Understanding Wong Kar Wai, his themes, and his visuals

Wong Kar Wai is one of the most influential auteurs of our time. To understand the individualistic style and the experimental aspect of his films, it is important to understand Hong Kong Cinema Second Wave. 


The New Wave alternatively known as the First Wave began in the 1970s. Movies in this era focused on crime, violence, and lost innocence and were strictly dominated by martial arts cinema.

The second wave, however, experimented with characters and had a bigger presence of romance and a new level of maturity. It was a very distinction for the new generation of filmmakers. 

The second wave was an era when filmmakers had more creative freedom. Highly influenced by Hollywood, movies made during this period were experimental and explored themes and genres other than Kung Fu. 

The second wave consisted of directors and filmmakers who were educated abroad and therefore influenced by Western culture. Their movies were a synthesis of the Western world and the Eastern world, inspired by Japan, China, and the USA. John Woo, Ang Lee, Ann Hui, Edward Yang, and Wong Kar Wai are a few highly acclaimed directors from the second wave.

Films made during this period utilized new technology and techniques. Movies were not made for commercial purposes alone. It was a social medium mirroring social and political issues, such as the Vietnam War and the cultural revolution.

“This is what the difference is between Hong Kong and Chinese cinema. Chinese cinema was made for their communities, it was for propaganda. But Hong Kong made films to entertain and they know how to communicate with international audiences.”

Wong Kar Wai on the second wave.

Their movies represented Hong Kong as a fast-paced modern metropolitan, culturally accepting place where people with different backgrounds lived and worked in harmony. Characters in the movies spoke Mandarin, Cantonese, and English and signified Hong Kong as one of the most liberal societies in Asia.


For a genius like Wong Kar Wai, an inspiration to many filmmakers (Including the Academy Award-winning director Barry Jenkins), one might want to know his process of filmmaking. Wong admits that he assumed and even wanted to be as systematic and organized as Alfred Hitchcock.

But that was not the case. Wong is known for writing on the set and changing the script either the night before the shoot or at times even during the shoot. He writes as inspiration strikes. Wong arrives on set without much of a plan and then builds his story ahead of what he has available.

“I am writing all the time. It means that the film is not an organic form. It’s not fixed.” 

-Wong Kar Wai

Wong explains that being on set opens up possibilities for him that a pre-written script wouldn’t let him see. Locations influence creative angles, color palettes, or story ideas. This might be the reason why his movies go over schedule and budget. And also why time moves erratically and the narrative skips and jumps forward in most of his films.


Wong’s unusual method of working brings out yet another beautiful result. Most directors begin with a storyline and then establish the characters as the story progresses. While Wong takes the characters as a starting point and then develops the story based on what the characters would do. He considers characters as more important than the story.

He believes that since the characters are coming from him, they cannot have different personalities, thus they cannot be entirely separated. Perhaps that is why we feel his characters, even from different movies, have commonalities in them and are interlinked.


Wong’s artistic style and setting, unconventional shots are lighting are primal elements of his aesthetics. These were possible because of the fine understanding between Wong and his cinematographers.

On his debut film, As Tears Go By,  Wong worked with cinematographer Andrew Lau. The duo introduced many visual elements, which became Wong’s cinematic approach in his later movies.

Christopher Doyle became Wong’s cinematographer for a majority of his movies. Doyle understood the “sense of loss” and the sense of “things falling apart” Wong sought to convey. Both Doyle and Lau worked together in Chunking Express. 


Every auteur has a signature style that makes him instantly recognizable. Apart from unconventional visuals, Wong Kar Wai is known for introducing the masterful essence of loneliness, unrequited love, invasion of personal space, uncertainty, conflict, and escape from reality, along with a background on Hong Kong’s socio-political environment.

Loneliness and Solitude

Wong Kar Wai makes his characters lonely and deserted desperately seeking human connections. Living in a state of dreaminess, they are portrayed as people trapped in solitude even when surrounded by family and friends. 

Their exaggerated thirst for intimacy and belonging leads them into making desperate attempts. To such an extent that Cop 633 and Faye (Chung King Express) personify inanimate objects by talking to them, convinced that the objects have very human-like feelings. 

