Positioning auteur theory in Hong Kong Cinema: the effects of intratextuality and intertextuality in the films of Wong Kar-Wai

The auteur debate has been in currency for more than five decades, and has remained a highly persuasive discourse, adopting and re-appropriating new arguments and challenges to its original conception. The origins of the discourse has its roots in the ‘Cahiers du Cinéma’, enforcing the notion that despite the industrial context of popular commercial cinema, the director of the film could be considered as the sole author of the text. The commercial text was elevated to an art status, resulting from the creation of a single creative ‘genius’. The challenges to this discourse originated in critical approaches, motivated by the critical shift towards Structuralism in the 1970s and a phenomenonological Post-Structuralist approach in the 1980s. However, the key notions, which have survived these challenges, are individualism and personal expression, concentrating on the thematic concerns and stylistic aesthetics.

If this primitive and naïve concept of auteur theory is applied to the director Wong Kar-wai, he can be considered an auteur, inventing his own style, which is a synthesis between Hong Kong culture and World Cinema. He is amongst a pantheon of critically acclaimed directors from the Hong Kong Second New Wave, establishing himself as a brand name to the West and to Western academia through international film and art-house festivals. These film festivals have played an important part in the career of Wong Kar-wai providing him with art-house recognition, defining his films as art and therefore casting him in the place of the author.

Within the Approaches to Authorship (Staiger, 2003), Wong Kar-wai is able to fit into several of the different categories, in relation to the development of the polemic. In the approach of Authorship as Origin (Staiger, 2003: 30-33), the author is conceptualized as a free agent, allowing the author to freely express his own ideas. Wong Kar-wai is not attached to a studio, using his own production company, Jet Tone. This renders him free from the overbearing nature of a studio on a film’s production, permitting his populist and experimental tendencies. The author has both primary and secondary origins, with the influence of cinematographer Christopher Doyle on the works of Wong Kar-wai being a salient example.

In the early structuralist phase of Foucault, he suggests that the author and the name of the author functions as ‘a principle of grouping of discourses, conceived as the unity and origin of their meaning’ (Foucault, 1981:65). As a consequence, when applied to Wong Kar-wai, the ‘author function’ (Foucault, 1984) principle organises his disparate group of film texts together, despite their non-relation to each other. In addition, it is possible to further break down this structure into two distinct categories in relation to his film texts, as a cinema of youth and a cinema of the mature. The cinema of youth in terms of Wong Kar-wai’s films adheres to postmodern aesthetics and narratives, which have created a break in the structuring of his works and have also served to threaten and undermine the structuralist approach to his works.

Renoir proposed ‘that a director spends his whole life making one film; this film … consists not only of the typical features of its variants … but of the principle of variants which governs it’ (Wollen, 1972: 104). Within the body of works by Wong Kar-wai, the concepts of the intratextual plot and characterization are prevalent in the cases of the 1960s trilogy of Days of Being WildIn the Mood for Love, and 2046, and the postmodern duo of Chungking Express/ Chung Hing sam lam (1994) and Fallen Angels/ Duo luo tain shi (1995).

The intratextual notion is reinforced between Wong Kar-wai’s films through the usage of a core group of actors, repeatedly used within his films, for example Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Leslie Cheung, Andy Lau, Faye Wong and Takeshi Kaneshiro. This intratextual element extends beyond cinema within his works, and is even apparent in his commercials, since ‘Wong made a Motorola commercial in 1997 featuring the popular singer and actress Faye Wong’ (Yau, 2001:10).

The narrative of In the Mood for Love commences at the point where the previous film ends, with the key element linking the two films together not only being the era, but also the inclusion of the actor Tony Leung, who is first glimpsed in the final sequence of Days of Being Wild. In the final sequence, he plays an unnamed and unknown character to the spectator. The spectator will only gain information and be able to acknowledge the character in the next film. The character of Su Li-zhen, played by Maggie Cheung, also re-emerges as a central protagonist, thus enhancing the argument for an intratextual link. The auteur self-consciously constructs an intratextual bridge between the two films, permitting the narrative to develop like a serial. However, the introduction of a new character to the audience suggests that the new film is a new chapter in the story of the 1960s, rather than a direct sequel, creating a novelistic approach to filmmaking.

