A Playlist for Pretending your Life is a Wong Kar-Wai Movie
By Lily Suckow Ziemer
It was over this past winter break when I watched my first ever Wong Kar-Wai movie: Chungking Express. My mom and I, on our mission to watch more critically acclaimed films, had decided on the movie amongst those on HBO’s Turner Classic Movies collection. I was immediately obsessed with the movie - the gorgeous visuals, the engaging plot, and, most importantly, the music. I looked up the soundtrack on Spotify as soon as the credits rolled, and have been listening to it on repeat ever since.
Since then, I’ve watched two more of Wong Kar-Wai’s films: In the Mood for Love and Fallen Angels. Each film continued to have songs with spot on lyrics, and a repetition that never got boring. In honor of the 22nd anniversary of In the Mood for Love’s release on March 9th, here is a playlist of some of the best songs from Wong Kar-Wai’s films. (Spoiler alert for mentions of scenes and the plot of each movie.
“California Dreamin’” by The Mamas & The Papas
If you’ve ever seen Chungking Express you’ll remember the second female lead, Faye’s, affinity for “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas & The Papas. She’s first introduced blasting the song while working at a snack bar. It’s so loud that her love interest, Cop 663, has to shout over it to make his order. “You like loud music?” he asks, to which she replies, “Yes, the louder the better. Then I don’t have to think.” The lyrics describe a depressing winter day, lamenting, “I’d be safe and warm… / If I was in L.A.” The song is played over and over again, until Faye eventually leaves Hong Kong, and her mundane customer service job, for California. Faye dramatically escapes the mundane with this anthem, something many of us dream of.
“夢中人” by Faye Wong
Faye Wong’s Cantonese cover of The Cranberries’ “Dreams” is heard a number of times throughout Chungking Express. It’s suitable for the dream pop soundtrack of the movie and lends a hopeful tone to Faye’s extreme pining after Cop 663. Even with the couples’ limited interactions, one can hear her voice in the lyrics, “I was already in love with you.” The song is just as good as the original, perfectly featuring Wong’s soaring vocals.
“What A Diff’rence A Day Made” by Dinah Washington
Chungking Express follows two stories of people falling in love rapidly, so when “What A Diff’rence A Day Made” by Dinah Washington comes on halfway through the movie, it is extremely fitting. Each of the two sections of the movie begin with cop He Qiwu narrating, “57 hours later I fell in love with this woman,” and in the second half, when transitioning to Faye’s story, “six hours later, she fell in love with another man.” The song perfectly describes the quick shift in mood love can cause, in lyrics like, “What a difference a day made / And the difference is you.” Everyone’s experienced hallway crushes they romanticize in their head, small moments of annoyance that turn into an imagined fight. What makes Chungking Express so engaging is the characters’ willingness to dramatically express their feelings, even when they go to unimaginable extremes in pursuit of love.
“Forget Him (忘记他)” by Shirley Kwan
Fallen Angels is a story of heartbreak. It follows two couples that never were. A hitman and his work partner break off their partnership to keep their romantic feelings from coming to fruition. The dream pop song “Forget Him” by Shirley Kwan perfectly encapsulates the painful feeling of cutting off a relationship prematurely. To a slow beat, Kwan showcases her vocal abilities, singing, “Forgetting him / Means forgetting everything / That means losing my sense of direction / I lost myself.” As the pair begin to go through life without each other, this song mirrors the on screen emotions.
“Only You” by The Flying Pickets
At the end of Fallen Angels, the main characters of the movie’s two stories, the hitman’ partner and Ho Chi-mo, find themselves in the same restaurant. They each describe a sudden warmth after the cold, long winter they’d endured. Compared to the overall dreary tone of the movie, “Only You” sticks out, sweet and wistful, as it begins to play. The pair ride Ho Chi-mo’s motorcycle through a long tunnel to The Flying Pickets singing, “All I needed was the love you gave / All I needed for another day / And all I ever knew / Only you.” Finally, they exit the tunnel and the perpetual night in which the movie takes place, the camera panning up to reveal daylight.
“Karmacoma” by Massive Attack
Okay, so “Karmacoma” by Massive Attack isn’t actually in Fallen Angels, but it was supposed to be. Wong Kar-Wai found that the song was too expensive, so instead he had composer Frankie Chan create “Because I’m Cool.” It isn’t, however, available on most streaming services. But as the song samples directly from “Karmacoma,” and was initially intended to accompany the movie, I had to add it to this list. The trip hop song exudes the same troding and confident beat that accompanies the main character on the assassination that opens the movie.
“Yumeji’s Theme” by Shigeru Umebayashi
“Yumeji’s Theme” is the first song prominently featured in In the Mood for Love, and repeats several times throughout the movie. At moments, the whole movie stops for the wailing violin and time slows down as the main characters cross paths physically and emotionally. Even if you don’t think of yourself as someone who likes orchestral music, “Yumeji’s Theme” stands on its own despite its lack of lyrics. The feelings expressed in the notes are strong enough to entrance you and bring you to another world.
“Blooming Flowers and the Full Moon (Hua Hao Yue Yuan)” by Zhou Xuan
Her husband gone for the majority of the movie, one of the few interactions we see him have with the elegant Mrs. Chan is when he dedicates the song “Blooming Flowers and the Full Moon” over the radio to her for her birthday. We see Mrs. Chan listening alone with her back to the wall, only for the camera to move through the wall to see Mr. Chow in the same position. As we hear nothing but the Chinese folk song crackling over the radio, the couple romantically lean against each other, separated only by a wall. Zhou Xuan’s voice expresses the longing felt by Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow but not yet acted upon.
“Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” by Nat King Cole
Towards the end of In the Mood for Love, Mr. Chow boldly asks Mrs. Chan to go to Singapore with him, saying “If there’s an extra ticket… would you go with me?” There’s no answer as he packs his things to “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás,” which translates to, “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps.” Nat King Cole sings of a woman who only ever answers his questions with “perhaps.” As a result, he says, “You are losing your time / Thinking, thinking / For what you want the most.” The song plays as Mrs. Chan arrives at his office too late, with the music cutting off and her sitting in his room in silence and alone.
Wong Kar-Wai’s movies transport you to a different world. It’s not hard to wish your life was full of aesthetic settings, expressive characters, and blaring music that perfectly fits every situation. But as soon as the credits roll, you return to reality. Yet, Wong Kar-Wai still leaves us with something: music. Songs like “California Dreamin,’” “夢中人,” and “Karmacoma” have accompanied me through the last few months of my life. We all wish our lives were movies sometimes, but when we can’t find the time to watch them, we can escape into their songs. Wong Kar-Wai makes this easy by putting together the perfect soundtrack. So, go and watch these movies, and listen to the songs.