Why ‘Moonlight’ Owes Oscar Success To Wong Kar-Wai And The Hong Kong New Wave

This post was originally published on Moviepilot.com on 27-02-2017

(WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Moonlight and In the Mood for Love.)

Moonlight has become one of the undisputed hits of this year’s awards season, most notably earning Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2017 Oscars. Over the past few weeks, critics had been speculating whether La La Land might be losing its firm grip on the Best Picture win, opening a window of opportunity for Barry Jenkins’s emotive drama to take the prestigious award home — and we now know that this was precisely the case. So, what was it that gave  the edge for this year’s Best Picture at the Academy Awards?

Although La La Land and Moonlight are very different films, their directors share a key motivation: To explore a cinematic movement or genre and use that influence to tell a contemporary story. Above all else, La La Land has been celebrated for its post-modern use of tropes associated with musicals, allowing Damien Chazelle to indulge in his adoration of Stanley Donen and Jacques Demy (while also providing an accessible tone for a modern audience). In a similar fashion, for every Demy or Donen reference in La La Land, you’ll find the fingerprints of Wong Kar-Wai and the Hong Kong new wave in Moonlight.

Early Inspiration: Barry Jenkins’s Infatuation With ‘Chungking Express’

 'Chungking Express' [Credit: Miramax]
‘Chungking Express’ [Credit: Miramax]

Barry Jenkins is a director that wants to visually celebrate the influences on his filmmaking, and is often vocal about the filmmakers that inspire him. In this year’s “Director’s Roundtable” by Hollywood Reporter, the Oscar-nominated director opened up about his infatuation with Wong Kar-Wai’s filmography from his time spent in film school.

“Everybody in film school, with the films they made, were like the filmmakers they were obsessed with. So there were a lot of Spielberg knock-offs, a lot of Wes Anderson knock-offs, but I wanted my voice to be different. So, I started watching nothing but foreign films. I went to Blockbuster and I chose the foreign film wall, randomly started picking things off. I remember seeing Tarantino’s face on the box of ‘Chungking Express…'”

It’s worth noting that Chungking Express was one of the first films to have an American release by Tarantino’s company back in 1996. You can even watch his introduction to the film, where he gives further recommendations for great Asian cinema.

“…I just watched that film and I was like… I’d never been to Hong Kong, I have no idea what this is like, I don’t really read subtitles — but this is amazing. And I was like, I wanna do this!”

Barry Jenkins, Director of ‘Moonlight’

As you can expect, this inspiration hasn’t gone unnoticed by fans of the Hong Kong new wave. Take Youtuber Alessio Marinacci for example, who released a side-by-side visual essay exploring the influence the work of Wong Kar-Wai and cinematographer Christopher Doyle has had on Barry Jenkins’s Academy Award-winning Moonlight.

With this in mind, it’s clear to see how the foundations of Moonlight‘s production was built on Wong Kar-Wai and Christopher Doyle’s filmography — from Doyle’s manipulation of light and color palette right down to Kar-Wai’s motivations behind framing, pace and soundtrack. In fact, Moonlight even features “Cucurrucucu Paloma” by Caetano Veloso, which was also featured in Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together back in 1997.

Not only is this a direct reference to the LGBT drama, but it’s also another use of Wong Kar-Wai’s method. The Hong Kong new wave director is known for featuring songs that have previously been synonymous with another picture. Most famously, Kar-Wai used “Yumeji’s Theme” in his masterful romance, In the Mood For Love, despite being composed by Shigeru Umebayashi for Yumeji, a ghost opera from the late Seijun Suzuki.

'In the Mood for Love' [Credit: Universal Pictures]
‘In the Mood for Love’ [Credit: Universal Pictures]

Along with Wong Kar-Wai’s celebrated masterpiece In the Mood for Love, Marinacci’s visual essay features Days of Being Wild and the previously mentioned Happy Together. It’s an impressive visual comment on the immense influence Wong Kar-Wai and Christopher Doyle had on the film’s aesthetic, but there are also clear omissions. The comparison neglects Chungking Express, for reasons previously mentioned by Jenkins himself, and 2046 — the conclusion to Wong Kar-Wai’s “informal trilogy.”