The subsequent film in the trilogy, 2046, further enhances the concept of the serial, since the narrative is portrayed in a serial structure. The continuation of the story is recounted through the star body of Tong Leung, again playing the role of Mr Chow and a brief cameo appearance from Maggie Cheung as Su Li-zhen. The narrative transpires in the same room, which the character of Mr Chow inhabited in the previous film, the room of 2046. These inclusions once more create an intratextual link between the two films, suggesting that the film, in terms of characterization, is nominally a sequel to In the Mood for Love and concludes a trilogy. 2046 is less concerned with the era in which it is rooted, but as it is based on the same characters and includes the same actors as the previous films, it becomes rooted in the 1960s.

The film 2046 is emotionally in juxtaposition to In the Mood for Love in terms of the relationships between the characters, yet this juxtaposition is important in order to comprehend the actions of the characters within 2046. The character of Chow Mo-wan, portrayed by Hong Kong star Tony Leung in both films, is a family man, displaying the quality of commitment to marriage. He is an embodiment of old fashioned values during the sequence set in Hong Kong in In the Mood for Love. However, the character undergoes a shift after the demise of the relationship with his wife and emotional affair with the Maggie Cheung character, Su Li-zhen. He escapes Hong Kong, fleeing to Singapore, where he develops into a cynical character, unable to commit, preferring to stay and live in hotels.

This shift in his characterization in the film is crucial for the spectator’s comprehension of the intratextual character in 2046. He has developed from a journalist into an author, contemplating what love means to him. The character of Su Li-zhen becomes less of a character and more of an image of love and of an ideal woman, allowing the author to self-consciously compare all the women in his life. This suggests that the auteur is self-consciously acknowledging the characters, relationship and plot from the previous film as an intratextual reference. In the Mood for Love is thus rendered as the missing chapter of the 2046 story.

The character of Su-Li-zhen also functions to create an intratextual link between the three films, featuring in a reversal to the Chow Mo-wan character throughout the films. Su Li-zhen features prominently in the first two films, functioning as a central character to the plot, but in 2046, she is restricted to a cameo appearance, whereas Chow Mo-wan makes a cameo appearance in the first production, Days of Being Wild and then as a protagonist in the subsequent two films.

The concept of intratextuality further promotes the reading of a film in relation to another within the director’s body of work, ‘so as to tease out the filmmaker’s identifiable signature style and recurrent thematic obsession’ (Lim, 2007: 227). Peter Wollen (1972) adapts Sarris’ pattern theory (1992: 587) into a structure, suggesting the mark of an auteur not simply as either a thematic or aesthetic signature, but more generally as a recurring pattern of motifs or ‘signs’ over the body of the auteur’s work. This pattern of motifs and signs ‘give an author’s work its particular structure, both defining it internally and distinguishing one body of work from another’ (Wollen, 1972: 80). The works of Wong Kar-wai maintain a common body of themes which pervade the films and embody the characters. The auteur consciously builds a pattern of motifs into his body of works, suggesting an intratextual or serial approach to his films.

Within the works of Wong Kar-wai, there are a plethora of perceptions of space, whether personal or physical. The physical space of Hong Kong is presented through confinement and a close proximately to others. The space of Hong Kong is calculated in centimetres in the Hong Kong space, for example in Chungking Express it is stated that “at our closest point, we were just .01cm apart”. However, ‘Structuralist criticism cannot rest at the perception of resemblances or repetitions, but must also comprehend a system of differences and oppositions’ (Wollen, 1972:93), and when Wong Kar-wai creates his first non-Hong Kong feature, My Blueberry Nights (2007), and transposes his motif of displaying space to America, space is calculated in miles. This highlights a fallacy within the works of Wong Kar-wai, since the intratextual portrayal of calculating space remains, yet it is altered in order to adhere to the country of the film’s origin. The portrayal of space as an intratextual concept remains, but the perception and meaning of the space is altered. In the Hong Kong perception, there is emotional space between the characters, whereas in America, there is physical space and boundary between the characters.

