Watching Wong Kar-Wai in India: In the Mood for Love (pt. I)

(Hong Kong, 2000 | drama, historical, romance)

Rating: ✶✶✶✶

In the Mood for Love (2000) is the first film I saw that left me with the distinct feeling that I’m not a man, but I might not entirely be a woman either. One may say that this film, on first glance the most glamorously cisheterosexual romantic drama to exist, was my nonbinary awakening, approximately seventeen years after my gay awakening on watching The Mummy Returns (2002). On International Non-binary People’s Day 2021, let’s go into why this film has affected me so.

Before we talk about In the Mood for Love, I want to start with Wong Kar-Wai’s short film Hua Yang de Nian Hua, shown at the 2001 Berlin International Film Festival and included as an extra on the Criterion Channel DVD release of In the Mood for Love. The film is, according to Letterboxd, “A montage of scenes from vintage Chinese films, most of which were considered lost until some nitrate prints were discovered in a California warehouse during the 1990s, set to the song “Hua yang de nian hua” by Zhou Xuan.” The song by Zhou Xuan plays at a pivotal moment in In the Mood for Love, when the protagonists, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, respectively) sit in the kitchen of their respective flats, on two sides of a wall, listening to the song Mrs. Chan’s husband has requested on radio in honour of her birthday, among other things. The song, translated as ‘Age of Bloom’ or ‘When flowers were in bloom’, is, as I understand, a birthday song, with a scent of nostalgia; when it plays in the film, it gives rise to a moment of crushing despair as Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan realise that the best days of their relationship were over before they even knew it.

The short film looks, at first glance, like it’s supposed to, as a collection of vintage movie clips, but a distinct pattern emerges on rewatch. To me, it shows a deep preoccupation with the construction of femininity, from the glimmering cheongsams, high-heeled shoes and sheer stockings, the meticulously applied makeup and accessories, to the women who wore them and engaged in fictional on-screen relationships that came alive purely, as it were, by the virtue of their superhuman effort at incorporating romance into everyday life. The montage marvels at the depth and breadth of emotion shown by the vintage women, their creative as well as destructive potential, the women as a force of nature to be reckoned with, and how that made the relationships with the men who came into their lives that much more enlivening. In this framing, the women have become the actors of a romantic fantasy, and the men their enthralled spectators. From this difference in gender and sexual positioning comes the sensual instinct, of reaching out towards each other, looking for recognition and togetherness, in sex. But without the unique energy embodied by these vintage women, the men seem hollowed out shells, remnants of modern capitalist individualism. And as it appears by the end of the film, these women are no more; they are preserved only in nitrate film, the light from stars who have, since, died out.

This short film on vintage femininity and the romance that has been lost since is easy to misread as a chauvinistic spiel about the values of what was a more conservative time for non-masculine non-cisheterosexual identities. But I find it a quite moving reflection on the myriad kinds of communication offered by this feminine construct, from the making and aesthetic of the cheongsams (Wong Kar-Wai’s segment, ‘The Hand’, in the 2004 film Eros, goes into this properly) to the archetypes embodied by these women, the entire dialogue around how the material culture associated with women can become fascinating synecdoches about femininity and love. Remember how nostalgia is always about communication and togetherness in Wong Kar-Wai films?

The nostalgia that surfaces in Wong’s urban films is, of course, also traceable to concrete places, times, and events (for example, the gangsters’ haven of Mongkok in Wangjiao kamen/As Tears Go By; the protagonist’s journey to the Philippines to look for his birth mother or the clock pointing at three in A fei zhengzhuan/Days of Being Wild; the derelict, crime-infested Chungking Mansion and the fetishized canned pineapples with their “use by” dates in Chongqing senlin/Chungking Express; the claustrophobic tunnels, dark alleys, tiny apartments, and bustling shops and restaurants in Hong Kong in Duoluo tianshi/Fallen Angels; the styles of 1960s fashions and household objects in Hong Kong in Huayang nianhua/In the Mood for Love and Er ling si liu/2046, and so forth). But the concretely identifiable markers in his stories seem at the same time to give way to something more intangible and elusive. As Wong himself puts it, all his works tend to “revolve around one theme: the communication among human beings”. With this predominant interest in human communication, the nostalgia expressed in his films is, we may surmise, not simply a hankering after a specific historical past. Instead, the object for which his films are nostalgic is what we may call a flawless union among people, a condition of togetherness in multiple senses of the term. This is a condition that can never be fully attained but is therefore always longed for.

Rey Chow, Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Films: Attachment in the Age of Global Visibility (Columbia University Press, 2007)

And this thought is repeated in In the Mood for Love, in the superbly designed cheongsams worn by Maggie Cheung that take on a life of their own. The material culture around a woman contributes to her becoming a genius loci, single-handedly making a home, a whole world of significance that revolves around her. Lying somewhere in this nest of objects and symbols is the woman’s inner drive that animates her, that becomes an irresistible enigma to the man (or, simply put, the other — gender doesn’t have to be a binary here) approaching her.