Parallels Between ‘Moonlight’ And Wong Kar-Wai’s ‘Informal Trilogy’

The “informal trilogy” is the term used for three Wong Kar-Wai features that re-use characters such as Su Li-zhen (played by Maggie Cheung), and occasionally reference events seen within one another in order to explore the many facets of romance. In its most basic form, the trilogy can be structurally stripped down to Days of Being Wild (single: looking to the future), In the Mood for Love (married: the midpoint) and 2046 (divorced: getting stuck in the past).

'In the Mood for Love' [Credit: Universal Pictures]
‘In the Mood for Love’ [Credit: Universal Pictures]

Deconstructing these films to such core concepts doesn’t truly reflect the emotional complexity of the informal trilogy, but it does help us observe how Wong Kar-Wai used these stories to masterfully create a cinematic triptych.

Throughout the trilogy, Wong Kar-Wai explores how we are tied to our past, present and future. This may be one of the reasons In the Mood for Love seems to have more depth than Days of Being Wildand 2046, and is a clear favorite among fans. As a midpoint, In the Mood for Love shows the crossways in which Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen can reflect on their past and dream of their future, all the while struggling with the harsh realities in their present. Because the film takes place after the youthful opportunism seen of Days of Being Wild and before the sombre aftermath seen in 2046, the midpoint uses both themes in order to explore the tragedy of missed opportunities. When discussing the film, this is something Barry Jenkins also highlighted as an important storytelling tool:

“[‘In the Mood for Love’] is not linear, it’s sort of almost circular. When we think about the things we’re feeling we often tie them, not to what’s happening to us right now but to something that happened either in the past or something we’re anticipating happening.”

Barry Jenkins

So, How Does This Relate To The ‘Moonlight’ Story Structure?

'Moonlight' [Credit: A24]
‘Moonlight’ [Credit: A24]

Jenkins’s comment on In the Mood for Love makes it clear to see why Tarell McCraney’s story would be appealing to the director, as it was also written as a triptych. The screenplay allowed Jenkins to apply the same logic as Kar-Wai, showing audiences how a character can create a severe distance between their inner-self and their societal persona. Because of this, Moonlight‘s triptych is appropriately named after Chrion’s personas, which are developed after significant moments in his youth:

  • i. Little
  • ii. Chiron
  • iii. Black

Each name refers to Chiron and the character that is perceived by those around him. ii. Chiron is titled with the character’s “true” name because it features a brief moment where he allows himself to be true to himself. Similarly, iii. Black shows Chiron finding himself living one life, but fantasizing another — the one we very briefly saw during ii. Chiron.

Moonlight‘s Chiron and In the Mood For Love‘s Chow Mo-wan have very different motivations, but their stories of missed opportunities and past regrets are told in a similar fashion. Chiron had taken an abrupt opportunity to end years of bullying rather than being true to his inner-self. He is not simply living in the present. He is stuck in the past and wrestling with his future. In this way, Jenkins’s analysis of In the Mood for Love can be used for his latest feature: When we think about the things we’re feeling, we tie them to something that happened in the past or something we’re anticipating.

'Moonlight' [Credit: A24]
‘Moonlight’ [Credit: A24]

As Chiron finally meets with Kevin as an adult, we see the conflict between past, present and future arise again. As a viewer, it is astonishing and tragic to see how Chiron’s decision to armor himself went hand-in-hand with the suppression of his sexuality. We see him become part of a culture that he opposed as a young child and fought against as a teenager. Having not seen Kevin for years, Chiron finally has an opportunity to readdress the trauma of his past, the deceptions of his present and the prospects of his future.

“We don’t often get to see that moment where someone has to actually take off the avatar that they’ve put on to protect themselves.”

Tarell Alvin McCraney, Author (In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue)

As you can see, Tarell Alvin McCraney had these thematic tools in mind when creating In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the play on which Moonlight is based. Because of this, it’s fortunate that McCraney collaborated with a Wong Kar-Wai enthusiast, who has shown his ability to bring this important text to life in a way that is reminiscent of the Hong Kong new wave. The film’s Best Picture win may be shrouded by controversy after last night’s Academy Award mix-up, but there can be no doubt that this film utilized its influences in a more powerful manner than La La Land.


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