The personal and intimate space of the characters is displayed as a male domestic space, which is intruded upon by the female characters within the films As Tears go By/Wong gok ka moon (1988), Days of Being Wild, and Chungking Express. The female relationship with this space is tangential, ‘whereas the male characters are firmly entrenched within the domestic’ (Fu and Desser, 2000:305). The female characters treat these male domestic spaces as a shared space, and as a temporal space, since they do not remain within this for the duration of the film. The intratextual concept of the shared space is also portrayed through the motif of open doors. Within the 1960s trilogy, the doors are never shut, which pertains to a shared space and a closer bond between neighbours.

The space of Hong Kong in the trilogy is evocative of the 1960s, the era of the director’s childhood. The mise-en-scène functions in order to recapture and preserve a forgotten era, for example in In the Mood for Love and 2046, the character of Su Li-zhen is clothed in a chengsam, a costume evocative of the 1960s, and the films follow the 1960s trend in East Asia of renting out rooms. The intratextual inclusion of the era of the 1960s into his works suggests that the auteur ‘has a coherent personality that appears in the production of the text’ (Staiger, 2003:33), permitting the spectator to derive the auteur’s personality from the text, due to the subconscious inclusion by the auteur. This idea is further enhanced due to the inclusion in In the Mood for Love of the Shanghainese dialect, which pertains to the personal expression of the auteur, since he spent his formative years in Shanghai.


The films of Wong Kar-wai contain two separate motifs in relation to the concept of time; a Dali-esque time (Villella, (n.d)) and a time of anxiety, counting down the British handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. The concept of the Dali-esque time creates a temporal indeterminacy, allowing the images to function as an anti-narration technique since they ‘do not narrate, they linger, describe, and emote’ (Totaro and Villella, n.d). The action in terms of the characters stands still and focuses on the emotion of the characters as time continues past the characters in Chungking ExpressFallen Angels and In the Mood for Love. Peter Wollen (1972: 105) considers the film text as similar to a composer’s score. It has to be performed, the ‘auteur’ being both composer and performer.  The shots and the perception of time thus contain an internal rhythm, which adheres to an analogy of the auteur as virtuosic. The inclusion of this motif exists over the period of his works as a distinct and unique score in his films.

The films of Wong Kar-wai, situated in Hong Kong and pre-1997, include the motifs of the close-up shot on clocks, counting down to the imminent handover of Hong Kong. These intratextual motifs of close-up shots of clocks function as a metaphor for the sense of anxiety of the impending end of British colonialism and the fall of Hong Kong to Communism. The clocks represent ‘a time dimension skewed in favour of the past and the future, skipping the present’ (Teo, 1997:251), leading to a depiction of a birth of the notion of nostalgia and the fear of ‘culture of disappearance (the Déjà Disparu)’ (Abbas, 1997:16). However, post-1997, the films mark a change in direction in terms of Hong Kong identity and anxiety over this shift. It marks a full stop and a watershed in terms of intratextuality with the shift away from youthful films plagued with anxiety towards a nostalgic maturing cinema.

The intratextual motif of food serving as a synonym for loss in relationships and as a means of overcoming love is evident in Kar-wai’s films. In In the Mood for Love, Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen order food in a restaurant, according to the tastes of their spouses. The food thus functions as a means of consuming and adopting the place of their spouse and atones for the losses in their relationships. In Chungking Express, the character of Cop 223, consumes 30 tins of his former partner’s favourite fruit, pineapple. This forces him to vomit, purging him of his love for his former partner and providing him with the necessary cathartic release in order to overcome his grief.