It’s this emphasis on the construction of femininity that makes me think how I, and the films Hua Yang de Nian Hua and In the Mood for Love, dwell on the unspoken distance between the subject and these women who create these essential fictions around themselves. Not to mention that I find something relatable about Tony Leung’s quiet self-composure in the film, wearing those white dress shirts, his amorphous doubt about his importance to the people in his life, his silent adoration of Maggie Cheung’s character, and his final heartbreak as he struggles to accept that he has lost Mrs. Chan’s love before he knew that he had it. It made me think of how tremendously biromantic I am, but also that there’s something unstable in my concept of my own gender. Like an atom on an unstoppable path of splitting apart.

I have more to say about the themes of home, traditional family values, memory, and roleplay, as well as the cheeky subtext regarding middle class consumerism and capitalist individualism of the ’60s. But I feel that those will have to be in their own essay, where I can flesh them out without tiring you, the reader. Watch this space: two weeks from now, you’ll find the second part of the essay right here.

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Life update #1: July 21, 2021

YEP. What this means for this blog is that it will be inactive for the following three months, because I won’t have time to update the blog. I don’t think that will be a great loss because readership is low here; but anyone who isn’t on Discord but would still like to access my book reviews can easily find them on Goodreads. Early access will still be reserved for my backers on Patreon, but reviews will, eventually, end up as public access on Goodreads.

In the meantime, if you have the means, do consider supporting me on Patreon, for more regular access to updates, essays, early access, etc. Alternatively, you can buy me a coffee.

Review: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

(Tor, 2019)

Featured art: Gideon Nav by Simon Strohmaier on ArtStation

Genre(s): LGBTQIA, SFF

Rating: ✶✶✶✶✶

(Oh my gosh, have you seen the fanart of this trilogy on ArtStation? I’m yet to check out DeviantArt, but I will, soon.)

Eating dark chocolate, listening to Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes 1-5 on a three-hour loop, and rereading Gideon the Ninth on an evening has been one of the best decisions I’ve taken this year. Gideon the Ninth, with it’s strongly visual descriptions, lends itself easily to a filmic presentation in the mind as one reads it in time with music and savours it piece by piece. This novel is like someone married Gavia Baker Whitelaw’s recent tweet about vampire vibes films with dark academia, with music like Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli’s soundtrack for The Witcher (2019). It comes off as super-gothic and honestly quite cool at the same time, with it’s amalgamation of contemporary language and mannerisms, and tropes made popular in queer fanfiction, with horror, space opera, and mediaeval, Catholic-infused death cult magic. There’s no review that can do this sort of book justice.

The story is about Gideon Nav, raised as an indentured servant to the Ninth House, the rulers of the ninth planet in a solar system ruled by the sciences but also by necromancy. Basically if the underworld was real, it was a Christian hermitage and prison at the same time, and it was based on Pluto. (I mean, it’s as if someone had researched the exact ways to pique the interest of a Scorpio.) Gideon Nav is a butch lesbian with a body shaped by thousands of hours of exercise that I cannot even begin to imagine for myself, and by god I’d have devoted all my life to her, had I known someone like her in my life. I’m serious; you can only feel the texture of her personality once you read the book, her POV, the expression of her character, and it is so absolutely loveable. I kept imagining someone like David Tennant’s Crowley in Good Omens (2019), except with bumper biceps and a slightly rounded face and that exquisitely butch quality that I’ve never had the fortune to see in anyone in real life. Needless to say, but I’m still saying it, I fell in love with her within the first fifteen minutes of reading her. And there, I just spent a hundred and thirty five words raving about a fictional lesbian — 

The other main character is Gideon’s apparent nemesis, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, the Reverend Daughter and de facto Lady of the Ninth House, practically Gideon’s boss, and she’s one hell of a viperous Scorpio, I can tell you. Sorry I’m dipping into astrology here, for anyone who’s not particularly thrilled by astrology here, but the book kinda demands it. She has that consuming passion for power, and knowledge as power, that I can empathise with. About half the book is spent describing Gideon and Harrow’s hatred towards each other, which I thought was very nice of Tamsyn Muir to write. I didn’t realise how much I’d been missing the depiction of two women who hate each other with such force of feeling, unadulterated by heterosexist nonsense, until I read such an account. Because, of course, it’s not hate at all, but projected self-loathing, confusion about one’s place in the order of things, and it’s very gay. So, of course I, a young gay, liked it.

Now, I was supposed to be writing a passable, if not good, summary.

The third majorly diverting thing about this book is it’s treatment of necromancy. No hand-waving about like it’s some other sort of abracadabra, nope; necromancy in the Locked Tomb trilogy is serious f–king science, with at least eight different types, each with its own methodology, mathematics, and specialisations. I nearly died reading all of it, and I’m rereading the novel partly because I want to go back and understand all the precious little details we the readers were given of it. I’d love to see Muir’s notes on this stuff; I’ll read a whole treatise if she decides to publish a fictional treatise on necromancy tomorrow.

Speaking of which, Alecto the Ninth is coming out in 2022. I think it’ll be about God the Emperor’s greatest enemy and I CANNOT WAIT. 

Well, I’ve got Harrow the Ninth to finish this year. I’ve only started reading it, I don’t understand what’s going on yet, and yet! I’m halfway in love again!