On the other hand, Cop 223 makes late-night calls to people he has not met or talked to in years. Hoping they could reconnect, only to get turned down by everyone. Wong characterizes them as people alienated in crowded urban spaces. 


The audience lives vicariously through his characters as their story unfolds. They are loners and drifters. In, In the mood for love, his leads carry a sense of longing with them. Both of them are victims of infidelity thus both of them feel like desolate outsiders in their own homes. 

His films carry emotions such as longing, memories, and the characters living in them. His leads Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, role-play as each other’s spouses, they order food their spouses would have, and they even act out how the affair might have begun. There is a sense of exile and separation in their relationship.

Their desperation and struggle to connect are astutely represented in Fallen Angels, where the killer leaves clues in his trash to ‘help’ his Agent understand him better. 

Wong makes his characters physically and emotionally adrift. Freely conveys longing and the feeling of melancholy without exchanging many dialogues. It is from their actions that the audience feels how distant and self-contained their lives are.

His movies focus on people’s deeply personal relationships while maintaining a balance between beauty and chaos. Lonely souls moving in a crowded world trying to make meaningful connections.

Unrequited Love

Forbidden, unrequited love and Wong go hand in hand. A Wong movie is incomplete without any exploration of unattainable love

A genre lavishly explored in In the mood for love, a tragic and twisted love story. Considered one of the most sorrowful romantic movies ever made, the movie celebrates yearning for loss, missed opportunities, and regrets.

Despite being in love and having disloyal partners, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan chose to end their non-relationship. They choose to live with ‘what could be but never was.’ 

Perhaps being referred to by her spouse’s name throughout the movie and not revealing her actual name, Wong established that Mrs. Chan belongs to Mr. Chan most shrewdly.

Wong puts his characters in a situation where they are dancing on the edge of being intimate, but never come close enough. After finally coming clean in her letter about her (Faye) feelings for Cop 633, they are separated by a smudged destination (Chungking Express). 

Unable to move on, his characters are stuck in complex love situations, intimate territories of memory, time, and frustrated love. Despite being in a toxic relationship with Ho Po-Wing, Lai Yiu Fai constantly goes the extra mile for him (Happy Together).

Repressed desires of lost love and inability to leave their pasts, Wong mourns unattained love by romanticizing it. 


An emotion highly experienced by Wong’s characters is being delusional enough to escape from their realities. His characters are often in denial and create imaginative realities.

Although their levels of delusions vary, they all are in some denial. The Killer (Fallen Angels) convinces himself that he is just a lazy messenger and that the time and place of death of people are decided by someone else. Instead of accepting that his relationship has ended, Cop 223 (Chungking Express) sets an expiration date for his love. Similarly, despite being caught red-handed, Faye in Cop 633’s apartment lies and escapes from confronting her true feelings.

They are surprisingly absorbed in their fantasy worlds, away from the reality that their immediate response to any situation is to escape. Be it Faye listening to loud music to avoid thinking or Cop 633 consoling his household items post-break-up. 

They are portrayed as people who have convinced themselves with enough lies and excuses. Wong’s greatest representation of delusional characters is Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow (In The Mood For Love).

Innocent victims of failed marriages, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan fall for each other during their attempt to understand their spouses’ affairs. Instead of simply accepting the reality, they act out their spouses’ affairs.

They deal with betrayal unsentimentally, even though their (Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan) love is real they are in strong denial, unable to grasp reality. They are more comfortable living the imagined version of their love rather than accepting it. 

The inability to accept the truth is a common emotion among Wong’s characters. In Happy Together, the couple breaks up whenever their fights get serious. 

They are so terrified of reality that they find running away more convenient. For them, the past is a comfortable place to live in and to stay in touch with.

Uncertainty and conflict

Running away from reality can be further watered down as uncertainty and conflict. Their hunger of wanting what they can’t attain. Lack of communication for the lack of disagreements. Wong teases his characters by tempting them to be together but not without presenting a layer of uncertainty and ambiguity. 