The concept of intratextuality occludes the problem of the maturing of actors, characters and therefore of themes. The binary theme and motif of love and desire is a prominent and universal theme, which transcends both time and space within the body of works. However, the theme of love is portrayed through the loneliness, alienation and isolation which consume the protagonists.

The intratextual themes remain consistent throughout his body of works; nonetheless the films pre-In the Mood for Love contain young, single characters whereas after this film, there is a marked shift towards maturing and married characters. The characters remain the same as before, but the time and the space are different, resulting in a different portrayal of love, for example in the case of In the Mood for Love and 2046, the two films take opposite approaches, functioning as a mirror to one another. The film 2046 reverts to the portrayal of love in the cinema of youth, in which the male protagonists are unable to commit, condemning them to an existence of loneliness and alienation. The final commitment of love to marriage is absent from the protagonist’s lives, a motif which is reversed in In the Mood for Love.

The concept of intratextuality ‘interpellates a particular kind of spectatorship that borders on cinephillia’ and ‘rewards a certain kind of audience reception’ (Lim, 2007: 227). The regular spectator of the films of Wong Kar-wai becomes privy to the common development of themes within his body of work and is therefore able to comprehend the ancillary meanings embedded within the subsequent works. The rewarding of the cinephillic nature of the spectator is highlighted through Wong Kar-wai’s use of self-parody in Chungking Express through ‘the use in the first part of exaggerated blues and reds, of slow-motion (step-printing) techniques, of quick cutting that makes action a blur – all this recalls the style of As Tears Go By’ (Abbas, 1997:56). The regular spectatorship forms the cult of an auteur and the establishing of the auteur as a brand name, which cinematic exhibition relies upon.

The director’s name is crucial as a semiotic signifier for a single creative personality, reflecting a ‘traditional demonstration of the director’s primacy’ (Bradshaw, 2009) at film festivals. The Cannes film festival in particular plays a crucial role in the career of Wong Kar-wai, since the festival has screened the majority of his works and serves as a deadline for his productions. The screening at Cannes is often the first time his film is viewed in the West in its entirety. Nevertheless, after the Cannes festival screening, Wong Kar-wai’s works are subject to a subsequent adding and removing of scenes and remixing of sound within his films. In the case of 2046 (2004), despite having the same duration, there is a Cannes version of the film, separate to that of the final DVD cut of the film, resulting in two separate versions of the same film. This complicates the intratextual spectatorship of his films, producing a variation of the film release and changing meanings of not only the original conception, but additionally intratextual references.

Intertextuality suggests an approach to filmmaking, which ‘designates a multidimensional relation through which a particular text is intelligible in terms of other texts that it cites, reiterates, revises, and transforms’ (Goodwin, 1994:9). The concept of intertextuality permits the spectator to freely associate films based upon their personal response, ‘which proclaims the reader’s freedom to associate texts at random, as dictated by his culture or personal idiosyncrasies’ (Barthes and Orr, 2003:36). Hence, the spectator’s personal reflection and a cinephillia approach towards intertextuality are necessary in order to create links between films and between auteurs.

The concept of authorship occludes the intentional fallacy and mythology of the originality of the auteur. The authorial intention is questionable due to the possibility to unintentionally communicate references to texts, since ‘a text…made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader’ (Barthes, 1977:148). These references can be attributed by the spectator indicating the birth of the reader, creating intertextual links through cinephillia processes and criticism. In the case of Wong Kar-wai, the intertextual references in his work can be divided into two distinct categories in terms of the Eastern and Western influences. In terms of an Eastern spectatorship, the works of Wong Kar-wai’s narrative experimentation derives from the films of Hong Kong director, Patrick Tam, which is due to the previous relationship between the directors since Wong Kar-wai used to write the screenplays for Patrick Tam, including the film Final Victory/Zui hou shen li (Tam, 1987).