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Watching Wong Kar-Wai in India: Happy Together

(Hong Kong, 1997 | drama, romance, LGBTQ+)

Rating: ✶✶✶

Let’s start with Happy Together (1997). Why? Because, firstly, it’s gay, and this is Pride Month. And it’s one in Wong Kar-Wai’s filmography that I haven’t watched and rewatched many times already. It’s a first in my marathon of his films. It can serve as fresh material to think about, and see with new eyes. Secondly, 1997 is a special year for Hong Kong: it’s the year of the handover of Hong Kong from British rule to China, and Wong’s films have been dealing with the anxiety surrounding the event since Days of Being Wild (1990). To think about it, I was two years old in 1997, when the British empire was finally ending across the world. Thirdly, most of Happy Together takes place in Argentina, for a film that’s very much about Hong Kong. Isn’t that funny? The Wong Kar-Wai film that comes out in 1997 of all years isn’t one that happens in Hong Kong at all.

At first glance, setting the film in Argentina might seem like an effort to seem apolitical in art, defying exceedingly politically sensitive circumstances. But it’s also a way to resist being read as a direct allegory of what is happening in Hong Kong. One telling example of this effort is that the plot of Happy Together takes place several months before the handover of Hong Kong. A very obvious way of reading the film is mentioned in Jeremy Tambling’s excellent book on the film:

One view of Happy Together as an allegory ought to be mentioned straight away: that the two lovers stand for China and for Hong Kong, with Taiwan an important other, third presence. The film allegorizes the relationship together of two figures who cannot be happy together, even though they try to start over again. This reading, in my view, hardly takes the film seriously, or the situation of China and Hong Kong. … It can be conceded that the change of power is an issue in the film. But it is also true that the film is not nearly so determinate in what it says or in the way it can be read. Nor does the reading do much for the concept of allegory that has been raised. If allegory means anything, it requires delving more deeply than this.

Jeremy Tambling, Happy Together (Hong Kong University Press, 2003)

This is important, because it keeps coming up in Wong Kar-Wai’s films, how he deals with politics in an abstract way. This is something I want to study more in it’s mechanics; simply put, how does Wong Kar-Wai do it? How does he filter something as visceral as the politics of a postcolonial city into something as rarefied as, say, In the Mood for Love?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s do a brief summary of Happy Together first. That’s easy, because the plot isn’t a complex one (again, at first glance). Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung) are gay lovers who have come to Argentina looking for a fresh start to their relationship. They buy a lamp with an image of the Iguazu Falls on it, and intend to see it together one day. However, theirs is a love-hate relationship: Wing and Fai are polar opposites in terms of character, and they can’t trust each other. Wing is extroverted and flighty, even promiscuous by Fai’s standards. Fai is restrained and pragmatic, and provides most of the physical and emotional labour for the two of them. They keep fighting and breaking up, and getting back together whenever Wing suggests to Fai that they “start over again”. Their bond suffers more due to the suspicion of infidelity — better-founded on Fai’s part since Wing, it’s implied, routinely cheats on Fai, but eventually fair on Wing’s part too, because of Fai’s charged friendship with Chang (Chang Chen), a colleague.

This summary isn’t doing the film any justice at all, although I hope it doesn’t so that you will decide to watch the film yourself. But the film has two major themes that I find interesting because they are repeated in his 2000 film In the Mood for Love, a film that is as heterosexual a romance as can be (again, again, at first glance): infidelity, and gender roles.

1997 Hong Kong poster of the film. Source: Film Art Gallery

Regarding infidelity in In the Mood for Love, Jeremy Tambling writes, 

… the question of what to do and how to behave, where there is the awareness of the possibility of behaviour becoming scandalous, is paramount. Danger springs from betrayals by people with whom trust cannot be broken. Such betrayal threatens the very sense of identity that the betrayed person has painfully built up for themselves in relation to their betrayer.

This applies to Wing and Fai in Happy Together, too. They came to Argentina for the sake of each other as much as themselves, and this leap of faith comes from a place of, what the acclaimed film critic and writer Rey Chow called in her book Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Films, nostalgia. Regarding the opening scene of the film, a black-and-white scene showing Wing and Fai passionately making love, after Wing suggests to Fai that they “start over again”, she writes:

The series of black-and-white shots featuring the physical entanglement of the lovers is, in terms of effects, quite distinct from other scenes in the film. It is, to be sure, a moment of erotic passion, but it is also what we may call a moment of indifferentiation, a condition of perfect unity that was not only chronologically past (perhaps) but also seemingly before difference and separation. A moment like this, placed at the beginning of the film, cannot help being evocative. It brings to mind myths of origins such as that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Are these images of passionate togetherness, then, indeed a recollection of something that actually happened, or are they part of a fantasy, a conjuring of something that never took place? We do not know. In terms of narrative structure, therefore, these images of copulation constitute not merely a remembered incident but, more important, an enigmatic beginning in the form of an other time, an otherworldly existence. The images are unforgettable because their ontological status is, strictly speaking, indeterminable.

