at BFI Southbank

The films of cinema’s most evocative master of bittersweet romance come to BFI Southbank in July.

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