My Dinner With Cinema: Wong Kar-wai

My Dinner With Cinema is a video essay series exploring the way food is used as a narrative device in films, and as a window into feeling and culture. Each month, Tyrie Aspinall will focus on how a particular director integrates food into their films.

“The pleasure of the table belongs to all ages, to all conditions, to all countries, and to all areas: it mingles with all other pleasures and remains at last to console us for their departures.” 

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste

I find there is a vulnerability intrinsic to the act of eating in public. I can feel when eyes are on me as I bite into my food. The sound of each mouthful is amplified in my mind and broadcast across an otherwise quiet space. 

I also feel a distinct poignancy in the image of a person eating alone. Are they only eating to satiate the pangs of hunger or are they trying to console a broken heart — to fill a shoreless void, to feel full just to feel something? I see these images in the films of Wong Kar-wai, a director whose sensuous and decadent work fraternises with all the senses to capture the way in which a mood or a feeling colours a memory. 

Since our relationship with food begins at infancy, it can provide a feeling of comfort and security in times of uncertainty; it reminds us of childhood, of family, and of home. The recipes and methods of cooking that are passed on through generations remind us that we are a living part of a culture’s legacy. As such, Wong implements food as a device, along with the feelings that accompany it, to contrast or emphasise the personal turmoil of his characters. Wong’s work, I find, inevitably eludes any satisfactory verbal description, therefore in the lack of narrative voice-over, I try to visually connect the feeling his use of food evokes. 

I think about He Qiwu in Chungking Express (1994), a young cop who eats copious amounts of pineapples, his ex-girlfriend’s favourite food, from cans that expire May 1st — his birthday. In a few hours, the food will be considered expired. He sifts through cans of pineapples in all-night convenience stores, looking for that date. He asks if love is a contract with a pre-determined expiry date. 

I think about Lai Yiu-fai in Happy Together (1997), stranded in Argentina, working in a Hong Kong restaurant, cooking food that reminds him of his home on the other side of the world. He fears Hong Kong won’t accept him for who he is. He cooks for and feeds his incapacitated ex-boyfriend Ho Po-wing, nursing him back to health. He wonders if they can ever be happy together. 

I think about Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow in In the Mood for Love (2000), walking the streets alone, seeking food to console their loneliness while their respective spouses form an adulterous relationship. They begin to frequent restaurants late at night, ordering the food their spouses like, hoping to understand how the affair may have started. “We won’t be like them,” she says. One day, Mrs. Chan is asked by her household’s Amah to join them for vegetable wontons. The thought of these wontons — comprised of ingredients only available in June and July — summons in me the memory of the early summer air in Hong Kong lazily warming my skin, and I am reminded of another year passed. 


Finally, I think of the woman we only come to know as the assistant in Fallen Angels (1995), staring vacantly into the void over a bowl of noodles at a small late-night diner. Everything is cold — the weather she alludes to in narration, the opaque blue-green light and the limp noodles she eats. Behind her, a fight erupts between a group of men. He Zhiwu, the instigator of the fight, is covered in hot red blood. She asks him for a lift home and the two disappear into the city on He’s motorcycle. I think of the golden-red embers on the tip of He’s cigarette, of their warm embrace riding through the city, and the cold noodles she left at the restaurant.

*********

Tyrie Aspinall is a filmmaker, live visual artist, essayist and all round lover of movies based in Naarm (Melbourne). Since graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts with a BFA (Film and TV) Tyrie has developed multiple short films and freelance projects. Tyrie is drawn to the ineffable beauty of human imperfection; a subject of primal concern in his work.

If he’s not working or writing or re-watching Yojimbo, he’ll probably be out in his shed working on his analog Liquid Light Show. You can reach Tyrie at tyrieaspinall.com

Tyrie

I am a film critic and filmmaker.

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