But whether or not this series of “primal scenes” actually took place, both men apparently desire to return to the reality they conjure. This desire to return to some other life, imagined as a union that existed once upon a time, is, I believe, the most important dimension of the nostalgia projected by this film. Nostalgia in this case is no longer an emotion attached to a concretely experienced, chronological past: rather, it is attached to a fantasized state of oneness, to a time of absolute coupling and indifferentiation that may nonetheless appear in the guise of an intense, indeed delirious, memory.

Rey Chow, Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Films: Attachment in the Age of Global Visibility (Columbia University Press, 2007)

In Argentina, both Wing and Fai are rendered as immigrant Chinese men, with all its attendant socio-economic instability, and Wing and Fai’s frequent breakups, along with Wing’s infidelity, kills their nostalgic desire for each other, their myth of union, that is so integral to their identity. Their relationship reaches its point of no return when Wing realises that, while he had been recuperating in Fai’s flat from being beaten up, Fai had quietly stolen his passport. Fai had done so because he couldn’t be sure that Wing wouldn’t leave him again after getting better. For Wing, it’s a particularly destabilising moment because a crucial documentation of his identity is now lost to him. Jeremy Tambling writes, “The passport (Hong Kong is a port, as is Buenos Aires, and, in some ways, the men never get beyond being part of a port culture) … is suggestive of cosmopolitanism but also of the idea of a fixed identity.” And with this loss and gain of the passport, an almost magical transfiguration takes place: the two men switch their respective presentations of masculinity.

Wing and Fai embody two different modes of masculinity. If we go by the traditional model of heterosexual relationships, Wing fits the role of the typical polyamorous ‘husband’, who lives by the world outside the home, has a number of sexual relationships outside the one he has more or less committed to with Fai, is the most disappointed by Fai’s threadbare and monotonous life as the doorman to a bar, and refuses to commit to a single relationship. (‘Single relationship’ sounds like an oxymoron, but consider: they are one person, they are two alone, they are three together, they are fo[u]r each other…) Fai plays the steadfast, long-suffering ‘wife’, the caregiver in the relationship, the home-maker, the one who constantly provides paid and unpaid labour, who is repeatedly put upon by the ‘husband’ and his changing demands on their physical and psychological boundaries. However, Fai struggles to fit this womanly role, too: he is rather harsh when it comes to washing Wing when he’s ill, for example, as if he can’t quite bring himself to express his caring, nurturing side fully. Neither does Wing fully abide by the ‘manly’ role: he is the one who repeatedly suggests “start[ing] over again”, who returns to Fai for the home he symbolises to him, who expresses his need for physical and emotional nurture. Fai stealing Wing’s passport marks a decisive moment when Fai, wanting more than what he’s currently getting from Wing in the role of the ‘wife’, takes a concrete step to keep Wing to himself. He makes a claim on Wing’s gender and personhood that he doesn’t want to see refuted. Wing had previously submitted to Fai’s care on being beaten up; the loss of his own passport effectively emasculates him.

At the same time, Fai begins to act more typically ‘manly’: he attacks the man in the bar for possibly beating up Wing, the man Fai feels like he has the right to act on behalf of (because they’re romantically and sexually a couple), and he slowly warms up to Chang and his overt interest in Fai’s life. He refuses to entertain Wing’s ‘feminine’ display of jealousy as he suspects that Fai is leaving him alone for long hours in the flat only to have romantic escapades of his own (the first instance of Wing and Fai mirroring each other — Wing sees in Fai behaviour that he would have enacted himself if given the chance, and feels sharply the innate inequality of their positions in the relationship). Wing resists Fai’s attempts to keep him in the flat by buying him cigarettes so that he doesn’t have to go out at night; therefore, resisting the ‘feminine’ role that Fai wants to assign to Wing now. Eventually, Wing discovers the loss of his passport, they fight (in one of the biggest displays of masculine-coded violence in the film), and Wing leaves Fai, much like a wife who has had enough of a husband trying to corner her into a domestic setting. Fai then spirals in his solitary lifestyle: going out at night with Chang, randomly picking up men in public toilets, having public sex in a theatre showing gay pornography. What happens to Wing during this time is only cursorily hinted at: more of Wing’s promiscuity, picking up men in public toilets.

Ultimately, both Wing and Fai recognise the futility of their lives, and after Chang leaves him in Buenos Aires to continue travelling, Fai decides to go home to Hong Kong and make amends with his father. Wing tries to contact Fai again, but Fai deliberately avoids meeting Wing again. It remains unclear whether Wing’s passport ever finds its way back to Wing or not. The last we see of Wing, we find that he has returned to the flat that Fai has abandoned, is cleaning and fixing up the place and the lamp of Iguazu Falls like Fai used to do, and lamenting the loss of Fai. As for Fai, Fai goes to see the Iguazu Falls, then goes to Taipei on his way to Hong Kong, and sees Chang again in a photograph. Rey Chow writes:

At the metanarrative level of the film as a whole, what is conjured by these at first alternating but ultimately amalgamating image orders is, I propose, a kind of superhuman agency. In the case of the lovers, this superhuman agency lies precisely in its ability to yoke together — to render as one unity — entirely incompatible or incommensurate domains (such as promiscuity and fidelity, flanerie and domesticity), so that what begins as difference eventually turns into sameness. By the end of the film, precisely the kinds of (visual) details that used to distinguish the two men — having casual sex with strangers and performing tedious domestic chores — have become instead the means of visually conflating them. Each man has, it seems, internalized the other to the point of changing places with him.