By adopting this approach to the style of the films of Wong Kar-wai, there is a synthesis between the East Asian, Hong Kong, the native culture and the culture of a world cinema, with, from a Eurocentric perspective, notable parallels to the French Nouvelle Vague. This movement of the 1950s concerned young auteurs and critics serving in the Cahiers du Cinéma, opposed to the traditional and mainstream cinema of the era, the ‘cinéma du papa’. The flagship film of the French New Wave, A Bout de Souffle (Godard, 1960) announced liberation from the previous mainstream cinema, promoting an individual freedom, whilst profiting from the new technology of handheld cameras and the birth of the jump cut. This development within the technology enabled the freedom of producing a film in the streets, reflected in the works of Wong Kar-wai due to the constraints of filming within the geographically small and cramped space of Hong Kong. His works are aligned with the European New Waves, distancing themselves from the archetypal cause and effect Hollywood narratives.

The postmodernist films of Chungking Express and Fallen Angels play ‘like a re-vitalised Godard movie’ (Teo, 1997:196). In terms of editing, in Chungking Express, there is the recurrent use of jump-cuts, creating a clear reference to the works of Godard since it is an editing technique, which he introduced. The usage of the jump-cut has its origins in the films of Godard, creating an ellipsis in time and space in order to ‘atomize the character’s lives, temporally and spatially’ (Fu and Desser, 2000:301). By experimenting with film practice, Godard attempted to add his own signature to the narrative, creating a sense of modernity, which Wong Kar-wai has in turn harnessed in order to stabilize his image as an auteur and establish an authorial association.


The characters of Wong Kar-wai’s postmodern collective of films reflect those within the films of Brecht and Godard, since they are ‘sometimes nameless, sometimes faceless creations’ (Fu and Desser, 2000:291). This uncertainty of identity is highlighted in Chungking Express with the two central male protagonists identifying themselves by their police numbers, for example Cop 223 and Cop 663. This remains the case in Fallen Angels as the three central protagonists identify themselves to the audience as Prisoner 223, The Killer and The Killer’s Agent. The physicality and appearance of the Faye Wong character in Chungking Express functions as an intertextual reference to the Jean Seberg character of Patricia in Godard’s A Bout de Souffle. The Faye character invokes a 1960’s quality, resembling Godard’s Patricia with short hair and a slight figure, whilst also embodying a sense of innocence.

The look and appearance of the films of Wong Kar-wai, in particular In the Mood for Love and Happy Together/Chun gwong cha sit (1997), have parallels to the appearance of the works of Jacques Demy and in particular Umbrellas of Cherbourg/Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964). This functions as an example of vertical axis (Kristeva, 1980:69), which connects texts directly to other texts. Akin to Godard, Demy is a representative of the French New Wave, by creating his own unique style of filmmaking. His works are all inter-related and intratextual in terms of characterisation, with characters alluding back to previous characters, and by the perceiving of familiar environments in a magical way.

In terms of colouration, there are intertextual links between Happy Together and Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Through the use of colour, Demy tries to convey and create a total film by trying to create a special world, familiar, yet unfamiliar to the spectator. This is emphasised most clearly in the opening sequence, in which the town of Cherbourg is perceived as cloudy and dull, but as it rains, the town is transformed. It transforms through the inhabitants of the town who open up their different brightly coloured umbrellas, generating a colourful burst onto the screen, creating a film en couleur and ‘un film en chanté’[1] (Boineau, 1998:162). This burst of colour is evident in Happy Together, deriving from the pale, bleak and sepia tones used to colourise the city of Bueno Aires in Argentina, to a ‘colour with glowing squares of strawberry reds and banana yellows, rendering it as edible as Jacques Demy’s Eastmancolour-fest’ (O’Sullivan, 1998:49).

