The opening of the film sets up a conflict between man & family. The man himself sleeps days, works nights, which suggests a connection between independence & crime. He comes from a family: Some woman in the family asks him to give shelter to a visiting cousin. Family is for when you need each other. But family has no future: His girl – stripper? – aborted his baby, she says, & will tell everyone, to humiliate him. He is a gangster, not the marrying kind.
Why should this man’s sordid story matter? One reason is, the kind of world in which he lives has no future, but surely the previous generation had thought on the future. This may be the factual truth of those imaginations. Man emerges at the end of the world because he has to face the facts without talk of progress or any serious promise of happiness.
It seems, a commitment to act nobly even in an ignoble world is what makes the man. Man is a man of few words – negotiating debts, blustering threats, reputations mean nothing to him. Someone owes him money? He’ll break a bottle on his head & put the shard to his throat. Fear of death will focus the mind. Those who fear death must learn to obey those who do not. One wonders whether there is nothing hateful to man in this world in which you’re either the hammer or the anvil.
This is the world of necessity. Its ugliness is the ugliness of the modern world of commerce & industry for a reason. The man seeks to escape it even though he cannot set himself above it. Living without a future is the only sane thing to do – maybe the only morality – when everyone is insane.
The conflict is basic: The man could abandon the city & live a long, content life with the woman he loves, which may be happiness, or he could stay in the city to protect his minions, which may be the loyalty & pride of the practical life. How to solve the question between pleasure & sacrifice? It may all turn on merit, on what it means to achieve or acquire.
The conflicting opinions: The minion, insanely desirous for reputation, cannot distinguish between his master & his enemies. He thinks lording it over others is power, not the other way around. He alone really believes what he sees. His master tries to protect him from destruction, misunderstanding the minion’s unjust desire to get something to compensate him for his misery. The noble & the ignoble both know that master & slave both are compelled by necessity. The noble decide to restrain themselves, the ignoble to torture others.
Wong Kar Wai’s directorial debut, a beautiful movie about very ugly things.