But what I’m really trying to get at by highlighting the gender roles that Wing and Fai inhabit is that a different kind of dynamics surfaces through this experimentation with fidelity and gender roles. Apart from infidelity and gender roles, the third and most important theme of this film is, for me, memory. Forget the male-female gender binary — the only two genders that matter here are: the one who, driven by nostalgia and the urge to repeat and preserve things as they once were, and thus, in repetition, become the loved one lost, stays back at the abandoned home; and the one who, driven by the same nostalgia but reacting differently to it, enters an ambivalent relation with his past and leaves home. What’s more, the one who leaves home doesn’t begin travelling in order to seek a new home. He does so because he recognises that there is no home for him, or at least, no home where he can reconstruct the home of his memory, and restore the union with the loved one that he lost. The desire for home is, in a word, impossible: it’s essential to the person, but there’s no way to achieve it in reality. Jeremy Tambling dips into psychoanalytic theory to explain something like this:

When he [Lai] reaches the Falls and is not happy, it is a crystallizing moment when he knows he can either be with Ho and not at the Falls or he can be at the Falls and not with Ho, and neither state would produce happiness, the fulfilment of desire. The gap that desire opens up makes sense of the emphases on distance… and it also makes sense of Lai’s relationship with Chang which again only works by distance. …

Learning to be women, as referred to earlier, then, would mean not men giving way to an ideological view of women as carers and learning to behave as such (this the men do already, anyway) but rather learning to accept the otherness of desire, and the double nature of any subject position; the recognition that no gender positioning can be stable because of the doubleness of inscription within the symbolic order.

Going by this dynamic of memory, the one who stays behind at home symbolically dies, reaching a form of stasis in the narrative: there’s nothing more to be said about what happens to Wing, beyond his grief for the home he has lost in Fai. The one who leaves home is favoured by the narrative, although the film says little more about what Fai will do to find happiness. Fai isn’t, strictly speaking, happy by the end of the film, but he has reached this bittersweet white light within himself that compensates for the strongly romantically-coloured happiness that is described by Danny Chung’s Cantopop song accompanying the ending sequence of the film. Wong Kar-Wai offers closure in the open-ended, transitory way of life that Fai has discovered with the Iguazu Falls, Chang, and Taipei, where Fai is his own moving home. This, however, doesn’t resolve the tension between the home that Fai has left, and it’s specific values, and the new individualistic principle that Fai adopts on meeting Chang again in a photograph in Taipei. This tension, and the heartbreak that comes from it, is better explored in Wong Kar-Wai’s 2000 film In the Mood for Love, which I’ll rewatch and write about this July.

A big thank you to my $5 and above patron(s): Radiolaires

Thank you for reading this essay! If you liked it, please consider supporting me on Patreon where you can get early access to my writing as well as other perks. Follow me on Twitter for regular updates on what I’m reading, watching, or writing.

Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

(Bloomsbury Circus, 2015)

Rating: ✶✶✶✶

Today, May 30, would be the one hundred and thirty seventh anniversary of the Whitehall bombing, according to Natasha Pulley. I have started my Pride Month celebrations early this year. A couple of days ago, I watched Happy Together (1997, dir. Wong Kar-Wai) — more on that later. And this novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, I finished reading over three days flat: the fastest I’ve read a novel in a while. The pacing is such that you won’t be able to put it down unless you make an effort to. The languid prose draws the reader in in a steady, deliberate manner; it’s easy to invest in the characters and their relationships, even as one takes note of all the ways they might be going wrong. The main reason why it’s so easy to like is, of course, the fact that it has two cases of the friends-to-lovers trope, with the central characters taking turns to be the grumpy character and the sunshine-y character. I mean, how can you not love such a scene?

Thaniel went up behind him to catch his elbows and set a guinea down by his hand. His shirt was real linen and, because he had been sitting side on to the draught, cool down the left arm. He twisted in his chair.

‘What’s this for?’

‘Your winnings,’ Thaniel said. ‘I work for the Foreign Office, as of this morning.’

Mori inclined his head. ‘Well done.’

‘Thank you. Baron Mori.’

‘Oh, who told you that?’ he said crossly.

‘Nobody. I looked at your immigration papers at the office. Why didn’t you say?’

‘I’d like to be a watchmaker before I’m a samurai, somewhere in the world.’

‘Must be terrible for you, being a samurai.’

‘Shut up, peasant.’

Thaniel laughed and knew what Williamson would say if he could see him, and then pushed the thought into the bicycle shed at the back of his mind. Williamson wouldn’t have to live in Pimlico after it was all over.