Another running theme in Wong’s filmography is conflict within oneself. Focusing on nostalgic and hidden romances, the auteur constructs an environment where his leads are tempted and given opportunities to confess and be true. But their lack of courage holds them back making them escape.

Invasion of personal space

Another common aspect in almost every Wong movie is the invasion of privacy. Wong uses this tool most outrageously, to further add to the desperation and thirst for some connection his characters face.

He invades privacy in two ways. One method is by allowing the audience to hear his character’s most personal thoughts in the form of monologues. Wong allows the viewers into their lives and helps them understand his character’s background.

The other way personal spaces are invaded is by Wong allowing his characters to spy on other characters’ lives. Wong’s characters are often lurking in the shadows and spying on each other. 

Violation of privacy ranges from Faye breaking for cleaning and organizing Cop 633’s house (Chung King Express), to the Agent in Fallen Angels going through the Killer’s trash in the hopes of finding more about his whereabouts and life. Mrs. Chan smokes Mr. Chow’s cigarette in his Singapore apartment (In The Mood For Love) while Ho Po-Wing goes through Lai Yiu-Fai’s personal belongings (Happy Together).

This violation is an act of intimation that his characters celebrate. This is the extent of their closeness without any involvement of physical touch. This emotion is explained best by Cop 223 “That was the closest we ever got, just 0.01 cm between us” (Chung King Express).

Characters freely violating privacy and acting perversely without showing any remorse have become a trademark in Wong Kar Wai’s filmography.


Wong Kar Wai is a highly influential director, an auteur known for his unique camera style, memorable music, and soulful monologues by lonely characters. A Wong Kar Wai movie consists of many visual and theatrical aspects, which are the signature of the director and thus become instantly recognizable. 

Loyal to his experimental nature in filmography, Wong Kar Wai’s movies have an individualistic and very original style. 


What is Step-Printing?

Step-Printing is the duplication of a film frame. The duplication of multiple film frames stretches the running time of the sequence and creates a sense of slow motion.

Step-printing means using every alternate frame (at 24 fps) twice. Every second frame is played twice, and when culminated, it results in a slow-motion effect.

Step-Printing is one of the many visual components that are part of a typical Wong Kar Wai film. By creating jitteriness, shakiness, and slow-motion shots, Wong establishes an emotion distinct in every movie.

Employed in Chung King Express to create uneasiness and tension, a sense of a fast-moving world where the protagonists are stuck in a single motion, time, or place. Signifying them stuck in ‘the past’. While in Happy Together, it is used when the leads run away either from reality or their own emotions. 

Wong Kar Wai's Chungking Express

Wong’s creativity isn’t restricted to one emotion. His use of step-printing in Fallen Angels is one of the most talked-about visuals. Here applied to exhibit chaos, violence, and murder. The dreaminess of step-printing signifies the killer is trapped in his sense of solitude.

Because of Wong’s transcendental use of step-printing, the two are usually associated together.


Monologues are one of the most overtly used instruments by Wong Kar Wai. His dramatic use of monologues lets the viewers into his characters’ lives. Wong uses monologue as a means to establish their past as they narrate their experiences. 

His use of monologues connects the audience to his characters. By presenting a glimpse of their most personal-private thoughts, Wong makes the viewers feel like the characters or become a part of them. An intimate connection his characters hopelessly yearn for but rarely ever achieve it.

Monologues are a medium to explore the sense of isolation or the vanity of loneliness, the characters establish and portray throughout the movie. Since they fail to communicate and connect with others, they try to have meaningful conversations with themselves. 

Wong uses this instrument not merely for telling a story but to paint an experience. He permits the viewers to dive into his characters’ pasts in the hopes of a better understanding of them.

But the highly expressive monologues do not always dwell in the past. They often talk about random thoughts they have, how they try to make sense of certain situations or just the simple truth of human experience. Wong’s characters longing to have a meaningful conversation transpire enigmatically during these monologues as the characters try to make sense of everything. The profound use of monologues is an integral part of his aesthetics. 


Wong Kar Wai’s movies aren’t only visually and emotionally pleasing. One aspect that works like a final nail is his music preference. 

He uses a cinematic instrument called leitmotif. It means a recurrent theme throughout any literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation.