Thematic influences are also prevalent between the two auteurs works in terms of repetitions. In Umbrellas of Cherbourg, repetitions in narrative and character actions are used in order to emphasise the progress of the stories, for example the character of Geneviève walks along the port of the town twice in the film, but with two different lovers, reinforcing her moving on from her previous partner. This intertextual binary opposition of repetition and difference is utilised by Wong Kar-wai in In the Mood for Love. For example, Wong Kar-wai uses a repetition of dialogue, but a variation in actions in the scene when Mr Chow and Mrs Chan discuss their spouse’s reaction to their late arrival home. In the initial scene, Mr Chow attempts and fails to seduce Mrs Chan, whereas in the following scene, Mrs Chan initiates and fails in her attempt to seduce Mr Chan. The repetitions in both films also serve to display the non-unique nature of everyday life, attributing to a concept of time passing. These authorial associations with auteurs of the French New Wave, in particular Godard and Demy, have, as a consequence, permitted ‘a Bakhtinian dialogic imagination between auteurs’ (Lim, 2007:235).


In a similar manner to Godard, Wong Kar-wai’s works have an intertextual relationship between the New Wave cinema and Hollywood. This is most evident in Chungking Express, which like A Bout de Souffle, ‘pastiches Hollywood genres like the policier, the gangster film, and the romantic comedy’ (Marchetti, Fu and Desser, 2000:306). The intertextual links to Hollywood cinema also pervade into the characterizations in the film in the form of the Brigitte Lin character, the woman in the blonde wig. This character’s name functions as a semiotic signifier of her self, with the blonde wig evoking Marilyn Monroe. It functions as an attempt to aspire to an idealization of western femininity and beauty, as it is conveyed that the only Western character and mob boss prefers blonde women to the traditional East Asian female appearance. The blonde wig enables the character to portray an axis of sexuality.

In terms of an American cinema infatuation embedded within the works of Wong Kar-wai, he offers in his films a personal reflection on the 1960s, situated within his memory of Hong Kong. The film Days of Being Wild is a reconfiguring of the 1960s era, but it represents a reconfiguring of an East Asian reflection of the Rebel without a Cause (Ray, 1955) era. Wong Kar-wai’s first two films as director, As Tears go By and Days of Being Wild, display an ‘a fei’[2] fixation, a fixation with rebels and youth tearaways. The original Cantonese title for Days of Being Wild as A Fei zheng chuan, which ‘means ‘The Truth about A Fei’…was used for Rebel without a Cause on its release in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which means it conjures up memories of James Dean for at least one generation of Chinese viewers’ (‘Charisma Express’, 2000: 36). The male protagonists in both of Wong Kar-wai’s films adhere to the iconography of the era, repeatedly smoking cigarettes in order to enhance their rebellious James Dean image. The title and protagonists function as intertextual links between the two films of Wong Kar-wai and Rebel without a Cause, and function as a citation of popular culture.

The film As Tears go By enables an alternative approach towards intertextuality, as it functions as a translation and a re-authoring of Mean Streets (Scorsese, 1973). This film as a remake relies upon the authorship of the original film and provides a self-conscious acknowledgement of the concept of intertextuality within the texts. Wong Kar-wai thus adopts the premise of the original film, but sets it within his recognisable world of triads rather than American gangsters. The spectator is as a consequence rewarded with the pleasure of recognition of the world that they inhabit along with a popular narrative.

In terms of Western influences, the film Happy Together deals with a homosexual content through its portrayal of mise-en-scène and characters. The character of Leslie Cheung, Ho Po-wing, becomes a hustler, a character type coined in the new wave of hustler movies, which pervaded the Independent American cinema. The character therefore functions as an intertextual reference of films which promoted the hustler figure, such as My Own Private Idaho (Van Sant, 1991).