Dinner was not much later: fresh bread, real grapes, and a bitter oriental wine that, after two cups, he decided he liked. He also liked watching Mori eat rice with chopsticks, which he could use far more accurately than Thaniel could use cutlery. Mori seemed to disapprove of cutlery as a sort of unnecessary decadence and by way of reinforcing the point, he did all the washing up except Thaniel’s fork, which he left in a jar like a chemical specimen. Thaniel prodded him and Mori smiled at him in the reflection in the dark window.

London, June 1884

(Oh yeah, Keita Mori is a Gemini and Thaniel’s leading motivation when it comes to having a nice time with Mori is “YOLO”.)

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a gay romance, when one gets into the story, and doesn’t try very hard to seem otherwise. The protagonists are Nathaniel ‘Thaniel’ Steepleton, a telegraphist working in the Home Office in 1880s London; Keita Mori, an aristocratic Japanese expatriate and watchmaker; Grace Carrow, an ambitious scientist who scoffs at Victorian social norms; and Akira Matsumoto, another aristocratic Japanese expatriate and fellow scholar, who invests his time in socialising and translating Japanese poetry into English. Thaniel and Mori come together when a watch that came to Thaniel from Mori — how, the reader comes to know later — saves Thaniel’s life in the Whitehall bombing. The two men are well on their way to becoming fast friends, and maybe something more, when a stroke of chance brings Grace Carrow into their lives. Grace has an aunt who has given her a posh house in her will that she won’t get if she doesn’t marry; and she already has an emotional connection with Matsumoto, which they are both afraid of taking further because a. Grace hates emotions, and b. Matsumoto doesn’t know what his family would say. Okay, Grace doesn’t actually hate emotions. But let me just say that she isn’t as easy and likeable as Thaniel, Mori, or Matsumoto. There’s a reason for that, but this is where, in my opinion, Natasha Pulley’s writing shines through.

My favourite thing about the book, if not Thaniel and Mori’s perfectly soft and loving relationship, is Grace Carrow’s spiky characterisation. The writing for her is top notch; she elicits a number of swings in response, from approval to annoyance, back to approval, then to worry, and finally to hot impatience as one goes, What the hell are you doing, girl?? I almost hated her before I realised I loved the way she’s written. I loved the themes of class, gender, and social alienation around her, and how that intersected with Thaniel and Mori’s characters. I can’t go into it in more detail because then it gets spoilery, but let’s just say that Grace, Thaniel, and Mori make a very interesting love triangle because of all the suppressed rancour between them. Making Grace such an unlikeable character, which would actually have been fine if she was a male character, sets off the interpersonal and thematic tension between Thaniel and Mori, whose is the central relationship that needs the reader to root for it.

The other thing I was looking out for was the steampunk content, of which there was only enough to alleviate a strictly realist version of events. It was, to be more specific, clockpunk, which was a huge bonus because it’s that specific niche that I’m looking more into. I loved how Pulley described the clockwork in her chapters: she starts out with quite a lot of detail, spending pages to describe the theoretical and practical functioning of clockwork devices, but all that prose isn’t solely meant to show off the cutting edge technology. The descriptions tend to be earnest, even nerdy, and what it achieves more effectively, is grounding the characters in their world. Once that has been done, the technology flies off into near-magic territory, because we no longer need exacting exposition for suspension of disbelief. What would otherwise have been regular tea-and-English-weather Victoriana ends up as something quite magical.

This was actually a nice, lighthearted book, something I didn’t realise I needed after Bangkok Wakes To Rain. So, like Mary Robinette Kowal suggested, go read this novel if you have your evenings free with nothing to do and a soul to feed with cozy warmth. The scenes are thoughtful and steady, the plot is neither too slow nor too hectic, and the characters are all beautifully fleshed out. It’s almost Ghibli-esque with the level of warmth it exudes. I know I’ll be rereading this anytime I feel low or burned out, because that’s what this book is: a perfect comfort read.

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Watching Wong Kar-Wai in India: an introduction

Source of featured image: MUBI

Watching Wong Kar-Wai films is one of my favourite hobbies as a writer. This might seem a rather banal personal observation, but I find value in watching the Hong Kong Second New Wave director’s films as a writer working with the literary medium that I don’t find with other film directors. The reason for this is partly because, as many Wong Kar-Wai fans will say, his films deal with themes of isolation, romance that finds its footing in the fact that it’s thwarted or unrequited, the limitations of individualism and the perils of communal life, loss, and urbanisation, all of which are personally appealing to me for possibly obvious reasons. His films are also straightforwardly beautiful in sometimes superbly un-straightforward ways; his use of step printing, slow motion, obstructive framing, etc., compose pictures that are uniquely textured and expressive. It’s a sort of beauty that I find deeply moving, myself.