Captivating and appealing, the songs and music used in his movies create an entire mood. His music is so engaging that the audience gets completely absorbed in the scene. 

Wong’s use of music sets up an environment, creating almost a hypnotic state where the audience is prepared with an idea of what is about to happen.


When we come across an almost hypnotic eye-popping visual in a neon-soaked world, memorable use of colors, unconventional shots, frame within a frame, creating claustrophobic set designs, and adding catchy music. We know these instantly recognizable visual elements are of a Wong Kar Wai film. He has a reputation for romanticizing melancholy, he attains this by introducing meaningful visual experiences.


To showcase Hong Kong’s typical lifestyle Wong constructs an over-crowded and overpopulated setting drenched in neon. With the use of visuals, Wong channels emotions ranging from highly energetic to incredibly mundane

An atmosphere where his actors are placed in a colorfully lit and crowded setting visually and emotionally contained. In contrast to their lives, which are usually gloomy and lack purpose or meaning.

Wong uses color to portray emotions. While, red portrays passion, love, embarrassment and lust, and anger in Fallen Angels and In the Mood for Love. Green disguises envy and greed. Blue to convey coldness and distance (Chung King Express). And yellow for frustration, insecurities, cowardice, and caution in their frustration in Happy Together. 

With the use of shiny colors and hazy lights, Wong separates his protagonists from the world. He uses lighting and color to paint emotions and moods.


Apart from vividly saturating the color palette, Wong contrasts emotions with monochrome frames. Similar to Step-printing, Wong’s use of monochromatic frames is distinct in his movies. 

Used in Fallen Angels when unexpected or unusual things happen in their lives, something out of their routine. And to signify their past in Happy Together. 

The effect brings focus to a single thought. Wong makes the audience concentrate on a centralized subject by making everything else less prominent.


True to his originality, Wong’s specialty in designing a chaotic and claustrophobic environment lies in creating frames within frames. He distances the protagonists from the world with vivid use of the foreground. 

Wong uses this method to not only create visually pleasing frames but also to add depth to scenes. His frames are often inside another frame, making his already emotionally distant characters seem physically distant from the world.

He couches events sumptuously in a painting-like experience. By using the limited cramped space to his advantage either for overshadowing a character or for cutting them out of the frame. Is done best in In The Mood For Love among other movies.


Another parallel tool Wong employs is using reflective surfaces to create cinematic effects. Making the viewers feel like an observer or a lurker as somebody who isn’t supposed to be present.

To build on to the idea of an invasion of space, Wong constructs frames that create an effect that his characters are observed from the outside. A tactic used reticently to bring forth a sense of being observed or watched. 


Wong designs a loop effect by using a handful of locations and shooting multiple scenes at one location. This also adds a sense of mundanity to the lives of his leads. 

Wong isolates characters from the fixed backdrops, and the only thing that changes is the isolated lives of the protagonists. He does this to make the viewers familiar with the environment. Since Wong readily jumps and skips through time, repetitive locations help in establishing the changes in time.

Seen continually in most of Wong’s movies.


If you are new to Wong Kar Wai’s filmography and wondering where to begin? Follow this order. As mentioned above, Wong’s characters are interlinked therefore some movies seem like prequels and sequels to others.

Chungking Express (1994), Fallen Angels (1995), Ashes of Time (1994), As Tears Go By (1988), Days of Being Wild (1990), Happy Together (1997), In The Mood For Love (2000), 2046 (2004), The Grandmaster (2013)

2 thoughts on “Understanding Wong Kar Wai, his themes, and his visuals

  1. Oh man… Although I think I found and explored Wong kar Wai way before most of our batch, I can’t possibly think of writing something so extensive and detailed about his style, his aesthetics and the magic he creates. The way you’ve understood him deserves an standing applause. This article deserves to be included in the biggest film magazines. Bravo gal. Keep it up. And thanks for writing this 🙌

  2. It was a very beautiful article. The way in which you have analyzed the entire film of Wong kar Wai, it is quite commendable. It was a treat to read, waiting for you to write more such article and provide such good information to people.

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