The homosexual overtones permit the creation of the mise-en-scène of a sexual ghetto, creating intertextual references to the works of Fassbinder, since the ‘abattoir scene affirms the materiality of flesh at a moment of emotional suffering, resonating with a scene in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s transsexual story In a Year of Thirteen Moons (1978)’ (Yau, 2001:24). Fassbinder’s film ‘tells the story of a transsexual, Erwin/Elvira, whose melancholy over being abandoned by her lovers leads to her to commit suicide’ (Yau, 2001:285). Happy Together contains male homosexual characters, therefore the queer nature of the characterisations remains. In the original conception of the film, Lai Yiu-fai, had an individual storyline in which he attempted to commit suicide. Furthermore, Ho Po-wing is abandoned by Lai Yiu-fai at the film’s conclusion. The self-conscious nature of this intertextual inclusion is further reinforced in scenes cut from the final completed film.

In the films of Wong Kar-wai, the soundtrack is utilised along with the film  medium, which ‘are organized, articulated in terms of one another in accordance with a certain order, they contract unilateral hierarchies…Thus a veritable system of intercodial relations is generated which in itself, in some sort, another code’ (Metz, 1974:242). The use of a popular song as a soundtrack is a dominant code, used in order to generate meaning, bringing ‘their own language, expression and history to the film, and spectators who were already familiar with these songs’ (de Carvalho, 2008:204). The soundtrack informs the spectator of a pre-existing set of popular references, for example the use of the track ‘Take My Breath Away’ by Berlin in As Tears go By, whilst Andy Lau is viewed wearing aviator sunglasses and riding a motorcycle, evoking the popular memory of Top Gun (Scott, 1986).

The use of the score brings a set of pre-existing references to the nature of the film, since the central theme of 2046 is ‘reminiscent of the score composed by Vangelis for the archetypal science fiction Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)’ (de Carvalho, 2008:200). This intertextual use encourages a comparison between the films in terms of genre, since 2046 contains futuristic scenes of a dystrophic Hong Kong set fifty years in advance, with characters taking on android characteristics. In the case of Happy Together, the score of the Anglophone popular song ‘Happy Together’ by the Turtles encourages the spectator to create a link between the lyrics and the central theme of the film. However, this creates an aporia in the text’s message, since the two central protagonists struggle to coexist.

The actors used within the films of Wong Kar-wai have a popular music background prior to acting, and in turn create their own Cantonese version of popular songs, for example Faye Wong and ‘Dreams’ initially by the Cranberries. The popular songs lend themselves to the characters, describing their inner thoughts and desires. In reference to the Faye Wong character, the song serves to express her characteristic trait of reverie. Wong Kar-wai is thus placed within the pantheon of directors who reach towards the performer and create a documentary of the star, instead of placing a focus on the performer’s embodiment of the character. This quality in which ‘the director responds to the graphic and behavioural properties to the actor’ has intertextual parallels with ‘Von Sternberg’s work with Dietrich, Hawks’ with Cary Grant and John Wayne, Rossellini’s response to Ingrid Bergman’ (Gross, 1996:9). However, this follows the trope of comparing East Asian filmmakers to European auteurs, forging intertextual links between them.

The philosopher Frederick Nietzsche identified that within Western culture there is an eternal recurrence, that there is a circular pattern to life. This suggests that texts are constantly regenerated and therefore intertextual, borrowing and plagiarizing elements from the original conception. Wong Kar-wai draws on literary conventions within his films, adapting and adopting these conventions into his cinematic style. Wong Kar-wai is a literary director with ‘predilections for covering his ground with literary references’ (Teo, 2001). Happy Together is an adaptation of the novel The Buenos Aires Affair by Manuel Puig, and from this novel the film borrows its setting, plot and novelistic structure. The adaptation of the novel to screen is able to ‘create intertextual analogous to the intertextuality found within their literary originals’ (Goodwin, 1994:13). The transposition of the novel to film allows novelistic structures to permeate into the film, creating intertextual structures.

In terms of thematic influences, the films of Wong Kar-wai denote the space of Hong Kong as a site of possibility for the characters through the intersecting and interwoven paths of the characters. This theme of intersecting paths has literary roots, and are an intertextual borrowing from the novel ‘Intersection, the Chinese title of which is Duidao, tells of the way in which two characters’ lives…appear to intersect in ways apparently determined by the nature of the city’ (Teo, 2001).