The other reason is that, as Hsiu Chuang Deppman writes in her book Adapted for the Screen: The Cultural Politics of Modern Chinese Fiction and Film: “… we must also interpret Wong as a preeminently literary director, one whose films cannot be understood outside their relationship to Hong Kong’s broader cultural milieu and literary contexts. … I see written fiction as the source not only of Wong’s plots but also of many of his stylistic and structural choices…” There is an indelible relationship between Wong Kar-Wai’s films and literature. This is a dangerously seductive area for me: one, because I fancy myself a writer and am interested in literary innovation, and, two, because I’m a xenophile attracted to Hong Kong culture, but I’m not from Hong Kong myself. I’m from India, and much of the culture that Wong’s films comment on and participate in, is closed to me. However, the door isn’t entirely closed. Being an Indian doesn’t stop me from relating closely to Wong’s Hong Kong films, and, personally, one of my favourite pipe dreams is if Wong decides to make a film in and about India. No, not like Deja Vu, Wong’s 2012 short film that puts Chinese actors in a palace turned luxury hotel in Rajasthan, India. I mean a film that is as intimately concerned with India as Wong’s films are with Hong Kong. Nevertheless, the motifs in his films surrounding postcolonialism, capitalism, and urban life, speak to me.

So now comes the reason why I want to study his films from the perspective of a writer. I’m not a film studies major, and much of the cinematographic technology that Wong’s films deal with and display, go over my head. Yet, I want to study the narrative choices in Wong’s films, the themes, the imagery, the twists in characterisation and what they say about Hong Kong, as if the films are novels. And I want to learn what I can from the films for my writing. I want to learn how to create the literary equivalents of his cinematic aesthetic motifs. If Wong Kar-Wai’s films are adapted from literature to film and have new things to say about both media and the culture they are part of, I want to learn by adapting his films into my writing, and find the blur between Hong Kong and India, so that I can more accurately represent the composite culture I live in.

The order in which I’m going through Wong Kar-Wai’s films is non-linear, non-chronological, just like the narrative in some of his best-loved films:

  1. Happy Together (1997)
  2. In the Mood for Love (2000)
  3. Days of Being Wild (1990)
  4. 2046 (2004)
  5. My Blueberry Nights (2007)
  6. The Grandmaster (2013)
  7. The Hand (Eros) (2004)
  8. As Tears Go By (1988)
  9. Chungking Express (1994)
  10. Fallen Angels (1995)
  11. Ashes of Time (1994)

Excited to read these essays? So am I, to be able to share them on my blog! However, if you want to peek at these essays before they have been made public access on this blog, consider supporting me on Patreon, where you can get early access to each and every one of my essays and media reviews. My first essay, on Happy Together, goes up on June 15, so stay tuned! Follow me on Twitter for more updates.

Review: Bangkok Wakes To Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad

(New York: Riverhead Books, 2019)

Featured image: photo by Hanny Naibaho on Unsplash

Content warning(s): description of police brutality and climate collapse

Rating: ✶✶✶✶

Bangkok Wakes To Rain is the first novel I read that is based in Thailand, written by a Thai novelist and conspicuously free of the many biases that attend White stories set in Southeast Asia. Because I’m unwilling to spend my time on one-sided narratives that see nothing in Southeast Asian countries other than war zones, tourist hotspots, et cetera, I have ended up knowing very little about how life goes on so close to the Equator. This novel by Pitchaya Sudbanthad has been a great eye-opener in that regard. It actually reminded me a lot of The Hungry Tide written by Amitav Ghosh, one of my favourite novels. Bangkok Wakes To Rain and The Hungry Tide share a preoccupation with climate collapse, loss of habitat, collective memory and the struggle to find and set roots, a communal redefinition of time and space, and the simple but bewildering lure of water. In Ghosh’s Sunderbans, it’s the river Matla and the Bay of Bengal, vast and terrifying as well as beautiful, life-sustaining connective tissue between cultures on all sides of the bay. In Sudbanthad’s Krungthep, water is a much more nebulous, ambivalent presence not just in the form of the Chao Phraya river or the Gulf of Thailand. This is an example from the novel, describing a scene of police brutality during, what I understood to be, the October 6, 1976 massacre:

Siripohng lay spilling out on the ground. Nee dragged him behind a concrete wall and tore off his shirt, revealing two torrential holes under his ribs. … To stop the bleeding, she bunched his shirt over his wound and pushed, but he continued to pour out. …

Nee knew that he was drowning, and she couldn’t bear to stay. … They ran past the all-seeing face of the university’s clocktower, and when they made it to the river, they splashed in like children.

Gunboats approached. … She broke the surface farther out and hid behind a drifting patch of water hyacinths. Green snakes were said to make homes of them. She had no fear of snakes that day.


Look at that — I love what Sudbanthad did with water as a symbol here. Liquid metaphors are used to describe the gory death of Siripohng, a migrant student from rural Thailand who had long feared his identity being subsumed by the violent politics and cultural and economic inequality of Krungthep. Water had, previously in the opening three chapters, symbolised raw intuition and memory tied with the collective unconscious, appearing either as metaphor or physical form during moments of heightened emotion, providing a sharp contrast to the dry gaze of a modern or modernising Krungthep engulfed by consumerist trends:

Before she can decide, something interrupts her. She can’t say what it is — not a thing she can see, but different from a mere thought, and more than a feeling. It approaches her, cresting forcefully like a wave that has rippled across oceans. It wakes her, as if she were being shaken out of a dream. This is no dream. It’s gathering outside of her. It speaks and says without speaking. A dreadful thing’s about to happen.


A premonition of doom in an apathetic, capitalist urban centre drawn from collective memory haunts Siripohng as he dies, through the metaphors of water. However, Nee, his city-dwelling fiancee and fellow student activist, saves her own life by literally hiding underwater in a river. Water is more than just a dualistic, life-saving and life-destroying force here. It symbolises an inescapable pre- and post-symbolic zero state. This is the water that Krungthep had once been born in it’s ancient marshy grounds, that later dries up and kills the wildlife that had so depended on it, that is increasingly forgotten by the rising city, that Bangkok once again wakes up to in the future, when climate collapse causes the seas to rise and the city to be changed irredeemably by floods. What had gone by in time, comes back, neatly tying off the novel’s theme of a city’s ghosts.

This use of water as metaphor and symbol is only one of the ways Sudbanthad constructs his non-linear narrative. I’ve been thinking of non-linear narratives in fiction more often these days, and the way it’s done here is quite ingenious. Sudbanthad presents a large cast of different characters — an initially unnamed teenage girl feeling alienated in the city she comes home to every day after school who, I later came to realise, is Mai, the daughter of Mohd and Mehta (which… well, I see now that it’s impossible to understand what that means unless you’ve read the novel), a racist Christian missionary from New England, an expatriate jazz pianist, Nee the student activist who later trains as a nurse and becomes a receptionist and swim teacher, a flock of migratory birds that nest in the wetlands, a pack of stray dogs starving in an increasingly gentrified and hostile urban environment — and writes short stories revolving around them. He grounds them in as much physical, historical, and psychological detail as possible, and I was surprised by his clever use of active and passive voice in these short stories:

When Siripohng turned to face Nee, he sensed that it was not her love for him that had blanked her eyes but shock that was quickly turning to rage. He knew their student friends wouldn’t allow for this: the man whom they held responsible for the death and suffering of so many of their classmates, setting foot again in this country — in the guise of a monk, no less. He told her he was afraid of what could happen in Krungthep now, and she rebuked him for having any fear at all.


(Can you guess which is my favourite short story from this?)

Gradually, these short stories help create a sort of microcosm around the characters, with their distinct personal or individual time, in a way similar to what I’d found in the film Kaili Blues (2015, dir. Bi Gan). And as the lives of the characters intersect or disconnect, the macrocosmic cyclical scale of time also builds up. Not to mention the fact that almost every character turns up twice or thrice in whatever incarnation they can, piling on the theme of ghosts. Remember the snakes that Nee had ignored in the river while hiding from the military? Look who’s here in the first story of Part III:

The snakes were the first to seek higher ground. The people of Krungthep began finding them in places they weren’t often spotted before — curled around roof antennas or slithering up parking garage ramps.


At first, each chapter feels more like a deft character sketch than something with the forward momentum of a novel. Eventually, though, the stories begin to intersect and build on one another, like banana leaves woven to make a floating offering for the water spirits.

Hannah Beech, ‘Two Thai Novelists Explore Bangkok’s Swirl of Remembering and Forgetting’ (The New York Times, 2019)

Where the novel did leave me a little cold is that some of the warmth and intimacy that a character can bring for the reader gets lost in the meticulous prose with it’s heavy use of passive voice. It’s also why reading the novel can feel a bit same-y in Parts II and III. I was particularly unimpressed by the character Samarth or Sammy, a Thai-born photographer and disaffected drifter who keeps running away from any commitment that reminds him of home. But I’m okay with that; I understand that not everything has to feel personal with literature of different cultures. For one thing, this introduced me to the term kreng jai that I came across in a review of the novel:

Navigating around a flooded Bangkok only reflects how they choose to accommodate the feelings of others at their own expense, capturing the essence of kreng jai, a term that could be loosely translated to mean having a caged heart, which is a Thai cultural value that Westerners misinterpret to mean that Thais are amicable and submissive. … He doesn’t shy away from the dark undercurrents of Thai politics in his most compelling chapter, “Outpour,” putting onto the page the reason Thais don’t and can’t revolt against a government not of their own choosing. What’s at stake for activists and our citizens’ futures isn’t death, but a sense that open confrontation goes against the notion of kreng jai, and that to oppose any authoritative role is un-Thai.

Ploi Pirapokin, ‘What it means to be Thai’ (Apogee Journal, 2019)

It’s not up to me to comment on how Thai this novel is, but reading Bangkok Wakes To Rain in Kolkata, another city built close to sea and with a long and complicated history of colonialism and inequality, if not the authoritarian rule that Thailand has experienced, has been a perfectly surreal experience. Reading Part IV of the novel, based in New Krungthep — a futuristic Bangkok where almost half the old city has gone deep underwater due to the rising sea level — was fascinating. It felt like a mirror to my experiences in Kolkata, and some of my own ideas about how Kolkata might be impacted by the rising sea level. The spectre of widespread flooding along the coasts of Asia is the most terrifying and compelling aspect of climate change to me, maybe due to a nostalgic love of the monsoon country that I was born and brought up in; and Bangkok Wakes To Rain satisfied this itch in my brain very well. So, I would suggest this book to anyone who, like me, looks for city vibes and themes of loneliness, memory, basically if Wong Kar-Wai made his film 2046 about Thailand.

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