 The use of voiceover is a recurring motif within his works, functioning as a soliloquy, as a literary form of discourse in which a character reveals thoughts without directly addressing a listener. The voiceover creates an intertextual reference to the literary narrative, borrowing influences from different sources and mediums. The voiceover is used as an example of enunciation, creating an axiomatic element to the characters and permitting the spectator to see beyond the character’s veneer. The axiomatic nature of the voiceover in Wong Kar-wai’s films pertain to a ‘film authorship…now exploring strategies of self-reflexive address’ (Maule, 1998: 128).

The monologues generate an episodic and fragmented structure, serving to ‘unveil the mechanisms of narrative and representational mimesis, violating the rule of cinematic address and transparency’ (Maule, 1998:122). The voiceover replaces conversation and interaction between the characters, drawing attention to the film’s artificiality, which is reinforced in Fallen Angels in which the character of Prisoner 223 is mute, not speaking to any character apart from addressing the audience through voiceover. The Anglophone film, My Blueberry Nights, is didactic in its approach of voiceover; an element which is novelistic in its conception. This didactic voiceover is portrayed through the writings between the characters on postcards, which are consequently read out to the audience. These two conceptions of voiceover both serve to ‘install the spectator in a circuit of communication and make the spectator aware of being addressed’ (Maule, 1998:122).

The film 2046 is identified as an intertextual film in terms of its narrative structure, which ‘comprised three discrete stories…inspired by a 19th-century opera, all three centred on sexual relations between humans and androids in a future city’ (‘The Long Goodbye’, 2008:23). The futuristic element of the opera is borrowed and adopted by Wong Kar-wai into an idea, which reflects his intratextual motif of the anxiety of the handover. The central character is a writer, Mr Chow, and the three stories enable the film to deal with his real life situation and respond to his desires and his interaction with his desires. The film relies upon both the ‘reel’ life of the character and the imagined life and as a consequence relies upon a stream of consciousness. This element is an intertextual reference, since it ‘was inspired by Liu Yichang, a relatively obscure Hong Kong author whose 1962 novel Jiutu (The Drunkard) has been hailed as the first stream-of-consciousness novel in modern Chinese literature’ (Teo, 2005).

 Roland Barthes suggests that the death of the author is required for the birth of the reader in his Death of the Author (Barthes, 1977) article. In the case of Wong Kar-wai, the personalisation of his films is central to the niche marketing of his films on the global scale, which connotes ‘the power of a certain authority…as a cult figure or familiar brand name that is the issue in the ensuing reassessment of Barthes contribution to ‘intertextuality’’(Orr, 2003:33). The intratextual framework relates to a dialogue between his works, neutralizing any arising conflicts. This encourages a cinephillia approach towards his films understanding, highlighting the importance of ‘the way they are elucidated and evaluated’ (Sarris, 2003:28) and therefore the critic’s role in the positioning of the auteur. However, the concept of intertextuality obscures the role of the auteur and Wong Kar-wai’s texts become framed by other texts, since ‘every text is an intertext…every text is a tissue of recycled citations’ (Orr, 2003:33). Hence, the works of Wong Kar-wai are subject to the dichotomy of influences inside and outside his works in order to establish his position as an auteur.




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Yau, E. (2001) At full Speed: Hong Kong Cinema in a Borderless World, London: University of Minnesota Press

[1] The term ‘en chanté’ through literal translation represents ‘in song’, which represents the sung dialogue throughout the film. If the two separate words are joined together, the term ‘enchanté’ as enchanted is created, pertaining to a magical and colourful world.

[2] A fei is the Cantonese generic pseudonym for a youth tearaway.


One response to “Positioning auteur theory in Hong Kong Cinema: the effects of intratextuality and intertextuality in the films of Wong Kar-Wai

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